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New battle emerges against GMO crops

I have huge respect for Mexico, its culture and its food. White corn is king there; it’s grown on about one-third of its farmland. Mexicans are renowned for their corn tortillas, and they’re pretty happy with their heritage varieties of the crop, which number more than 50.

They were edgy when a new kind of corn, the genetically modified kind, was introduced there about a decade ago. They were suspicious of it; most Mexican farms are small, no one figured they really needed it and all the bad press that surrounds GMO crops.

However, from a modern technology adoption perspective, Mexican farmers were behind their North American counterparts without it.

Over the past 30-ish years, GMO corn has proven to be a reliable crop in the U.S. and Canada, especially for livestock feed. Bigger Mexican farms had no problem practically or philosophically importing it from the U.S., to the tune of about $2.7 billion a year in 2019.

But that’s changing.

The Mexican government rang in the New Year by announcing it was banning GMO corn, by 2024. Further, it said it wouldn’t allow the herbicide glyphosate, infamously known as RoundUp, to be used in the country anymore.

The country’s main agricultural group pushed back, saying such measures will put producers there at a disadvantage. But the powers-that-be have remained firm: Mexico will “revoke and refrain from granting permits for the release of genetically modified corn seeds into the environment,” it says, and phase out GMO corn imports in three years.

This raises a few issues, to say the least.

First, where will the country find enough animal feed to cover what it’s about to lose? Argentina, a major corn exporter, is already pulling back its corn for export, citing fears of a domestic shortage. And will the new source of imported corn be cheap enough to still make Mexican livestock exports attractive? Will the U.S. subsidize its corn exports and lower prices, and pressure Mexico to buy them after all?  

The writing’s on the wall. Anti-technology factions have convinced many Mexicans that nasty DNA is “leaking” from GMO corn and contaminating heritage varieties. And they fear the herbicide resistance issues that have arisen because of GMOs.

With all the lessons learned since the botched, misguided public relations efforts related to GMO crops introduction in the 1990s, and with advances in social media, you’d think corporate ears would be more attuned to the pulse of nations where the technology is on the bubble. So many more ways exist to reach people with honest information.

This week, farm groups and the Mexican government are getting together to determine if livestock feed will be exempt from the no-GMO corn rule. They may win that battle, but they’re losing the war. Canada, the U.S. and Mexico went to great lengths to negotiate a new free trade agreement not long ago. But while any such deals may be in place on paper, in reality, the pandemic is quickly making every country rethink its domestic food policy and supply, and address what it perceives to be threats to it.

Of course, every country should have the right to manage its own food supply.

But the ripple effect of decisions like this one in Mexico is huge. In Canada, about 80 per cent of the corn crop is genetically modified. It’s even higher in the U.S. Europe has long-avoided GMO crops, but curiously, African farmers are growing more of them, particularly those that tolerate drought and disease.

Ironically, their motivation is the same as Mexico: that is, to make their domestic food supply more secure. But their approach could hardly be more different. Technology advocates who say GMOs are the key to feeding a hungry world have a lot of work to so.

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