For decades, Paul Harvey, renowned radio news journalist, aired a daily news commentary titled “The Rest of the Story.” He would open with a fairly well-known headline, then explain to listeners some of the nitty-gritty lesser-known details that added dimension to it. A bigger splash headline appeared in our own paper during August just past. As I allow the speaker – the head of a prominent farm organization – to remain nameless, here’s a quoted paragraph: “Mexico’s ban on bio-engineered corn is not only a clear violation of USMCA (United States/Mexico/Canada Agreement), it also ignores science and denies families in Mexico safe and affordable food. America’s farmers are upholding their obligations by meeting demand while achieving important sustainability goals. Mexico must do the same.” Now here’s my “rest of the story.”
In an article titled “Want to understand the border crisis? Look to American corn policy,” author Renée Alexander described how “NAFTA subsidized American farmers, disrupted Mexican agriculture and paved the way for today’s immigration debate.” In her July 2018 article, Alexander described how the U.S. president signed into law the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The agreement had been negotiated between two developed nations (U.S. and Canada), and an emerging-market country, Mexico. NAFTA’s original aim was to expand trade and make three countries more competitive globally. But NAFTA’s various impacts became hotly contested political points. The most sensitive of these, arguably, included lower wages vs. cheap gas and cheap food – as well as economic growth vs. farmer exploitation.
Since NAFTA was ratified in 1993, major fallout has resulted from the agreement. Collateral damage involves agricultural trade practices that have dislocated Mexico’s rural farming communities. Low-cost U.S. corn has displaced hundreds of thousands of Mexico’s campesinos (farmworkers). The resulting sharp decline in that nation’s corn economy pushed rural farmers and laborers off their native lands. In response, they sought more stable employment north of the Rio Grande, legal or otherwise.
Before 1994, Mexico limited corn imports to when domestic production fell short of needs. But NAFTA removed those limitations while preserving corn subsidies paid to U.S. corn growers. From 1997 to 2016, our government subsidized U.S. corn producers to the tune of $106 billion. Such subsidies include crop insurance, price supports and market loss assistance. American agribusiness giants, meanwhile, took advantage of NAFTA’s changes to begin dumping millions of tons of U.S. commodity corn onto Mexican markets at below production costs.
Typically, each year, this dumping involves about six million tons of subsidized U.S. corn. But during the first decade of NAFTA, U.S. corn exports to our southern neighbor quadrupled! At the same time, the price of domestically grown Mexican corn plummeted almost 70%. No longer able to support their families by selling surplus corn, an estimated two million campesinos abandoned Mexican countryside for big cities, looking for work. Unable to find jobs in their country, a quarter of that number, each year, migrated to the U.S. Illegal immigration from Mexico into the U.S. increased by 75% during the first five years of NAFTA.
Responding to what he perceived as American overreach, on July 1, 2018, newly elected Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador rapidly endorsed an executive plan sponsoring public policies supporting rights of campesinos. Obrador promised to help farmers achieve food self-sufficiency by providing free fertilizer, subsidies, credit for crop production and livestock and the planting of 2.5 million acres of fruit and timber trees in southern Mexico. As a strategic move supporting his country’s economic stability and food security, on Dec. 31, 2020, he signed a decree, hopefully enabling Mexican farmers to reclaim livelihoods within their home nation. That edict called for phasing out, by 2024, the domestic use of glyphosate-based herbicides and genetically engineered (GE) corn. The GE corn ban focused more on human diets than on livestock feed, concentrating mostly on self-sufficiency and food sovereignty, both of which eroded seriously under the NAFTA mandate that Mexico give unrestrained access to U.S. corn.
On Nov. 4, 2022, Melissa Waddell published an article on the non-GMO Project website titled “Mexico’s GMO corn ban aims to protect cultural heritage.” She wrote that Obrador’s decree is ambitious, controversial and well worth defending (for Mexican interests). Conversely, Mexico’s pending ban on GMO corn production/imports – as well as disallowing the use of glyphosate – flies directly against established agribusiness interests so prevalent in the U.S.
Mexico is the global birthplace of corn (maize) as well as one of the U.S.’s largest ag trading partners. But America is the birthplace of most GMOs, particularly corn. More than 92% of American corn is GMO. That’s compared to less than 1% of U.S. corn that was GMO back in 1993 when the three countries approved NAFTA. Mexico’s ban will undoubtably impact U.S. farmers who grow GMO corn.
Thus, major established seed, agri-chemical and trade organizations are pressuring the U.S. government to stall or block Mexico’s ban against GMO seed, grain and glyphosate herbicides. A potential challenge by the U.S. is in the works under the banner of the USMCA, which replaced NAFTA in 2020.
Timothy A. Wise, senior advisor to the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, commented, “Any review of USMCA should, however, go beyond its impact on the U.S. to assess its effects on Mexico. Evidence points overwhelmingly to the conclusion that Mexico’s reforms, backed by NAFTA, have been a disappointment for the country. Despite dramatic increases in trade and foreign investment, economic growth has been slow, and job creation weak. Now with its economy so closely tied to that of its northern neighbor, Mexico is suffering the most severe economic crisis in the region.”
There is increasing hope in Mexico that a healthier corn culture will underwrite a healthier economy for the country as well as its citizenry. Fortunately, increased numbers of American corn growers are ramping up non-GMO seedcorn production to sell to Latino counterparts south of the border.