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Mexican ban of GM white corn wins public support

By SERGIO HELD in Bogota, Colombia | | Updated: 2023-04-02 17:27
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A Mexican government ban on the use of genetically modified (GM) white corn for the manufacturing of dough and tortillas will have little impact on the Mexican food industry and enjoys wide public support.

The ban introduced by the government of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador -- commonly known as AMLO -- earlier this year did not target yellow corn but white corn, which is used to produce the processed corn flour used for most local dishes. A previous ban on the imports of Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) seeds was introduced in late 2022.

"The decree prohibits the use of genetically modified corn for dough and tortillas. This does not affect trade or imports, among other reasons, because Mexico is more than self-sufficient in the production of GMO-free white corn. It is a matter of consolidating such sovereignty and food security in a central input in the culture of Mexicans," Mexico's Secretariat of Economy said.

Although it is widely used in industrial food production, GM yellow corn was not targeted by the recent regulation.

"Most of the yellow corn is destined for secondary industries, such as cattle feed, snacks, corn syrup for soft drinks, and other industries," said Emanuel Gómez-Martinez, a sociologist, PhD in rural development, and professor at the Chapingo Autonomous University in central Mexico.

However, the AMLO government's plan is to gradually phase out all GM corn imports, even for fodder or industrial food production.

In February, the Mexican government stepped back from its 2024 deadline to ban all GM corn use to only implementing a ban once a sufficient supply of non-GM corn was secured.

Laura Donnet, an agricultural economist, and consultant with a substantial experience in the maize market said that the recent ban on white corn will have a minimum impact on the market, although it has a large symbolic significance.

"It sends a message. If this were for yellow corn, there would be a noticeably significant impact," said Donnet, adding that 74 percent of Mexico's supplies of yellow corn rely on imports, while imports of white corn are minimal.

Data from Mexico's Agricultural Secretariat shows that between October 2020 and September 2021, Mexico imported over 15.8 million tons of yellow corn.

"The demand for white grain corn within Mexico was 24.44 million tons. Of this, 99 percent of the product was demanded by our country for human consumption, self-consumption, livestock consumption, and seeds for planting," said the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness on the period covering October 2021 and September 2022.

Mexico's domestic production of white corn is GM free, following a ban on harvesting GMO seeds in 2005.

"I always buy natural corn," said Manuel Gonzalez, owner of the Molino de Nixtamal R1 corn mill in San Nicolas de los Garza, some 900 kilometers north of Mexico City.

"We've been offered GM white corn, but we haven't gone that way. It is cheaper, it comes from the US," he said. Gonzalez added that the price of white corn has surged from MX$7,000 ($376) per ton two years ago to MX$11,000 ($591) per ton nowadays.

"The GM ban doesn't affect us, although I don't see GM corn as inconvenient, I don't buy it and I always buy the same natural white corn," he said.

According to Gomez-Martinez, the professor in Central Mexico, an aggressive production development program is required for the country to cope with the demand for white corn. Many farmers have abandoned their land and left Mexico for the US or cities close to the border, he said.

"Aggressive investment in corn agriculture is needed for the market to compensate for the losses," Gómez-Martínez noted.

He said that yellow corn imported from the US is GM, or transgenic, to resist US pests.

Washington has initiated technical consultations with the Mexican government under the framework provided by the US–Mexico–Canada Agreement to assess the impact of the agricultural bans.

AMLO said that an understanding of the matter is being sought by both sides.

"An agreement is already being sought so that an analysis can be made between a qualified agency from the US and Cofepris (Mexico's healthcare regulator) to make an analysis on the damage or not to the health of transgenic corn," AMLO said.

He said that Mexico is looking at imported yellow corn being used only for livestock.

"Fortunately, in Mexico, we are self-sufficient in white corn, which is what we want to be used for tortillas and for all human consumption."

The writer is a freelance journalist for China Daily.

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