Ten thousand years ago, farmers in present-day Mexico selected kernels from corn plants for ideal taste and high yield. These farmers were among the first to have practiced artificial selection—a process where farmers select and propagate only plants with desirable traits. Thousands of selections have been made across varying climates, resulting in 59 unique varieties of Mexican corn. Now, genetic modification and advancements in biotechnology threaten Mexico’s corn diversity.
As in many developing countries, seed companies are trying to market genetically modified (GM) seeds in Mexico. Mexico passed legislation in 2004 to enact regulations on the production of GM corn. However, these regulations never came to full fruition, a situation compounded by a 2013 court ruling that banned GM corn planting. As a result, seed companies like agribusiness giant Monsanto were restricted from testing GM corn on plots in Sinaloa—a top corn-producing state in Mexico.
While the Mexican government continues to challenge GM seed penetration, multiple studies and anecdotal evidence suggest that GM corn may have already diffused across the US border. Researchers from the National Autonomous University of Mexico found transgenic corn DNA sequences in 90.4 percent of tortillas in Mexico in a August 2017 study. Some consider GM crops a threat to biodiversity, suggesting that native traits could be bred out through cross pollination with more dominant GM varieties. Yet the research surrounding the interaction is still ongoing. If Mexico wants to protect their corn diversity, they could enact stronger regulations to prevent further GM crop encroachment.
Because of the longstanding history of corn in Mexico, the crop is now ingrained in the country’s national ethos. Before the enactment of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Mexico was relatively self-sufficient in corn. In 1992, they produced 18.6 million tonnes and consumed 18.5 million tonnes. However, NAFTA opened the door to cheap, yellow US corn, and Mexican livestock farmers quickly took advantage.
Until 2002, sorghum was the main feed source for Mexican livestock, but the allure of cheap corn from across the border prompted Mexico’s producers to make the switch. Between 1994 and 2017, the use of corn for livestock feed increased by 18.9 million tonnes. Total Mexican consumption of corn rose from 20.3 to 42.3 million tonnes over that same period. Food consumption, however, only slightly increased by 3.2 million tonnes between 1994 and 2013. In particular, low corn prices over the past few years have accelerated Mexico’s use of corn for livestock feed.
Fresh Mexican tortillas are made from masa—a dough made from ground corn. The industrialization of the tortilla industry has encouraged Mexicans to stray from tradition, and now most tortillas consumed are made of rehydrated corn flour. Unlike in the traditional preparation of masa, this flour is not made from native corn varieties but rather from corn imported from abroad. As the country’s main vehicle for corn consumption veers from native varieties, Mexican farmers may be encouraged to do so as well to keep pace with other countries’ accelerating production.
The Mexican government first placed a moratorium on planting GM crops in 1998. However, various studies conducted between 2001 and 2003—most notably a report from Mexico’s Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources—found traces of GM corn DNA in native corn varieties.
Still, in December 2004, the Mexican congress passed a law authorizing the planting of GM corn contingent on pending regulations. Finally enacted in March 2008, the regulations required a permit filed with the agricultural and environmental ministries to plant a GM variety. They also restricted the introduction of GM crops from regions home to specific native corn varieties. Among others, Monsanto considered this law ineffectual claiming it might take years to receive permits. And they certainly weren’t wrong.
Monsanto applied for GM test plots in northern Mexico in 2011. Before they could get approved, a group of farmers, environmentalists, and scientists filed a lawsuit in July 2013 that challenged the 2004 law allowing GM corn planting. They won the lawsuit and effectively banned GM corn. Multiple appeals upheld the ban. The court stated they wanted to test the environmental impact of introducing GM corn to better protect native varieties.
GM corn already has a definitive presence in Mexico, whether through wind drift of corn pollen or GM corn imports. Genetically modified US corn ends up in most of Mexico’s livestock feed and increasingly in Mexican tortillas. Additionally, there is evidence suggesting that Mexican farmers are illegally planting GM corn seeds. They may feel it is the only way to remain competitive with farmers in Argentina, Brazil, and the US—heavy adopters of GM technology.
Mexico’s decision on whether to adopt GM crops will likely dictate the future of its corn industry. GM corn could spur Mexican production by boosting yields, which currently fall well below other corn producing countries in the Americas. Both Argentina and Brazil have seen significant yield increases in the last 10 to 20 years in large part due to GM technology. Argentina adopted GM technology in the mid-1990s, and their corn yield grew from 4.52 to 8.37 tonnes per hectare between 1995 and 2017. Brazilian corn yield boomed from 3.03 to 5.60 tonnes per hectare between 2005 and 2017, following legislation in 2005 permitting GM seed use.
Mexico’s top corn producing state of Sinaloa actually produces higher yields than the provinces of Buenos Aires in Argentina and Paraná in Brazil. However, the 2017 national corn yield in Mexico is 3.67 tonnes per hectare. Sinaloa, Jalisco, and Michoacán have each increased their yield since 2003, while Mexico’s other states have stalled at best.
If Mexico continues to restrict GM corn, yields will remain low and Mexico will have to import increasing amounts of corn to fuel their growing livestock industry. Importing corn almost exclusively from the US has Mexico vulnerable to the US’s renegotiation efforts of NAFTA currently underway, opening the door to Argentine and Brazilian imports. Brazil has exported modest amounts of corn to Mexico since August 2017. If transportation costs slide down and the future of NAFTA remains shaky, Mexico could look to Argentina and Brazil for corn. Monthly corn trade flows between Brazil and Mexico can be accessed on Gro Intelligence via Brazil-MDIC.
Mexican corn varieties are characterized by diversity, and corn is central to both the country’s history and culture. But having been challenged by an industry largely motivated by profit and rapid technological advancements, traditional varieties struggle to find their place in an increasingly globalized market. By employing a soft ban on GM crops over the past decade, Mexico has chosen to neither fully protect their genetic diversity of corn nor to join the growing chorus of countries fully embracing GM technology.
Some studies suggest that employing buffers and spatial aggregation could reduce contamination. Limiting GM corn production to certain areas appears to be the easiest way to police and protect native varieties. Monsanto and other seed companies will also be incentivized to make sure their corn doesn’t get into areas prohibiting GM production. While such regulations will not completely eliminate the chance of contamination and will be tough to enforce, they are an improvement on current strategies. And the longer GM crops go without firm regulation, the more that 59 native corn varieties remain threatened.
Until research is conclusive on whether GM crops have irreversibly adulterated native corn varieties, the Mexican government will drag its feet on implementing stronger anti-GM crop regulations. Currently the ban is doing little to prevent further introduction of GM genes into Mexico’s environment. As Mexico struggles to implement regulations that allow for smarter GM integration while also protecting native corn varieties, Gro Intelligence can provide subscribers with the data and analytics necessary to stay ahead of developments in Mexico’s corn industry.
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