By Jake Johnson

Environmental groups on Tuesday accused the Biden administration of putting the profits of big agribusiness over public health and critical pollinators by attempting to obstruct the Mexican government’s ongoing push to ban genetically engineered (GE) corn.

“The U.S.’s shameful efforts to strong-arm Mexico into accepting GE corn it has rejected is nothing short of 21st-century imperialism,” said Lori Ann Burd, environmental health director at the U.S.-based Center for Biological Diversity. “Our government is working tirelessly to pad the multibillion-dollar profits of domestic agribusiness corporations by pushing GE corn, even though our glyphosate-drenched GE cornfields are playing an outsized role in driving catastrophic declines in vital pollinator populations.”

The group’s statement came after Mexico issued a new decree earlier this week that scraps the country’s original January 2024 deadline to halt imports of GMO corn for livestock feed and industrial use, a move widely seen as a concession to the U.S., which has been pressuring its southern neighbor to drop the ban since Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) first announced it in 2020.

But Mexico—the largest destination for U.S. corn exports—reiterated its intention to prohibit GE corn for human consumption by 2024 in its latest decree. Mexico is also aiming to ban imports and use of glyphosate, a cancer-linked chemical that is often sprayed on genetically engineered corn.

The new decree instructs Mexican authorities to “revoke and refrain from granting permits for the release into the environment in Mexico of genetically modified corn seeds.”

Mexican officials have repeatedly argued that GE corn and the associated use of glyphosate pose threats to human health and pollinators, as well as domestic production.

“We have to put the right to life, the right to health, the right to a healthy environment ahead of economic and business [interests],” Víctor Suárez Carrera, Mexico’s undersecretary of food and competitiveness, told Reuters in 2021.

Viridiana Lázaro, food and agriculture campaigner at Greenpeace Mexico, said Tuesday that “the ban of GE corn is the first step to transform Mexico’s agriculture system from one industrialized, based on pesticides, and dependent on transnational corporations to an agro-ecological system that offers solutions to soil fertility, local pest problems, allows crop diversification, and protects biodiversity and health of farmers and consumers.”

To carry out the elimination of genetically modified corn for animal feed and industrial corn for human consumption, as described in new decree, is a broad challenge. In order to ensure that such changes do not remain only on paper, “public policies aimed at the agroecological transition must be issued” Lázaro said. “We must ensure that glyphosate and GE corn do not improperly end up in dough and tortillas, which studies have demonstrated has happened before.”

The United States has refused to respect Mexico’s choice, instead working tirelessly to bully the country into accepting GE corn in order to protect the short-term profits of U.S. agribusiness giants, according to Greenpeace Mexico.

The U.S. government claims that Mexico’s plans, which have also drawn fierce opposition from industry lobbying groups, would run afoul of provisions in the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) and harm American farmers. The Biden administration has threatened to take legal action under the USMCA if Mexico doesn’t reverse course.

The USMCA entered into force in 2020 and replaced the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a treaty that resulted in the Mexican market being flooded with US corn.

In a statement on Tuesday, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said he is “disappointed” that Mexico is still pushing ahead with its proposed ban on genetically modified corn. An estimated 90% of U.S. corn production is genetically modified.

“The U.S. believes in and adheres to a science-based, rules-based trading system and remains committed to preventing disruptions to bilateral agricultural trade and economic harm to U.S. and Mexican producers,” Vilsack added. “We are carefully reviewing the details of the new decree and intend to work with [the United States Trade Representative] to ensure our science-based, rules-based commitment remains firm.”

Tom Haag, president of the National Corn Growers Association, a U.S. lobbying group, declared that “singling out corn—our number one ag export to Mexico—and hastening an import ban on numerous food-grade uses makes USMCA a dead letter unless it’s enforced.”

This week’s back-and-forth between the U.S. and Mexico marks a significant escalation in the years long trade dispute over the proposed ban on GE corn and glyphosate.

In February 2021, The Guardianreported that internal government emails reveal Monsanto owner Bayer AG and industry lobbyist CropLife America have been working closely with U.S. officials to pressure Mexico into abandoning its intended ban on glyphosate, the key ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup weedkillers.

Independent science has linked glyphosate to serious human health harms, including cancer, as well as to the decline of monarch butterflies and other imperiled pollinator species. The widespread use of glyphosate on GE crops has eliminated many of the flowers that bumblebees and butterflies need to survive. Mexico’s commitment to phasing out glyphosate parallels its decision to phase out use of GE corn for tortillas and other prominent foods.

The Center for Biological Diversity noted in a Tuesday press release that “the United States has, for months, exerted heavy pressure on Mexico to accept U.S.-produced corn that is genetically engineered to withstand what would normally be a deadly dose of pesticides.”

“Corn’s historical role in Mexican diets and culture—and current concerns about the impacts of glyphosate and genetic contamination of Mexico’s many varieties of heirloom corn—prompted its leaders to ban GE corn for human consumption and phase out glyphosate,” the group stated. “The United States has refused to respect Mexico’s choice, instead working tirelessly to bully the country into accepting GE corn in order to protect the short-term profits of U.S. agribusiness giants.”

Jake Johnson is a staff writer for Common Dreams.