Hand picking up dried corn kernels

A visitor takes a handfull of non-GMO heirloom True Gold Sweet Corn at the Seed Swap on September 13, 2023 at the 10th National Heirloom Exposition at the Ventura County Fairgrounds in Ventura, California.

(Photo by Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images)

The US Push for GMO Corn is Out to Lunch

Glyphosate’s association with cancer grows like a weed.

So-called “Free trade” promises lower prices and more supply, but it derails food security. Mexico has been fighting this since the United States began a dispute over genetically modified (GMO) corn. In November, a trade panel made initial filings public. They reveal that the U.S. plays for agribusiness, which includes chemical and biotech companies. Meanwhile, by banning GMO corn, Mexico secures supplies of an important daily staple and limits cancer risks from glyphosate. American positions appear oblivious to this.

This involves Mexico’s Decree, announced in February. It bans GMO corn for human consumption, limited to corn in tortillas or masa (dough). In August, the U.S. invoked a panel under NAFTA 2.0, formally called the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). Showing its hand, the U.S. is out to lunch on various fronts.

First regards what the ban does. The U.S. argues that Mexico requires substitutes for GMOs in animal feed. Nonsense. The Decree does not touch animal feed. It does envision eventual GMO alternatives, but no timeline is given for this. No measures are announced. Addressing these fears, the Decree explains that authorizations for GMOs will still be granted, so long as they are not used for corn in tortillas or masa.

Other American positions note that Mexico is the “second largest export market for corn” and corn is its “largest agricultural import.” These observations may be true, but they seriously conflate separate commercial realities. American farms overwhelmingly grow corn that is GMO and yellow. Exports to Mexico are mostly yellow corn, for “non-human consumption,” and for animal feed or industry. A lobby group, the Corn Refiners Association explained this last year.

The Decree impacts a different type of corn, which is white corn. Mexican cuisine prefers white corn as the kernels are softer and easier to grind than yellow corn.

Economic figures show the confusion. Only about 3% of corn grown in the U.S. is for human consumption and less than one percent of that is white corn, as reported by the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center at Iowa State University last year. US Department of Agriculture studies on exports confirm these amounts.

After the ban, American farmers will continue exporting GMO yellow corn and corn for animal feed or industrial use. Mexico will import these. American fog in this dispute is real.

Why twist the trade numbers? Because of a third problem: cancer risks. American stances hype lower prices and higher yields to distract from worries intrinsic to glyphosate. GMO farms need this herbicide. This may be the US’s “tilt,” a poker term meaning frustration leading to bad aggressive choices.

Glyphosate’s association with cancer grows like a weed. A few weeks ago, a Missouri jury ordered its maker, Bayer Monsanto, to pay $1.56 billion finding the chemical caused lymphoma cancer. This dealt the agribusiness giant its fourth straight loss.

Its run started to change in 2015 when a World Health Organization (WHO) agency found glyphosate was a likely cause of cancer. U.S. courts started agreeing with this finding three years later. There have been many lawsuit losses for glyphosate since then. For these health-based reasons, Mexico is preparing to discontinue glyphosate with Decrees from 2020 and this year.

The U.S. effectively ignores these risks. Its filing mentions the toxin only when it must because of the titles of Mexico’s Decrees and press releases. The American game is to bring up old stories on GMO safety. These include “prescient” claims of “new biotechnology breakthroughs” from a Nobel Laureate in 2000. They cite a National Academy of Sciences report finding that GMOs were “environmentally sound”—but it's from two decades ago. They also reference the WHO in 2014 confirming there was “no evidence of ill effects” from consuming GMO crops. But these are all outdated studies. That's the “tell,” providing clues on its strategy on the trade fight over corn.

Mexico can stick to the current science on glyphosate dangers, including pediatric medicine and public health studies from 2021 and 2023. Conducted in Mexico, they find worrying levels of glyphosate in children who lacked any direct contact with herbicides and in neonate infants whose exposure is via “maternal routes.” This is alarming since children and infants lack developed organs and immune systems. These risks are expected to come from GMO corn consumption, by children or their mothers, respectively.

Where do we go from here? The USMCA, Chapter 9, preserves food safety measures to protect human life and health. A limited ban on GMO corn is not too much to ask. Will it convince trade panelists? Hopefully.

But what is clear, after the first hand was played, American stances ignore the Decree's objectives, its impacts, and the cancer risks at hand. Ideally, Mexico’s food safety efforts are protected by the trade rules American officials tout.

Otherwise, NAFTA 2.0 just gets another update, forcing GMOs, with a trade panel determining the justifications. Observers describe this as prioritizing corporate profits and “nothing short of 21st-century imperialism.” Stay tuned. It’s a long game, but Mexico’s plan for corn is part of larger global efforts to make international trade more fair and sustainable.

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