By Larry Gompf
Many people want to know exactly what GMO, or “genetically modified organism,” crops are, and how they benefit Mexico. GMO, or transgenic, crops have an altered gene in their seed that expresses a certain trait that makes them desirable for production by farmers.
The most common (and of course the most notorious) GMO crops are those grown from seed that carries the trait that protects the crop from the herbicide glyphosate, a key ingredient in the product Roundup (among others). When sprayed, glyphosate kills all plants that are green except the ones carrying this trait. Why is that good? Because it enables farmers to spray a lesser amount of chemicals than they normally would to grow a given crop, and of course a weed-free crop produces a higher yield.
The status of GMO crops in Mexico, however, is somewhat complicated. The organization that regulates the import and release of genetically modified organisms, as well as their consumption, is the Inter-secretarial Commission on the Biosafety of Genetically Modified Organisms in Mexico (CIBIOGEM). This regulatory body issues permits for three levels of production. The first permit allows for experimental trials, the second is for pilot projects of field trials and the third is for commercial production. The first applications for experimental trial permits were made in 1995 for a number of crops; cotton was authorized for commercial production in 2010, with soybeans following two years later in 2012.
Development and production of GMO crops in Mexico is regulated by a Biosafety law, enacted in 2005 and updated in 2009. Permits for production cover 14 states, 10 in the north and 4 in the Yucatan. Mexico is ranked as the 17th country in the world in production of GMO crops.
Since 2013 production of genetically modified maize (corn) has been banned in Mexico because of public pressure arising from a fear that GMO maize might result in cross contamination with local varieties. Subsequently, the permit for commercial production of GMO soybeans was revoked in 2017. That stemmed from pressure from a coalition of Mayan farmers and honey producers who claimed that GMO soybean permits were granted without their approval, that the crop was grown in areas that weren’t authorized and that pollen from transgenic soybeans could contaminate their honey, causing them to lose their ability to export to Europe.
The loss of the ability to grow GMO maize is an interesting one. In 2017, Mexico ranked 6th in the world for maize production but 43rd in yield/hectare; indeed, Mexico’s annual production falls 37.4% below domestic consumption. Under the recently renegotiated NAFTA agreement, Mexico imports corn to meet the shortfall, mainly from the U.S. and mainly as GMO corn.
Mexico’s population thus consumes more than a third of their maiz in the form of GMO corn. However, if Mexican farmers were allowed to grow GMO corn, they could increase yields, the country would import less from the U.S. and both producers and consumers would benefit. Transgenic plants have been used in commercial agriculture since the mid 1990s, after being released for the first time in the United States, China, Argentina, Australia and Canada. There is no evidence of ill effects to consumers from the consumption of GMO crops and cross-pollination of GMO crops with local crops is minimal. Mayan farmers are concerned about GMO crops because if their European customers perceive that there is cross-pollination from GMO crops, they will refuse to buy Mexico’s honey. It’s purely a marketing issue not an issue of safety.
This article uses information from a 2018 article by Ruiz, Knapp and Garcia-Ruiz, “Profile of genetically modified plants authorized in Mexico.” Larry Gompf is a former Professional Agrologist (PAg) and Certified Crop Protection Consultant from Winnipeg, Manitoba.