Various groups are clamoring for it in the third largest market for US food exports.
By Don Quijones, Spain, UK, & Mexico, editor at WOLF STREET.
Mexico, the birthplace of maize, is dangerously hooked on U.S. imports of largely transgenic strains of the crop. In 2017 it was the third biggest importer of corn in the world, behind the EU and Japan, purchasing 15.2 million tonnes of the foodstuff, most of it from U.S. farmers and agribusinesses. But that could soon change.
Following the U.S. government’s decision to impose steep duties of imports on steel and aluminum from Mexico, Canada and the EU, Mexico, a net importer of US steel, has hit back with tariffs on US products including whisky, cheese, steel, bourbon, and pork. The move has upset U.S. businesses, including pork producers, who now face a 20% tariff on exporting leg and shoulder to Mexico. Mexico is the largest market for US pork exporters. It’s also the third largest market in the world for U.S. agricultural exports as a whole, pipped to the post by China and Canada.
For the moment the Mexican government has ruled out imposing duties on U.S. imports of staple foods such as corn, beans and soy, largely out of fear that it could further fuel food inflation, especially with the Mexican peso once again slumping against the dollar. But calls for such action are rising.
If Trump doubles down on his tariffs while continuing to insist on separate bilateral talks with Canada and Mexico, the Mexican government could end up taking the nuclear option of restricting U.S. imports of corn. Given that the biggest corn-producing states in the U.S. were also among the supporters of Trump in the last election, Mexico’s government has a clear strategic motive for doing so.
“If we want to stop this [trade war] and hit the U.S. government where it really hurts, we should target America’s corn belt by imposing a tariff on imports of U.S. transgenic corn,” said Angel Contreras Carrera, the president of the State Agricultural Union of Corn Producers.
Carrera is not the only person calling for such measures. From the campaign trail presidential front runner Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador (or AMLO) recently said: “We buy over 14 million tonnes of corn. (…) This is a contradiction, an aberration. Corn originally comes from Mexico and it now turns out that Mexico is one of the biggest importers of corn in the world. This cannot go on.”
Since NAFTA, Mexico has become unhealthily dependent on food imports from the US. In 2016 Mexico imported a staggering 46% of all its food, much of it staples. It bought a third of the corn it consumed from the US, worth some $2.3 billion in 2016; between 30-50% of its beans; and up to 80% of its rice, according to data provided by the Secretariat of Agriculture, Livestock, Rural Development, Fisheries and Food (Sagarpa).
In return, Mexico exports to the U.S. tomatoes, chili peppers, avocado, coffee, grapes, strawberries, water melon, and so on. But it’s the staple crops that matter the most — and they are almost all moving in one direction: southward. But perhaps not for much longer. Mexico has already sharply increased its imports of corn from Brazil. Plus, many of the staple food products it has grown to depend on from the U.S. could be produced just as easily in-house, including sugar, corn, rice, and beans.
There’s also the health impact to consider. In August 2017, a joint study by researchers from the National Autonomous University of Mexico and the Autonomous Metropolitan University revealed a startling fact: a staggering nine out of ten tortillas (the corn flatbread that is the basis of the Mexican diet) contain traces of GM corn. Furthermore, the alleged carcinogen glyphosate was detected in nearly one-third of all the food samples that had tested positive for the presence of GMO substances.
“The data are particularly worrying, since maize is our basic food and we have lost our food sovereignty,” the research team said at a press conference. “Consumption of glyphosate-containing genetically modified corn can have serious health consequences.”
What makes this finding so surprising is that over the last five years, all cultivation of GM corn has effectively been banned in Mexico after a judge ruled to suspend the granting of licenses for GMO field trials on environmental grounds. And while almost all imports of corn from the U.S. are transgenic, they represent roughly a third of all the corn sold on the market. Which would suggest there has been a significant degree of cross pollination from GM to non-GM plants.
But according to the study, transgenic contamination is far more widespread in processed foods (especially cereals, flour, and packaged corn-based snack foods) and the industrial, machine-made tortillas that are distributed and marketed in small stores (tortillerías) throughout the country than tortillas produced by hand from native maize, which showed virtually no contamination at all.
“Tortillas made in peasant communities solely from native maize (grown in those communities) contained almost NO transgenic proteins or glyphosate,” the UNAM-UAM team wrote. “Trace amounts of these proteins could potentially be present in native maize as a result of transgene contamination, but stewardship of native maize by Mexican communities has kept it overwhelmingly free of transgenes [since their appearance in Mexico].”
In other words, there’s still time for Mexican farmers, if given enough support by government authorities and consumer groups, to safeguard the world’s richest deposit of corn varieties from further transgenic contamination. Until now government institutions in Mexico have largely been on the side of the world’s GMO giants, but thanks to Trump’s bargaining, that position could soon become untenable.
If left-wing nationalist AMLO wins the national elections on July 1, an outcome that is looking increasingly likely, much to the horror of business leaders on both sides of the US-Mexican border, America’s trade war with its southern neighbor could be set to escalate in a very big way. By Don Quijones.
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