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Mexico plans to ban all GMO corn. Now a key deadline looms as the U.S. pushes back

Lance Lillibridge
Corn from Lance Lillibridge's Iowa farm on a Fourth of July. He said he's concerned about a Mexican ban on GMO corn. "If this happens and they set this precedent, then what other countries are going to do this? What other world leaders we're going to say, 'Well, geez, Mexico did it, we should do it.'" Lillibridge said.

Mexico’s plan to ban all genetically modified corn imports has upset U.S. corn farmers, trade groups and officials. The two nations are in talks and have until April 7 to resolve it before the U.S. can take action under the free trade agreement between North American countries.

The U.S. and Mexico are drawing closer to a potential standoff over Mexico’s plan to gradually ban imports of genetically modified corn.

Mexico is one of the top markets for U.S. corn, importing nearly $5 billion worth of U.S. corn in 2022. At the same time, most corn grown in the U.S. is genetically modified.

The nations have until April 7 to resolve the dispute or the U.S. could file a formal complaint under the USMCA, the free trade agreement between North American countries.

“We will continue to consider all options available under that agreement to fix this problem,” said U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai during a Senate Finance Committee hearing on March 23.

The two countries entered formal talks in early March, weeks after Mexico President Andrés Manuel López Obrador issued a new decree immediately banning GMO corn for human consumption. The decree also lifted a 2024 deadline for a ban on GMO corn for livestock feed but stated such a ban would be phased in, without setting a timeline.

Iowa State University agricultural economist Chad Hart said as part of the formal talks, the U.S. is asking Mexico to provide the scientific reason behind banning GMO corn, something Hart said countries often do in trade disputes.

“If you’re going to limit trade, you need to have basically a scientifically supported reason why that should be allowed to happen,” Hart said.

Most U.S.-grown corn is genetically modified to resist drought, herbicides, and pests and even increase yields. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says GMO foods are safe to eat.

Andrew Brandt, the U.S. Grains Council’s director of trade policy, said Mexico’s GMO corn ban could cause a “significant market reaction” and the ripples could have wider ramifications than economics.

“They are trying to stigmatize biotechnology as unsafe for human consumption,” Brandt said. “And the science on that, we believe, is settled.”

The U.S. on average sends about 16-17 million metric tonnes of corn to Mexico annually, according to the U.S. Grains Council, which also estimates about 20% of U.S. corn in Mexico is consumed by people.

Lance Lillibridge
Lance Lillibridge farms in Benton County, Iowa. Last year, about 60% of his corn was GMO. He says he's worried about the precedent Mexico's GMO corn ban could set.

Iowa farmer Lance Lillibridge says about 60% of his corn was GMO last year. He’s worried about the potential impacts Mexico’s GMO corn ban could have.

“The precedent it sets is that our trade agreements that we’ve made with them are not worth the paper they’re written on, and that’s not right.” Lillibridge said, “When you have an agreement, when you have a contract, we should live by that.”

During the Senate Finance Committee hearing in late March, Sen. Chuck Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, urged the U.S. trade representative Ambassador Tai to move toward a formal dispute settlement with Mexico. On a Tuesday call with reporters, Grassley recounted the interaction.

“I didn’t get an answer yes or no, so I was irritated about that,” Grassley said. “I said after 30 days you’d better institute this process because we’ve been talking, talking, talking for two years and nothing has been accomplished.”

This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues. Follow Harvest on Twitter: @HarvestPM.

Katie Peikes is Iowa Public Radio's agriculture reporter.
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