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The Milpa system is an agroecological cropping method in Mexico dating back thousands of years in which complementary crops such as corn, beans and squash are cultivated together in ways that nurture the soil and our bodies. Mexican civil society groups, noting the play on words, joined with their allies in the United States and Canada to provide 1,000-word (mil palabras) statements to the official U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) trade dispute process defending Mexico’s right to limit genetically modified (GM) corn and glyphosate. Whether or not the dispute panel accepts all of the submissions, the range of issues covered will enrich the public debate on how trade rules could limit — or allow for — sustainable solutions that advance public health, human rights and economic opportunities.

The Mexican government announced its plans to transition away from imports of GM corn and the use of glyphosate shortly after President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador took office in 2019. These plans were part of a bigger package of reforms intended to strengthen the country’s self-reliance on its food supplies and to move toward agroecological production. It responded to years of concerted efforts by social movements, including successful advocacy efforts and litigation led by the Sin Maíz No Hay País (Without Corn, No Country) campaign to prevent planting of GM corn and protect the country’s cultural heritage and biodiversity.

The initial decree called for phasing out the use of glyphosate and of imports of GM corn by 2024. The revised decree issued in February 2023 continues the phaseout of glyphosate, will eliminate the use of GM corn in flour and tortillas for direct human consumption, and calls for the eventual substitution of GM corn for industrial use and animal feed as non-GM corn becomes available.

U.S. producers and traders of GM corn and their allies in Congress, as well as U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, have complained vigorously against these plans since they were first announced, insisting that the policies violate the terms of the USMCA. The formal U.S. request for a USMCA panel on August 17 focused on what the U.S. calls the Tortilla Corn Ban and the Substitution Instruction. The U.S. asserts that the Mexican government’s actions violate Sanitary and Phytosanitary Standards (food and plant safety provisions) in the agreement, saying the decisions were not based on international standards or risk assessment principles and discriminate against U.S. exports. Even though it does not export corn to Mexico, Canada joined the complaint as a third party.

Under USMCA dispute rules, non-governmental entities may submit requests of up to 1,000 words outlining longer submissions that they would develop to inform the dispute resolution process. Those requests were due on November 7, 20 days after the final dispute panelist was confirmed. Groups submitting requests in support of Mexico’s corn policies include IATP (with the Rural Coalition and Alianza Nacional de Campesinas), Friends of the Earth, Center for Food Safety, Farm Action, and Tufts University in the U.S.; ANEC (Asociación Nacional de Empresas Comercializadoras de Productores del Campo), Semillas de Vida, Poder del Consumidor,  PODER (Proyecto sobre Organización, Desarrollo, Educación e Investigación) and the Grupo Vicente Guerrero in Mexico; and the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, National Farmers Union and Northumberland Chapter of the Council of Canadians in Canada. (Find the submissions here.)

The submissions emphasized several distinct but overlapping themes:

  • The inadequacy of current studies on the safety of GM corn for human consumption, both because of conflicts of interest among scientists involved in so-called consensus reports and the failure of existing studies to consider the human health impacts of GM corn consumption when it comprises such a significant part of the Mexican diet. There are several new studies demonstrating the risks of glyphosate, which is used extensively in the cultivation of GM corn, for human and environmental health.
  • The imperative to take a precautionary approach to these uncertainties, as provided for in the USMCA text.
  • The relationship between the U.S. claims that the Mexican programs violate USMCA rules on Sanitary and Phytosanitary standards and new provisions in the agreement protecting Indigenous legal rights. This would include an analysis of the General Exception protecting Indigenous legal rights in USMCA Article 32.5 considering Mexico’s laws and Constitution and the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and related protections for Indigenous rights and biological diversity articulated in USMCA’s Environment Chapter.
  • The cultural and environmental risks of the entry of GM corn into Mexico, considering the diversity of at least 59 native corn breeds that are in constant diversification and adaptation by Indigenous peoples in different parts of the country, which is the center of origin and diversification of this species.
  • The U.S. complaint appears to be based on the 2020 decree and not the revised version issued in February 2023. The latter decree only limits the use of white corn for human consumption and does not limit imports of corn for other purposes. The Substitution Instruction carries no deadline, imposes no trade measures, does not discriminate against U.S. producers and has caused no measurable economic harm.
  • That there is profitable and growing production of non-GM corn among U.S. farmers who are willing and able to meet Mexico’s need for imports, undermining U.S. claims that Mexico’s policies cause economic harm and discriminate against U.S. farmers.

The next step in the process is for the panelists to inform the groups if they are invited to make longer submissions (up to 10 pages) expanding on these issues. Of course, there’s nothing to stop the groups from developing and publicizing more detailed analysis in any case, and many of the groups involved will likely do just that. We hope the panel will consider the ample evidence and solid analysis in support of Mexico’s food sovereignty in deciding this case.

Learn more: 

Read the full submissions from groups in the U.S., Mexico and Canada.