The following article was originally published by Food Tank on March 30, 2023.
Mexican and United States trade officials are meeting this week in Mexico City in the first negotiations since the U.S. government filed a formal complaint March 6 against Mexico’s policies restricting the use of genetically modified (GM) corn and the herbicide glyphosate. Science is at the center of the agenda.
Since December 2020, when Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador first announced the restrictions, U.S. government, industry and commodity groups have demanded that Mexico produce scientific evidence to justify what the U.S. government claims are illegal trade restrictions under the U.S.-Canada-Mexico trade agreement (USMCA).
The United States Trade Representative (USTR) took the action despite a more flexible new decree, issued February 13, which exempts feed corn, the overwhelming majority of U.S. exports, from restrictions. As U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack stated March 6, “we remain firm in our view that Mexico’s current biotechnology trajectory is not grounded in science, which is the foundation of USMCA. We remain unequivocal in our stance that the science around agricultural biotechnology has been settled for decades.”
On March 29, the Mexican government laid out the science in an impressive virtual conference organized by CONACYT, the government’s highest science body. Hopefully, the USTR delegation was watching. The U.S. stance may be unequivocal, but the science is anything but settled. Particularly the science of precaution.
The Science of Precaution
As scientist Alejandro Espinoza Calderón, director of Mexico’s biosecurity agency Cibiogem, explained, “Mexico has a rich store of exceptionally healthy varieties of corn. It is alarming to find that 90 percent of tortillas were shown to have traces of both glyphosate and transgenics. The biosecurity of Mexico is of utmost importance.”
The message from scientific experts on the panel was clear: There are documented health risks from exposure to glyphosate, including in children and even newborns, and there is sufficient evidence of the potential health risks associated with consuming large quantities of minimally processed GM corn, which may also contain glyphosate residues. These justify Mexico’s precautionary policies.
As National University biologist Ana Laura Wegier Briuolo emphasized, “without healthy corn we cannot have healthy people.”
Dr. Omar Arellano, from the university’s Ecology and Natural Resources Department, presented the most recent evidence, from Mexico, Argentina, the United States, and elsewhere, on the mechanisms by which glyphosate impacts human health. “The science is much clearer now than it was twenty years ago,” he reminded the audience.
Dr. Felipe Lozano Kasten, a pediatric doctor and public health professor in the state of Jalisco, reported a long-term study of 677 children that found 98 percent with glyphosate in their urine. Doctors found associated health impacts, including to kidney function. A forthcoming paper reports that 23 percent of babies showed traces of pesticides at birth.
U.S. allegations that Mexico was not basing its policies on science were always a smokescreen. The science agency has for years maintained a public web page with annotated references on studies that document risks of both glyphosate and GM corn consumption, as well as the additional risk to native varieties from cross-pollination by GM corn. The science agency is now planning a series of virtual conferences in May to present the full range of scientific evidence.
USMCA Text Allows for Precaution
As the U.S. government begins formal consultations on its threatened USMCA dispute, it may have an uphill climb. Not only does Mexico have plenty of sound science on its side, but the text of the trade agreement is quite explicit in recognizing each country’s right to regulate in the ways it sees fit.
Even the new agricultural biotechnology section of the updated USMCA is explicit: “This Section does not require a Party to mandate an authorization for a product of agricultural biotechnology to be on the market.”
USTR in its formal complaint claimed violations of the Sanitary and PhytoSanitary (SPS) chapter on health and safety regulations. But Section 4 of that chapter clearly grants Mexico the right to establish its own standards for public health protection:
“This Chapter does not prevent a Party from:
(a) establishing the level of protection it determines to be appropriate;
(b) establishing or maintaining an approval procedure that requires a risk assessment to be conducted before the Party grants a product access to its market; or
(c) adopting or maintaining a sanitary or phytosanitary measure on a provisional basis if relevant scientific evidence is insufficient.”
Such language guarantees sovereign countries the right to regulate in the ways they deem appropriate to protect public health and the environment. It mandates transparency. It does not mandate that Mexico accept U.S. definitions of what constitutes sound science, nor does it proscribe precautionary policies in the face of scientific uncertainty.
Where is the Trade Violation?
The other reason USTR will be hard-pressed to win a USMCA dispute is that there is no meaningful trade restriction and no significant economic harm to U.S. exporters. USTR Katherine Tai, in announcing the call for consultations, said, “Mexico’s policies threaten to disrupt billions of dollars in agricultural trade.” There is no credible evidence to support that claim, which is based on flawed and now wildly outdated industry-funded economic studies.
Mexico’s revised decree is explicit that it now applies only to GM corn used in tortillas and corn-dough, which is supplied overwhelmingly by Mexican producers of white and native corn varieties. Only 4 percent of U.S. corn exports are white corn, and most of that does not go into tortillas.
More important, the Mexican government is not restricting imports, it is restricting the use of GM corn in one defined set of food products. The U.S. government is unlikely to find any significant number of exporters of GM white corn who see their markets reduced by Mexico’s actions.
As Mexican Economy Minister Raquel Buenrostro stated in response to the USTR request for technical consultations, Mexico’s decree is based on science and she will challenge the U.S. government in the consultations to show “quantitatively, with numbers, something that has not occurred: that the corn decree has commercially affected” U.S. exporters.
The Mexican government will show what has occurred: Its cherished tortillas are being contaminated with glyphosate and GM corn. And they intend to put a stop to that.