Amidst various news cycles of absurd demands and hateful reactions in the U.S., I was recently struck by some hopeful news of civility and constructive engagement from Mexico. Adelita San Vicente Tello, director of the non-governmental organization Semillas de Vida (Seeds of Life) and a leader in the Mexican Sin Maíz No Hay País (No Corn, No Country) campaign, wrote to say that she would be moving on from her organization to take a position in the progressive López Obrador administration.
This is exciting news for several reasons. To start, in June, more than 200 Mexican scientists, campesino, indigenous, student and other civil society leaders (including Dr. San Vicente) sent a letter to President Andrés Manuel López Obrador insisting that he issue a presidential decree to establish a comprehensive biosafety policy to protect native varieties of corn and other key crops. They proposed that the decree require signs in the 26,000 Diconsa public stores explaining that corn sold there should only be eaten and not planted so as not to contaminate native corn; prohibit permits for planting GMO seeds, including those produced through new gene editing techniques; establish a moratorium on U.S. corn imports as these protections are phased in, as well as sterilizing or grinding imported corn to prevent its use as seeds; conduct systematic monitoring of GMOs and expansion of scientific facilities in the Agriculture Ministry to detect them; improve research on biosecurity and food safety issues related to GMOs; and develop new regulations in the Environment Ministry on these issues.
The groups also propose that the Mexican Congress develop comprehensive reforms to the Law of Biosafety of Genetically Modified Organisms to protect native species and support enforcement of commitments in the Convention of Biodiversity Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety and recommendations made by the North American Commission on Environmental Cooperation in 2004.
These demands are part of a continuing dialogue with the government on the best ways to reform the country’s farm system. In his inaugural speech on December 1, President López Obrador listed one hundred commitments, including achieving self-sufficiency in basic grains and doing so without opening up the country to planting GMOs.
In her note, Dr. San Vicente explained that, as a speaker in a recent public conference, she had challenged the government’s lack of action on rules on GMOs to protect the country’s biological and cultural heritage. Rather than dismissing or ignoring her complaint, she was invited to take over as Director of Primary Goods and Natural Resources in the Ministry of the Environment, charged with developing the rules to resolve that problem. The fact that the Ministry is now led by Víctor Manuel Toledo, a prominent biologist and outspoken ecologist, is also cause for optimism.
To be clear, Mexico continues to rely on massive imports of corn and other grains from the U.S., nearly all of which is genetically modified. That corn is mostly used in animal feed, as an input in the complex North American meat and feed supply chain, but consumers also use field corn as an ingredient in tortillas and other food. Planting of GMO corn and other crops is currently prohibited through legal actions, but there are documented cases of genetic contamination of Mexican corn throughout the country. As the birthplace of corn and the origin of dozens of local varieties, corn plays an important role in the country’s cultural heritage, biodiversity and food security.
I spoke to Malin Jönsson, the new Coordinator of Semillas de Vida, to learn more about the initiative on biosafety. She explained that the government is required to issue a response within 90 days. In the meantime, civil society groups will be engaging with members of the Mexican Congress (which began its new session on September 1) to follow up with new laws on these and other emerging issues.
In addition to legislative changes, Semillas de Vida is seeking ways to enhance ties between farmers and consumers, so that consumers recognize the value and qualities of locally produced landrace [heirloom] corn and are thus willing to pay fair prices for those goods. She told me, “One of the main threats confronting local corn varieties, especially in the context of trade liberalization, is the low prices paid to farmers. Increasing the demand for landrace corn by spreading information about its nutritional, cultural, traditional, historical and biological value is vital to increase demand and open up new niche markets. The goal is to diminish the gap between farmers and consumers, increasing the prices paid to farmers and providing consumers secure access to healthy, culturally appropriate food.”
None of this will be easy. Pro-GMO groups issued their own response countering the June letter, insisting that the measures it proposes are “uninformed, anti-democratic and impractical.” In addition, under the rules of the new North American Free Trade Agreement (the new NAFTA, also known as the United States Mexico Canada Agreement/USMCA), countries must streamline rules on approval of genetically modified or edited products of agricultural biotechnology, with the goal that products approved in one county would be approved for use in others. The new NAFTA also sets rules on so-called Low-Level Presence of GMOs in imports, making it more difficult for local authorities to reject imports of shipments contaminated with unapproved GMOs. And its new chapter on Good Regulatory Practices opens to door for companies in all three countries to weaken and delay any new or existing environmental or public health rules they find bothersome, potentially including these ambitious new plans. Under pressure from the U.S. on a variety of fronts, the Mexican Senate approved the new NAFTA in June. Approval is still pending in Canada and the U.S., where many legislators and civil society groups are insisting that no vote occur until the agreement is substantially changed.
The new NAFTA also requires that parties ratify the 1991 version of the International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV 91). That convention requires intellectual property protections for plants for 20 to 25 years and stops farmers and breeders from exchanging protected seeds. The previous version of the treaty, which Mexico has already ratified, provides an exception for small scale farmers; the 1991 version eliminates that option. Mexico agreed to join UPOV 91 within four years when it ratified the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), but it seems much more likely that the U.S. would demand the implementation of those protections on behalf of U.S. agribusinesses than that other trading partners in the CPTPP would do so.
Despite these potential obstacles, the plans to develop a food and farm system that works for Mexico, one that aims to achieve food self-sufficiency without sacrificing the country’s biodiversity and cultural heritage, is part of an unfolding, active and very public debate. While there are encouraging signs of new ideas on fair and sustainable food systems now in the U.S., in Mexico, the hard work of making those kinds of ideas real has already begun.