Do no harm?: NAFTA, non-regulation of GMOs and Mexican agriculture

tractor harvesting corn
Used under creative commons license from GIS UWE

Last week, I spent three days in Mexico City to talk with NGOs the public and the press about U.S. industry/government proposals for exporting into NAFTA 2.0 its system for not regulating food and agriculture products of genetic engineering. For example, in a November 3, 2016 letter to Monsanto, the Food and Drug Administration declined to regulate Monsanto’s corn modified to resist the Dicamba herbicide, since the modification “does not raise issues that would require premarket review or approval by FDA.” The formula of that letter is nearly identical to such letters sent twenty years ago to Monsanto and other agricultural biotechnology product developers.

In June, the U.S. Biotech Crops Alliance asked the U.S. Trade Representative to include a NAFTA 2.0 chapter on agricultural biotechnology. That chapter’s proposed provision for a Mutual Recognition Agreement (MRA) would require Mexico and Canada to accept as valid for importing and growing biotech products the FDA “no issues” letter and similarly non-regulatory decision letters from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In Mexico City, I also explained how the U.S. had decided not to regulate grain and horticulture crops engineered by new techniques. These unregulated crops too would be covered under the proposed MRA.

Did my presentation on the U.S. non-regulation of horticulture products (Table 1) engineered by new techniques, as well as old, come too late to be useful in Mexico?  The Mexican government allows the import (but not cultivation) of U.S. yellow corn, most of it genetically engineered, even when that corn is dumped, i.e. the export price is below corn’s full cost (farmer production costs, government support costs, handling and shipping costs).  IATP estimated that globally U.S. agribusinesses exported corn at about 12 percent below its full cost in 2015. In the 2015-2016 marketing year, U.S. corn exports to Mexico amounted to about 13.3 million tons, worth about $2.5 billion. About 12 percent of that $2.5 billion –i.e. $300 million—is the result of a dumped price.

The Mexican equivalent of the National Corn Growers Association has accused its government of favoring yellow corn imports by denying its producers technical and loan assistance, and by making government corn policy according to the imported yellow corn price. (The benchmark price from which corn import prices are derived is set by the Chicago Board of Trade yellow corn contract.) The Mexican growers argued for a higher price for white corn, which they produce by a 10:1 ratio compared to yellow corn and which Mexican consumers greatly prefer. Some Mexican producer associations and social movements have called on the government to either exempt agriculture from NAFTA 2.0 or withdraw from the agreement altogether

In September, a research team from the National Autonomous University of Mexico showed that about 90 percent tortillas in Mexico were contaminated with genetically engineered corn, about 30 percent of which contained residues of glyphosate. The study’s lead author is concerned about the consumption of glyphosate residues, since about half of all calories and a third of proteins consumed by Mexicans come from corn. According to a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, there was a five-fold increase in the amount of glyphosate in the urine collected in a 100 person cohort, comparing 1993-1996 samples with those collected in 2013-2016. Herbicide resistant (largely resistant to glyphosate) corn was first commercially available in 1996 in the United States and as of 2013 comprised 85 percent of all U.S. corn. As weeds became glyphosate resistant, most of the large increase in U.S. farmer glyphosate use since 1996 is ascribed to the planting of GE herbicide resistant crops.

Notwithstanding a Mexican court ruling in 2013 prohibiting the planting of GE corn in Mexico, Monsanto’s Corporate Director for Latin American Affairs, told researcher Tim Wise, ““In order for the penetration of biotechnology crops to be successful, it will have to be for both white and yellow corn. If it was only yellow, we would not be investing.” If Monsanto is successful in overcoming Mexican law, with the assistance of the U.S. State Department, it is likely that Mexicans will have no choice but to eat GE white corn and its glyphosate residues. The contamination of Mexican corn landraces, the global origin of hybrid vigor for farmer and public institutional corn varieties, will be systematic.

However, some Mexican agricultural leaders are not resigned to the fate of increasing food dependence on U.S. GE exports under NAFTA 2.0 rules. Mexican farm leader (and former IATP board member) Victor Suarez Carrera published an essay in Hagamos milpa (Let’s make corn in our land) (Semillas de Vida: March 2017) with a well-described title, “How can we achieve food self-sufficiency?: a new technological revolution with farmers but without GMOs.” (The essay updates a 2013 presentation he made to the National Association of Commercial Enterprises of Agricultural Producers, for which he serves as executive director.)

The essay begins “Our country’s food dependence is intolerable.” He outlines how governmental policies to support farmer knowledge and public academic science would contribute to making Mexico far less dependent on imports for basic grains, including corn and wheat. He writes that under current government policies and failure to invest in Mexican agriculture, imported food dependence had gone from 24 percent of consumption in 1982 to 46 percent in 2016. Under Business as Usual policies, including NAFTA, that import food dependency would increase to 80 percent by 2030, with the loss of millions of more family farmers.

Increasing food import dependency is a U.S. “Cold War” policy that continues, with new agricultural production technologies, to this day. In a 1997 IATP essay, I quoted a 1957 statement by Senator Hubert Humphrey: “I have heard here this morning that people may become dependent on us for food. I know that was not supposed to be good news, because before people will do anything, they have got to eat. And if you are really looking for a way to get people to lean on you and to be dependent on you, in terms of their cooperation with you, it seems to me that food dependence would be terrific.” Food import dependency has long been a “soft power” tool in the arsenal of U.S. diplomacy. 

However, the use of that tool can have very negative “blowback” effects for its user. Spikes in food export prices, together with climate change reduced domestic food production, were drivers of political and economic destabilization throughout Northern Africa from 2008-2011. The overthrow of those governments provided fertile ground for extremist militias, including members of Al Quaeda. Closer to home, according to the Agricultural Policy Analysis Center,  unmanaged oversupply of U.S. agricultural production for export drives down crop prices for U.S. farmers and increases U.S. tax payer subsidies of U.S. agribusiness.  Agricultural supply, if properly managed would help to mitigate the degradation of soil health and water quality, among other environmental costs kept off the USDA agricultural export balance sheet.

It is not too late for Mexico and the United States to avoid the economic and environmental damage to agriculture, farm families and rural communities that NAFTA 2.0 would lock in. The major risks for sustainable agriculture and rural communities in Mexico, are not only greater food import dependency and more forced migration of Mexican farm families. Additionally, Mexican food security would depend on genetically engineered mono-cultures that have developed widespread weed resistance in the United States. The application of the new genetic engineering techniques to horticulture and row crops are likely to incorporate “stacked traits,” including crop resistance to proprietary herbicides and pesticides. In Mexico City, I outlined the damage caused by the drift of Dicamba herbicide to non-resistant soy (and even trees!) in 3.6 million acres. And Dicamba was the “solution” to glyphosate resistant Super-weeds!

U.S. farms benefit minimally from exporting ever more products to Mexico. The farmers must sell their corn and other agricultural raw materials to U.S. agribusiness at prices below the cost of production and hope that income from non-farm jobs and various government payment programs will compensate them enough to keep them from losing the farm. The $2.5 billion in corn sales to Mexico in 2015-2106  benefit the exporters. If the next Farm Bill incorporated supply management measures to increase prices paid to farmers and NAFTA 2.0 contained enforced measures to prevent dumping, both U.S. and Mexican agriculture would have a better price and policy environment to practice sustainable agriculture and be paid fairly for its products.