Corn kernels in Mexico. (AP)

Corn kernels in Mexico. (AP)


LatAm in Focus: Could a Clash over Corn Upend U.S.-Mexico Trade Ties?

By Carin Zissis

A looming row over GMO corn may serve as a “litmus test for Mexico’s commitment to USMCA,” explains North American trade research expert Diego Marroquín.

When it comes to challenges for U.S.-Mexico bilateral ties, the first tensions that spring to mind might be issues like fentanyl or immigration.

But what about corn? The North American staple crop has eclipsed seemingly more serious issues to become a recent stumbling block between these two countries.

The problem started in 2020, when the government of Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, or AMLO, said it would phase out imports of genetically modified corn and the herbicide glyphosate. That was no small matter for the United States—the world’s biggest corn producer and exporter—given that 90 percent of the corn it grows is GMO and Mexico is its second-biggest export market.

Diego Marroquín
Diego Marroquín

The Mexican corn market supports roughly 50,000 jobs in U.S. heartland states, explains Diego Marroquín, a North American trade expert who served as a nearshoring fellow for the U.S.-Mexico Foundation and writes about the topic for The Hill and El Universal. But it wouldn’t just be the U.S. economy that would take a hit if the ban passes; research indicates the price of corn in Mexico would jump by 19 percent, sparking inflation and threatening the food security of millions of Mexicans. Says Marroquín: “The reality is that U.S farmers need the Mexican market as much as Mexico needs those imports to put food on the table.”

Why is the AMLO government pursuing the ban? “Corn is quintessentially Mexican, just like potatoes are Peruvian or maple is Canadian,” says Marroquín. “Mexico is the birthplace of corn, and I think that’s where AMLO’s coming from.” The president also expressed fears that the product could have health consequences for consumers, even though, Mexico has imported yellow GMO corn for 30 years with no signs of negative health impacts, says Marroquín.

"The real issue here is about regulatory predictability."

With concerns about the looming GMO corn ban, trade officials in Washington warned Mexico that it could be in danger of violating the USMCA free-trade deal. In February 2023, Mexico issued a new decree eliminating the 2024 deadline to ban imports of GMO corn used for animal feed, which accounts for the bulk of what it imports from the United States. However, it left in place for corn for human consumption, as well as for the possibility of the full ban down the road.

The United States has said that’s not good enough, as the new decree still leaves the door open to a ban down the road. On March 6, it requested formal trade consultations and, if no resolution is reached within 30 days, the two countries will get closer to a formal dispute. Potentially, Mexico could face U.S. tariffs.

“The real issue here is about regulatory predictability,” says Marroquín. “If Mexico is not clear in its commitment to a science-based, rules-based trade system—which is basically USMCA—there’s going to be plenty of uncertainty.”

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