Food & Power: Mexico’s Native Corn Varieties Threatened by New NAFTA

Photo courtesy of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center via Flickr

by Claire Kelloway | October 10, 2018

Last week, after the Trump administration struck a deal with Canada and Mexico to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement, the White House declared victory for US farmers, who gained greater access to Canadian dairy, egg, poultry, and wheat markets. Unfortunately, the new deal called the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA, also includes lesser-known provisions that could allow agribusiness corporations to patent Mexico’s native corn varieties and challenge the country’s ban on genetically modified (GM) corn cultivation.

“I think it’s going to open up Mexico to an invasion of biotech seed companies that will try to push patented seeds on farmers and patent traditional corn varieties in the birthplace of corn genetics,” says Patrick Woodall, Research Director for Food & Water Watch.

Such an opening could further harm Mexico’s corn farmers, who lost much of their market after the original NAFTA in 1993 opened Mexico to imports of U.S. corn. The deal may also reduce the diversity of Mexico’s native corn strains, which are vital to the health of the world’s corn crop.

Over 8,000 years ago farmers in present-day Mexico first domesticated corn from a wild grass, teosinte. Corn holds incredible cultural, economic, and ecological significance in Mexico to this day. Mexico has maintained a vast array of diverse corn species, with 64 recognized strains, called landraces, and over 21,000 regionally adapted varieties. Over two-thirds of Mexican corn farmers still save their own seeds and plant native strains.

This diverse genetic trove is “absolutely critical to modern crop breeding,” says Tim Wise, the Director of Policy Research at the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University. “It’s a critical natural resource for the modern world,” he says. When researchers look for drought-resistant strains or corn that can requires less fertilizer, they turn to Mexico’s native corn gene pool.

In 2011, Monsanto and Syngenta requested the first permits to plant GM corn in northern Mexico. But introducing GM corn leads to natural cross-pollination, or gene flow, between native and GM crops, threatening the genetic diversity of Mexico’s indigenous corn. In October 2013, a federal judge ordered a temporary halt on GM corn permits after a group of 53 farmers and consumers filed a class action suit claiming GM cultivation violated Mexicans’ constitutional right to a clean environment. In the years since, courts continue to uphold this decision, calling for further study and extending the ban.

Today, only thirty percent of Mexican farmers use commercial hybrid single-use corn seed.

While the new NAFTA does not repeal Mexico’s GM corn ban, it includes industry-friendly language, as well as new tools for governments to challenge or deter regulations. “There’s no smoking gun in the text that says Mexico must allow planting of GMOs,” says Karen Hansen-Kuhn, the Director of Trade and Global Governance at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. ”But there is whole a series of factors, in different parts of the agreement, that would make it harder to implement new rules and put existing rules under new kinds of scrutiny.”

One such factor is a general agreement that the US, Canada, and Mexico “confirm the importance of encouraging agricultural innovation and facilitating trade in products of biotechnology.” USMCA also forms a “Cooperation on Agricultural Biotechnology” working group. All told, these new biotech provisions establish “a process for countries to communicate about deregulating agricultural biotechnology,” argues Hansen-Kuhn, “it does not actually require [deregulation], but it sets in place a number of procedures to encourage it and to streamline it.”

A second factor is that USCMA lays out a process for assessing any new regulation put forth by the US, Canada, or Mexico, even regulations unrelated to trade. Unlike previous trade agreements, this oversight is binding and subject to state-to-state dispute, creating a new tool for countries to challenge and scrutinize regulations. This review process could slow or weaken new environmental protections, at worse, and potentially allow governments to repeal existing law.

“It makes it easier for the United States to challenge any rule or regulation or process governing biotech crops that it contends are illegal trade barriers,” says Woodall. “It is designed to provide a brand new avenue of attack against regulations … and enshrine Trump’s deregulatory purge into a trade deal that will outlast this administration.”

Additionally, USMCA requires that Mexico ratify the International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants 1991, or UPOV-91, within four years. This international agreement allows crop varieties to be patented and prohibits farmers from sharing or saving protected seed varieties (both traditionally bred and genetically modified).

UPOV-91 could open the door for seed companies to patent Mexico’s indigenous corn varieties, forcing farmers to eventually buy protected seeds that they otherwise would have cultivated and saved themselves. It also gives seed corporations grounds to sue farmers when patented products inadvertently end up in their fields. The US has already used UPOV-91 compliance requirements in the Central America Free Trade Agreement to pressure Guatemala to change its seed laws.

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