Screams have a powerful place in Mexican history. “El grito,” literally the yell, sparked the War of Independence on September 16, 1810. A century later, Emiliano Zapata cried “tierra y libertad” (land and liberty) during the Mexican Revolution. Now, Mexico shouts “sin maíz, no hay país,” (without corn there is no nation) to demand a ban on genetically modified (GMO) corn.
This month, as Mexico celebrates national independence, the government should listen. These voices carry the hope of preserving corn biodiversity. The grain features prominently in Mexico’s Indigenous cultures, countryside, and cuisine. For many Mexicans, maíz has a spiritual quality more significant than being the primary ingredient for staples like tortillas, tamales, and much more. Mexico is a living archive of corn biodiversity, with nearly 60 maíz varieties in white, blue, purple, red and other colors.
GMOs threaten this legacy with corn seeds engineered in labs. At a cellular level, GMOs can penetrate corn, including non-GMO plants called maíz nativo. This permanently alters corn’s genetic structure. It happens inadvertently when wind carries pollen. Open-air pollination allows corn to thrive naturally in multiple terrains and climates. It also makes corn plants perpetually vulnerable to lab-crafted genes. While their proponents praise larger harvests, GMOs create significant biodiversity risks especially in Mexico, corn’s center of origin and diversity. This is separate from concerns regarding the safety of consuming GMO corn and GMOs requiring toxic glyphosate weedkillers.
Specific to Mexico, the fear focuses on biodiversity, which is indispensable to develop new plant strains resilient to droughts, pests, and climate change. For centuries, Mexican farmers have cross pollinated plant varieties to maintain corn’s genetic diversity. This should be conserved. The benefits reverberate globally. Corn is the most consumed crop on the planet.
To protect this biodiversity, the Colectividad del Maíz sued the Mexican government in 2013. The Colectividad explained that GMO corn plots surpassed levels authorized by México’s biosecurity law. The Secretary of Agriculture had overwhelmingly approved GMO corn permits, denying only 44 out of 327 permit requests. The Colectividad showed how commercial authorization of GMO corn posed irreversible damage to biodiversity.
Seeking to curb large-scale GMO farming, the Colectividad’s efforts prevented looming injuries to maíz nativo. With campesino, environmentalist, indigenous, and human rights advocate members, their legal strategyemphasized collective action. Similar to class actions in the United States, collective actions can stop government proceedings. In this case, courts ordered the Secretary of Agriculture to suspend any authorizations, commercial and non-commercial, for GMO corn. Because of this, it has been illegal to plant GMO corn. This hurt corporations like Bayer-Monsanto desperate to sell GMO seeds in Mexico. Impressively, the Colectividad blocked them and the government. Next month marks seven years of suspensions.
These results are temporary, since court orders are provisional. In 2017, the case came before Mexico’s highest court. So far, it has not overturned any orders, nor rescinded them, leaving the fate of corn biodiversity in limbo. In 2018, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) entered office promising to make GMOs illegal. He offered much hope for maíz advocates, farmers, and the nation generally.
Two years later, frustration grows. There is no definitive resolution for the Colectividad. Pessimists worry “que nos cayó el chahuistile,” literally meaning “fungus is ruining corn crops.” It’s a saying in México used to describe unpleasant situations. Optimists may see: seven years have sown the political landscape for solutions.
AMLO can take decisive actions and use existing authority to ban planting GMO corn, converting interim court orders into policy. Advocates provide detailed proposals for decretos (executive orders) to enforce biodiversity rights in the Constitution, statutes and international law. This would quickly and concretely strengthen how Mexico regulates risks from GMO corn.
Looking forward, this is needed given anxieties created by the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), NAFTA’s update. A decreto gives Mexico the institutional means to counter openings created by the USMCA. The trade agreement does not specifically mention GMOs nor corn. Its Chapter on Agriculture requires cross-border cooperation from the Secretary of Agriculture and opens the door to favor foreign justifications for GMO safety. With a decreto banning GMO corn, Mexico could more effectively confront seed corporations. Otherwise, seed producers will capitalize on the USMCA.
Just as screams signal key moments in Mexican history, criticism colors lasting impressions of presidents, despite the complexities they faced. Lázaro Cárdenas (1934-40) is proudly remembered for land reforms and nationalizing oil, fueling the “Mexican Miracle” for decades. On the other hand, public memory sees Carlos Salinas de Gortari (1988-94) as the president who privatized miracles for foreigners. Hopefully, inspired by “sin maíz, no hay país,” AMLO responds to growing demands.
History will remember.
Ernesto Hernández-López is a professor of law at Chapman University, who writes about food, international law, and Mexican history. He has published op-eds in the Chicago Tribune, Orange County Register, La Opinión, Hoy: Los Ángeles, and U-T San Diego. Follow him on Twitter @ProfeErnesto1.