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Transgenic Corn, Glyphosate and Impact on Biodiversity (Part 2)

By Julio Trujillo - Bureau Soluciones Socioambientales
General Director


By Julio Trujillo | General Manager - Thu, 06/01/2023 - 15:00

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II. Agribusiness as a major factor in the destruction of biodiversity.

In the second half of the 20th century, intensive agriculture emerged, allowing the cultivation of large extensions of fields with a mechanical process and the use of agrochemicals for monoculture with the homogenization of seeds by the industry. This era is known as the Green Revolution.

The Mexican scenario is not an exception; on the contrary, it is an example of all these evils during the mindless environmental planning under the PRI. But today, Mexico  can be part of the solution as it is one of the most megadiverse countries in the world and with an extensive genetic heritage.

In recent months, there have been debates about the possible prohibition of transgenic corn and the use of glyphosate in Mexico. A presidential decree, which, by the way, was cheered worldwide, foresees the gradual reduction of glyphosate and the prohibition of the planting of transgenic corn as well as its importation for human consumption in a first phase. The second phase will also include its processing and use as food for domestic animals.

Agribusiness and agroindustry criticize these measures as irresponsible, that they go against the free market and the free circulation of USMCA goods and that it will harm the industry, the consumer's pocket and the Mexicans' food supply, not to mention the economic damage to American farmers.

This type of mindset fails to see the real background of the presidential decree. As I have pointed out, Mexico is a megadiverse country. But besides that, we are the center of origin of hundreds of crops that are fundamental to the world's food supply. Mexico is the center of origin of corn, tomatoes and vanilla. Imagine what Mediterranean food would be like without the tomato or the contribution of corn to  the nutrition of livestock or vanilla in French pastries?

The first is the diversity of ecological environments, ranging from large scale, such as oceans, forests, or grasslands, to a pool of water at the bottom of the garden. The second is the diversity of species living in environments ranging from dependence on the food chain to symbiosis. Finally, the third is the diversity of the gene pool and the diversity of each individual within each species.

This is relevant to understanding the core of the conflict. Although corn is a cereal that has spread all over the planet (it is even grown in Denmark), it has almost no direct use for human nutrition. There are few nations that use it, such as Mexico. In the US and Europe, it is mainly used to feed livestock. For us, it is not only the foundation of our food, but it is also an essential part of our culture. Therefore, Mexican corn is not the same as US corn. They do not have the same functions and the nutritional values are entirely different. 

The big seed corporations only care about yield and resistance to agrochemicals, such as glyphosate, hence the creation of transgenic corn and its extensive commercialization in North American agriculture. After all, it is not for human consumption but for livestock or rendering. With this excuse, the quality of the seed, both nutritional and genetically, does not matter. 

This type of agriculture, as I have already mentioned, is causing an environmental disaster, in addition to the loss of biodiversity. The IPBES report is conclusive: more than 40% of insects have disappeared and soils have lost more than 70% of microorganisms and soil diversity. In other words, our soil is perishing.

Glyphosate, a GMO-related herbicide, is even found in breast milk and tap water around the world. It has impoverished soils by preventing the regeneration of microorganisms and especially the fungal network, which plays a balancing role. It is sterilizing soils and poisoning the environment.

Therefore, for Mexico, it is a matter of national security. At present, there is a moratorium on the cultivation of transgenic crops and there is a desire to ban their importation. This is justified in the first place because Mexico is the birthplace of corn — we have more than 64 species, 59 of which are native — and it would be unconscionable to allow the liberalization of genetically modified corn because it could pollinate native crops and mix with native species, causing genetic impoverishment. 

It should be remembered that more than 20 years ago in Oaxaca, corn contaminated by an experimental transgenic corn for industrial purposes with characteristics not suitable for human consumption was found. We still do not know how this corn arrived, how it was released from the US laboratories or how it reached our crops and became mixed.

These crops have different characteristics to ours. They have been conceived for temperate climates and they consume much more water than our native seeds that are used to the arid climates of Mexico.

Although Mexico is a megadiverse country, our soil surface is usually fragile. The geographic and climatic characteristics of our national territory mean that most of our surface area is arid soil and tropical land with jungle surface. We cannot allow our agricultural soils to be degraded or impoverished or our lands to be eroded. 

For the reasons stated above, this is more than enough to justify the Mexican government's measures. But we can add the need to safeguard our ecosystem and our biocultural heritage.

All international organizations advocate the need to return to the basics of agriculture and return to the practices of agroecology. This is where the famous milpa stands out, which is a proven and totally sustainable biocultural process.

That is why I agree with the presidential decree and differ with the postulate that if we go to the dispute panels provided for by the USMCA, we are going to lose. Let me elaborate: the moratorium on the importation of glyphosate and later the prohibition of transgenic corn in the country is mandated  under the precautionary principle according to the Rio Declaration and more specifically the Cartagena protocol on biosafety.

Under this principle, the authorities, which applies to this case, may, even if there is no scientific certainty about the possible irreversible damage to nature or health, prohibit, due to technological, scientific or economic knowledge, an economic activity or the commercialization of a product, and take anticipatory risk management measures based on suspicion and not on certainty. If there is reasonable doubt of an irreversible risk, the restriction may be carried out to prevent further harm. It is acceptable to impose precautionary measures even if it causes an economic loss that is supported by the elimination of a possibly greater one due to environmental damage.

Of course, the decision has to be taken with consideration of criteria and under the well-founded suspicion that there is reasonable doubt. This principle is recognized by all member states of the Rio Declaration; in other words, the three trading partners of the USMCA treaty.

Therefore, Mexico can apply it to protect its environment and the health of its citizens. The only prohibition is that it is a protectionist measure disguised to favor national companies. But equally, in this case, the ban is global regardless of where they were made or marketed.

It doesn't matter whether the agrochemicals are manufactured in Mexico or not as the objective is to prevent their commercialization and use in the Mexican territory to protect our biodiversity and human as well as animal health, since Mexico is the largest consumer of corn in the world. Furthermore, I would even recommend that the Mexican government apply the European labeling measures that require differentiation of GMO-processed products. 

The USMCA, therefore, recognizes the possibility of taking measures restricting free trade when the goal is to protect health and natural heritage, without discriminating against any country. They must be uniformly and widely applied, as the presidential decree rightly provides.

Mexico has the challenge of achieving food sovereignty without further damaging our environment. We need to reverse the collapse of biodiversity. Personally, I firmly believe that the return to agroecology is one of the best ways to take care of our territory, our health and our food; without forgetting that this change requires many hands and could be a great source of employment, especially in these times in which human labor is being replaced by machines and artificial intelligence.

Photo by:   Julio Trujillo

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