Mexico prohibits planting of GM corn, but stops short of banning imports

Government signals support for long-standing anti-GM movement but resists complete ban on genetically modified corn imports, with fears of destabilising the economy


Hand holding corn cob Mexico

A demonstrator holds up a corn cob at a protest against Monsanto in Mexico City in 2014, led by the Sin Maíz No Hay Pais campaign. Genetically modified (GM) crops have long been a controversial issue in Mexico, and recent developments have seen the government show support for the anti-GM movement. (Image: Henry Romero / Alamy)

Last October, Mexico refused to permit the import of genetically modified (GM) corn for the first time in its history. Pharmaceutical and chemical giant Bayer – now the owner of GM pioneer Monsanto – subsequently challenged the decision of the Mexican consumer regulator to reject its request to import the corn for animal feed, and brought a Supreme Court case supported by other agricultural heavyweights, including the Chinese-owned company Syngenta.

Mexico’s Supreme Court rejected Bayer’s appeal, reinforcing a 2013 judgement known as “the precautionary principle” ruling, which allows authorities to reject requests for permits to plant GM crops on the basis that they may damage the health of the Mexican people and environment.

Over 20 million tonnes

of corn were imported to Mexico from the US across the 2018/19 and 2019/20 seasons, according to the US Department of Agriculture

For Mexico’s long-standing anti-GM movement, the recent Supreme Court ruling was an important victory – cementing caution against GM crops as a legal norm at the highest level of the country’s judiciary.

In December 2020, the Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador, popularly known as AMLO, issued a decree to enact a ban on genetically modified corn for human consumption by 2024. The order also called for the elimination of the use of glyphosate, a controversial pesticide that is subject to a contentious debate over its potentially carcinogenic effects. AMLO’s decree made him the first Mexican president to openly support the anti-GM movement.

News of this presidential decree will have caused consternation in the United States, given that Mexico imports millions of tonnes of genetically modified yellow corn from its neighbour each year, for animal feed and industrial use, such as the production of high-fructose corn syrup.

AMLO also faced resistance within Mexico, with some 17 legal challenges filed by seed companies and industry bodies against the proposed ban – none of which succeeded. The National Farm Council (CNA), with the support of Bayer, argued that the ban could threaten the livestock industry if imports of GM animal feed were prevented.

Agriculture minister Victor Villalobos publicly clarified that these imports would be untouched by the GM ban, following accusations that it would violate the US-Mexico-Canada free trade agreement (USMCA).

GM imports may still face future ban

Critics of AMLO’s proposal say that the wording of the decree remains too ambiguous and leaves the door open for a ban on GM imports. But there is also strong support within the president’s administration for any ban on GM corn that would include such imports. Deputy agriculture minister Victor Suárez is an outspoken opponent of GM corn entering Mexico, while the head of the National Council of Science and Technology (CONACYT), María Elena Álvarez-Buylla, was a key advisor to the 2013 action.

Rúben Montalvo Morales, president of the national directorate of the National Industry Chamber for Cornflour and Tortillas, told Diálogo Chino that any ban that included imports of yellow corn could have adverse effects on industry.

“There would be shortages, speculation and an increase in the price of both grain and tortillas,” Montalvo said.

Mexico’s long-standing rejection of GM corn

No one can dispute the importance of corn to Mexico. From the daily staples of corn tortillas and corn chips, to the indigenous belief that all are “children of corn”, a crop that began as a wild grass first cultivated in the centre of the country at least 9,000 years ago is now entirely intertwined with Mexican identity and culture.

Today, Mexico is home to over 60 distinct species of corn and thousands of varieties: a colourful, nutritious abundance that is the pride of the nation, and attributed to the development of biodiversity over centuries. As a popular saying goes, “Sin maíz, no hay país” – no corn, no country – a phrase that has also become the name of the campaign against GM corn’s planting in the country.

“Planting GM corn in Mexico, corn’s centre of origin, affects the biodiversity of present and future generations – it is irreversible,” says Dr Mercedes López Martinez, who heads the research and advocacy organisation Vía Orgánica.

The key concern for anti-GM campaigners is cross-pollination — if GM corn is planted in Mexico, it will naturally cross-pollinate with native corn, altering and weakening their own genetic composition. This, say activists like López, affects the health of the consumer, erases cultural knowledge and forces peasant farmers to rely on multinational agriculture firms for their seeds and livelihoods.

Planting GM corn in Mexico, corn’s centre of origin, affects the biodiversity of present and future generations – it is irreversible

In 2013, López explained, Mexico’s then president Enrique Peña Nieto was set to grant permits to agriculture giants such as Monsanto, who had plans to plant around 2.5 million hectares with GM corn in experimental and pre-commercial pilot programmes.

Mexican authorities had already faced backlash on the subject within the country, such as in 2001 when GM corn was found growing in the plots of indigenous peasant farmers in the southern state of Oaxaca. A moratorium had been placed on growing GM corn in Mexico in 1998, so the incident was unexpected – and unwanted.

In response to Peña Nieto’s 2013 plans, 22 civil organisations and 53 people filed a class action lawsuit against genetically modified corn, recounts López, who is the official representative of the group bringing the case against Mexico’s environment and agriculture ministries.

In late 2013, a federal judge in Mexico City ruled that a temporary halt to any new GM corn permits should be enforced, in the absence of scientific evidence that planting GM seed in the country would not harm the health of Mexicans – the precautionary principle.

The class action is yet to reach a final ruling, but in the meantime this judgement has effectively kept GM corn from being cultivated in the country.

Are GM crops evil?

The Sin Maíz No Hay País campaign has ignited debate in Mexican society about the pros and cons of genetic engineering of crops. The group’s anti-GM stance has gathered many high-profile supporters, while consumption of native corn has increased in recent years. Meanwhile, those in favour of GM crops being cultivated in Mexico say that the country needs to consider its future needs for food supply and food security, especially with the increasing prevalence of drought and other effects of climate change.

Genetic modification comes from the need to secure food across the world, which is a positive thing, but there’s a problem if they cause native corn to be contaminated

Alberto Daniel Vázquez is a biochemical engineer based in Milpa Alta, a rural borough of Mexico City, where he also runs a native seed bank with fellow community members. Speaking from a room full of clear jars containing various yellow, red, white, black and blue corn seeds, Daniel told Dialogo Chino that he “sees both sides” of the debate about whether Mexico can ultimately do without GM crops.

“Genetic modification comes from the fact that we have to cover food needs all over the world, which is a positive thing,” he said. “But there’s a problem if they cause native corn to be contaminated.”

In recent years, reports have emerged that support the case for GM crops, with new evidence suggesting that they do not have negative effects for humans and animals. The “Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects” study from the US National Academy of Sciences acknowledges the limitations on testing – understanding the health effects of any food, genetically modified or not, is complex – but concludes that there isn’t yet sufficient evidence to say they are harmful. Furthermore, the report recognises the benefits, such as resistance to climate change and positive health impacts in crops designed to support specific functions.

GM-related issues of seed monopoly by large agribusinesses and the use of soil-harming pesticides, as well as cross-pollination, will remain contentious in Mexico, but the debate about the impacts of GMs is slowly evolving. As the country and a warming world face looming threats to food insecurity, it won’t be going away any time soon.