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This article appeared in Spanish in La Jornada del Campo on September 5 as part of a 10-article opinion section on the ongoing trade dispute between the U.S. and Mexico over Mexico's policies restricting genetically modified corn and glyphosate.

President Lopez Obrador’s announcement of restrictions on imports of genetically modified (GM) corn and glyphosate upon taking office in 2020 was an entirely reasonable response to erratic markets and the need to enhance national food self-sufficiency. The disruptions in global food markets during the COVID-19 pandemic and in wheat and fertilizers markets in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine led to new calls among policymakers around the world for measures to lessen dependence on imported grain.

At one level, the current trade dispute over the limitations on imported GM corn in Mexico appears to be based on commitments made in the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA or T-MEC). Calls by agribusinesses and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack (former head of the U.S. Dairy Export Council) asserted that new biotech provisions required Mexico to approve the GM corn imports. IATP’s senior attorney Sharon Treat spelled out the fallacy of those claims. Briefly, while the T-MEC chapter on agriculture requires countries to have a process to determine standards based on science, Article 3.14.2 states that, "This Section does not require a Party to mandate an authorization for a product of agricultural biotechnology to be on the market.” The only requirement is that governments must assess such restrictions in a transparent manner.

Treat explains that:

“Mexico retains authority to adopt and implement policies to protect the environment and public health, preserve and enhance biodiversity, and respect Indigenous communities and lifestyles. For example, Article 24.3.1 of T-MEC’s Environment Chapter recognizes ‘the sovereign right of each Party to establish its own levels of domestic environmental protection and its own environmental priorities, and to establish, adopt, or modify its environmental laws and policies accordingly.’ Article 24.15 on Trade and Biodiversity mandates that each Party ‘shall promote and encourage the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity, in accordance with its law or policy.’”

Similarly, the chapter on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Standards (SPS) requires decisions based on sound science. That seemingly sensible term masks very different understandings about what is reasonable. The U.S. definition of “sound science” is skewed toward industry-provided studies and a focus on risk management – products must be proven dangerous. The precautionary principle is based on the idea that precaution is necessary when the science around food or environmental safety is uncertain. In fact, the text clarifies that “This Chapter does not prevent a Party from: (a) establishing the level of protection it determines to be appropriate.” In the case of GM corn, there is ample evidence of the harm to biodiversity and the environment, as well as reason for concern about the health impacts of GMOs, especially in a diet so heavily weighted to corn consumption.

On January 30, the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) wrote to the Mexican government requesting information on the science used to justify the corn standards. This led to a second phase, a technical consultation held on March 6. In the lead up to that meeting, the Mexican Ministry of the Economy stated that it welcomed the opportunity to “demonstrate with data and evidence that there has been no commercial impact and that, on the contrary, the Decree is consistent with the Treaty itself.” Now, more than 30 days after that meeting, USTR could initiate a formal dispute or continue negotiations.

There is little doubt that this case is being pushed by agribusiness exporters, the biotech industry, and their allies in the U.S. Congress and administration that are intent on compelling Mexico to accept U.S. exports no matter what their concerns. It is an assault on Mexico’s food sovereignty. But, with a perhaps willful dose of optimism, we could hope that it would be an opportunity for the two countries (and their civil societies) to sit down to talk through the scientific evidence and the imperative to build greater resilience and fairness into agricultural markets. Trade policy should establish forums to address differences.

However, back in the real world, this case is important to the U.S. not only because of the export market, but also because it is a precedent the U.S. could assert in other negotiations. While the current talks for an Indo-Pacific Economic Framework and the U.S.-Kenya Strategic Trade and Investment Partnership and perhaps similar talks in the Americas will not include discussions of market access, they all include agriculture as a priority sector. If they can’t negotiate tariffs, that means they could very well be discussing the rules around agricultural biotechnology, food safety and labeling (as well as the bigger prize of rules around the digital economy). So, the outcome of the GM corn case in Mexico sets a standard that will be asserted in those other talks too.  

The U.S. should accept Mexico’s right to establish new polices based on ensuring people’s access to healthy food that respects the environment, culture and biodiversity. Trade rules should provide a forum for those rights rather than a tool to block them.

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