Adam Smith wrote “corn is a necessary, silver is only a superfluity” to contrast the centrality of food when compared with more commercial indulgences. It’s worth remembering that statement at a time when a new trade fight is brewing over corn, even as the Global South confronts multiple food crises.
In February, Mexico issued a decree banning genetically modified (GMO) corn — domestic or imported — for human consumption. This affects white corn, used in tortillas and dough. Mexico has justified its move as driven by a desire to ensure food security and biodiversity by preserving its diverse varieties of maize. Mexico, according to the decree, also wants to protect the interests and practices of traditional farmers.
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White corn constituted only 3 percent of Mexican corn imports in 2021 and 2022. It accounts for just about one percent of American corn. Yet that hasn’t stopped the United States from threatening legal action against Mexico over the decree. In March, the US announced consultations preparing for a formal dispute under the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). Canada has joined the US in this planned action.
It’s a case of big appetites fighting for tiny servings.
Ideology and commerce motivate them. American officials say a “fundamental principle” of trade is at stake. Canada does not export corn. But both Washington and Ottawa are worried that Mexico’s move could set the stage for future regulations impacting other GMO products.
Mexico is the second largest buyer of America’s yellow corn, mostly for animal feed. Canadian discomfort is about control over its GMO exports like canola. Against this backdrop, the corn lobby is demanding that the US government “stand up for American farmers”.
But the US and Canada should stop their threats because in reality, little is at stake, the ban is legal, and a dispute won’t help.
First, the decree is explicit in not banning all GMOs, so Mexico can import corn-based animal feed. In effect, the ban has no immediate impact on the overwhelming part of imports, yellow corn for livestock. Instead of targeting Mexico in a trade tussle, the US can introduce measures to help American farmers who are hit by the changes. The 2023 Farm Bill in the US, for instance, could include assistance for these farmers, help them with competitiveness, crop substitution and technical resources.
Second, the USMCA offers no clear victory path for the US and Canada if they pursue the case. Mexico stands on firm ground. The USMCA prioritises compromise. Mexico did and conceded on importing animal feed. The US and Canada can by ending threats.
The USMCA does promote biotechnology, seeking transparency and cooperation between countries. And Mexico will argue that its decree does that too. But the trade pact does not mandate “authorisation for a product of agricultural biotechnology to be on the market”. Biotechnologies include GMOs.
Furthermore, the USMCA permits each country to pursue domestic environmental and biodiversity policies. The pact reaffirms a “sovereign right” to establish “own” levels of protection. Put another way, the US and Canada have already expressly agreed that Mexico gets to set its own policies in these areas.
Third, GMO advocates insist that science is on their side when it comes to food safety. But there is no international consensus that GMOs are safe. Scientific studies have cast doubt, especially about GMO corn in Mexico.
Canada and the US made the mistake of relying on science-based rules in trade disputes before, fighting with the European Union over food regulations. They argued that the EU closed its door to imports. In separate disputes, the North Americans claimed that it was safe to treat cattle with hormones for beef and to manipulate plant genes with biotechnology for crops. Yet their argument that “science is on our side” did not prevail. Years later, neither case confirmed access for exporters.
The US and Canada should end the dispute. Trade contests only provide false hope. Proceedings are prolonged and in this case are unlikely to lead to a repeal of the decree. The dispute will only breed antagonism without helping corn growers.
A better suggestion is to encourage farmers to export non-GMO corn to Mexico. With this, they will continue capitalising on Mexico’s proximity and USMCA access, versus waiting for the legal mess created by Washington.
In fact, Mexico’s decree provides an example of food security policies balanced with trade obligations. The US and Canada response so far only promises legal drama. Instead, they should stop and directly help farmers who grow white corn. Myopia must not displace an honest look at trade rules.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.