Mexico’s GMO corn ban presents an opportunity for U.S. farmers to supply non-GMO corn south of the border
While U.S. agribusiness groups are trying to pressure Mexico into abandoning their announced bans on glyphosate herbicide and imports of genetically modified corn by 2024, U.S. suppliers of non-GMO seed and grain see an opportunity to supply Mexico with non-GMO corn.
“Could we supply Mexico? Absolutely,” says Bill Niebur, president of High Fidelity Genetics, an Iowa-based non-GMO corn seed company. “In terms of acres, it’s not a problem. Instead of criticizing Mexico, let’s provide it to them.”
Ken Dallmier, CEO of Clarkson Grain, an Illinois-based supplier of organic and non-GMO grains, agrees. “Given time and focus, I think it’s completely feasible,” he says. “Mexico is a key trading partner, and all the logistics of Mexican grain import come through the U.S. It’s matter of planning and market.”
“An unbelievable proposal?”
There have been statements of impending doom in the U.S. agriculture sector since the government of Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador issued a decree last December calling for the replacement of controversial glyphosate herbicide and imports of GMO corn in the country by January 31, 2024.
The U.S. reaction may have been best expressed by Rich Nelson, chief strategist with Allendale Inc. “I almost refuse to even look at it because I think it’s an unbelievable proposal. I just don’t know what to say. I don’t,” he said in an interview with Western Producer.
At stake are 16.5 million metric tons of corn exports—virtually all GMO—to Mexico each year, which are worth $3 billion. Mexico is the U.S.’s second largest corn buyer after China.
A series of emails obtained using the Freedom of Information Act by the Center for Biological Diversity describe how pesticide industry lobby group, CropLife America, and pesticide and GMO seed producer, Bayer, are working with the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) to pressure Mexico into abandoning the bans on glyphosate and GMO corn. The USTR warned Mexico’s Economy Secretary, Graciela Marquez Colin, that Mexico’s actions threatened the “strength of our bilateral relationship.”
According to Vice Minister of Agriculture Victor Suárez, Mexico wants to phase out glyphosate and GMO corn imports because the Mexican government is “committed to a fair, healthy, sustainable, and competitive agri-food system” and to “intensively promote agroecological and sustainable practices and reduce the use of agrochemicals.”
Suárez says the main reasons for Mexico’s bans are growing concerns about the safety of glyphosate and GMO contamination threats to Mexico’s staple and sacred crop—corn.
He cites a growing number of published studies showing negative impacts of glyphosate. “There is rigorous scientific evidence about the toxicity of this herbicide, which demonstrates the impacts on human health and the environment,” he says.
Suárez says imported GMO corn poses several risks. “The risk is that imported (GMO) maize will be used as seed and can therefore contaminate the corn of neighboring farms. There is also a risk—and it is something that actually happens—that the imported transgenic yellow maize is used within the commercial and industrial businesses that should work with white (non-GMO) maize for human consumption.”
He also cites a study showing that 90.4% of corn tortillas consumed in Mexico contain GMO corn sequences, as did 82% of corn flours, cereals and snacks. He calls the presence of GMO genes in these staple Mexican foods “unacceptable.”
“Expectation is to induce imports of non-GMO yellow maize”
Suárez says that Mexico plans to increase production of domestic non-GMO corn to make up for the lost U.S imports with the aim to achieve “food self-sufficiency.” The country now produces about 27 million tons of corn each year, most of which are white corn and about 3 million tons of yellow corn. White corn is used to make tortillas and other staple foods, while yellow corn is used primarily for animal feed.
Mexico would need to increase its corn production by about 30% to replace the lost imports.
Suárez says Mexico will rely on its farmers to increase production of non-GMO corn. “These efforts are particularly geared towards small- and medium-scale producers who show significant growth potential in their yields per hectare,” he says.
Those farmers account for 90% of all the farmers in Mexico.
But Suárez also says Mexico would be interested in importing non-GMO corn from the U.S. “Imports of yellow maize will prevail for now, and the expectation is to induce imports of non-GMO yellow maize,” he says.
U.S. non-GMO corn producers can supply Mexico with non-GMO yellow corn, according to Greg Lickteig, a long-time grain industry veteran and consultant with Omaha Grain. “No question, the U.S. could meet Mexico’s demand should they seek only non-GMO corn,” he says
Mexico’s need for 16.5 MMT or 650 million bushels of corn is less than 5% of the U.S.’s annual corn production, according to Lickteig.
Chris Wiegert, chief supply chain officer at Healthy Food Ingredients, a supplier of identity preserved, organic, and non-GMO specialty ingredients, says meeting Mexico’s need for non-GMO corn is “not that big of an issue. We’re growing large amounts of non-GMO corn already,” he says. In 2020, U.S. farmers planted 7.49 million acres of non-GMO corn.
Dallmier is confident the U.S. can supply Mexico with both yellow and white non-GMO corn. To meet Mexico’s demand for non-GMO white corn, the U.S. would have to increase white corn production by 23% from its current one million acres to 1.23 million acres, which is not a big task, according to Dallmier. “Given proper market incentives, the U.S. could easily supply the increased Mexico demand for non-GMO corn,” Dallmier says.
Proper market incentives include premiums for farmers to grow non-GMO corn, which requires more management than GMO corn.
“Farmers need competitive seed varieties, stable logistics such as rail, truck, container, and water transportation, risk management tools, and revenue premiums to incentivize them to participate in a different marketplace,” Dallmier says.
Farmers may need to be paid a premium to grow non-GMO corn, particularly now that commodity corn prices are now higher.
Iowa farmer George Naylor, who has grown non-GMO corn for many years, says the costs for growing non-GMO corn are comparable to that of GMO. “I’m pretty sure that anybody can raise non-GMO corn for about the same cost of production as GMO. GMO seed corn is going to cost more per acre,” he says.
“Excellent non-GMO seed genetics exist”
According to Dallmier, the key to supplying Mexico’s non-GMO demand is producing enough non-GMO corn seed. “The primary need will be to work with the seed suppliers, such as Pioneer/Corteva and others to meet this new demand with supply of commercial non-GMO seed,” he says.
A large seed company will be required for a project of this scope, according to Wiegert. “You switch a supply chain like this, you have to get a big seed company behind you,” he says.
Yields of non-GMO corn seeds are competitive to those of GMO seed, according to field trials conducted by several non-GMO seed companies.
“We are testing non-GMO and GMO hybrids, and our non-GMO products are doing really well.,” says Niebur, who is former global vice president of research and development at Pioneer Hi-Bred.
Lickteig is also confident that non-GMO seed companies can deliver. “Excellent non-GMO seed genetics exist, and the seed industry is very capable of creating top-yielding hybrids,” he says.
To meet Mexico’s 2024 deadline, non-GMO seed production would have to start this year. Dallmier says three years may appear to be a long period of time to ramp up seed production but it’s not.
“The seed for 2023 (non-GMO corn crop) will need to be grown in 2022, and this year is when seed companies will need to make parent seed (the seed corn that makes the seed corn) or they will be out of position,” he says.
Obstacle vs. opportunity
A big question remains about whether Mexico’s GMO corn import ban also applies to corn for animal feed. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has been quoted as saying that the ban only applies to corn for food and not feed. But Suárez says Mexico wants to “induce” imports of non-GMO yellow corn, which is used primarily for feed. He also says the interpretation of the decree regarding GMO feed is up to several Mexican government ministries. “The decree refers to the use of genetically modified corn grain in the diet of Mexican women and men, it is not expressly stated that it is directly,” he says.
Regardless of whether Mexico needs non-GMO corn for food or food and feed, U.S. suppliers say they can meet the demand.
Niebur says the U.S. should view Mexico’s bans on glyphosate and GMO corn not as an obstacle but an opportunity to enhance its trade relationship with Mexico.
“We need to let them know we’re very serious and respectful about their needs and challenges and to better understand what they trying to accomplish and work together to see how we can do that,” he says.