Farm Bill,  Genetic Engineering

Corn Imperialism: What U.S. Mexico Trade Policy Tells Us About the Need to Transform American Agriculture

Harvesting a field of genetically modified corn

Seeds are Storytellers

A single kernel of corn contains the genetic story of how its ancestor plants adapted and survived. It tells the story of the humans who tended those plants over millennia, selecting varieties that could thrive in poor soils and in the face of drought.

In Mexico, the birthplace of corn, Indigenous communities have created hundreds of varieties of seed, each with its own surprising storyline. For example, one variety of corn which has long been stewarded by the Mixe people of Oaxaca was recently found to fix its own nitrogen. This unexpected discovery, which could potentially contribute to the fight against climate change, reinforces the importance of the link between biodiversity and indigenous and local seed stewardship.

U.S. Trade Policy and Genetic Engineering Threaten Local Seed Sovereignty

Unfortunately, developments in U.S. trade policy since the 1990’s have weakened, rather than supported, Indigenous peoples in Mexico and local communities in the United States.

Prior to the free trade agreements of the early 1990’s, Mexico was self-sufficient in corn production for human consumption, and relied primarily on sorghum for animal feed.

But a flood of cheap, subsidized corn from the United States made it impossible for local producers to compete, resulting in an increased dependency on imports for livestock feed, and a decrease in production of local varieties.

This situation was further complicated in the late 1990’s by the introduction of genetically modified (GM) seed, which was soon found to have contaminated native corn varieties.

To protect both human health and genetic diversity, the Mexican government put a moratorium on the use of GM seed in 1998. In 2020, they issued a decree banning imports of GM corn and in 2024 they banned the herbicide glyphosate.

In response, the United States has threatened action against Mexico, stating that the ban would cause economic loss and affect bilateral trade.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack emphasized “in no uncertain terms that — absent acceptable resolution of the issue — the U.S. government would be forced to consider all options, including taking formal steps to enforce our legal rights” under the United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement.

In response to this pressure, Mexico announced that it would extend the start date for the ban to 2025 and that it was working on a proposal to overhaul its plan.

Ending Corn Imperialism and Transforming American Agriculture

The threats made by the U.S. government undermine Mexico’s right to protect its indigenous communities and their seed heritage.

U.S. policy harms American agriculture as well, by locking us into an industrial system that undermines local communities, pollutes our waterways, and fuels climate change.

Instead of forcing GM crops on Mexico, the U.S. Department of Agriculture should focus on transforming American agriculture for the better.

This includes:

  • Support for farmers to move away from chemical intensive agriculture and transition to organic
  • Support for grass-based grazing rather than feedlots that rely heavily on corn
  • Publicly funded research on non-GM seed varieties collaborating with and compensating indigenous communities
  • Development of local staple foods processing systems (watch this recent interview with OEFFA member Michelle Ajamian on why this is important)
  • Creation of soil health programs to reverse carbon loss and help store carbon in the soil

To learn more about how you can support these solutions in the 2023 Farm Bill and in the Ohio legislature, please contact the OEFFA policy team.