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Mexican GMO Trade Dispute Relying On Faulty Claims, Retracted Research

The history of Mexico and agriculture innovation is mired in contradictions. It was where wheat plant geneticist Norman Borlaug first collaborated with local scientists to develop higher yielding wheat, which led to the Green Revolution saving billions from famine and leading to his 1970 Nobel Peace Prize. Today in Mexico, the next generation of modern crop innovations needed to feed growing populations, help address climate change, and protect biodiversity are fodder for political grandstanding blocking trade, innovation, and progress.

Mexico does not permit cultivation of genetically engineered (GE) crops but does import millions of tons for food and feed. Much of it comes from Canada and the U.S. under the USMCA trade agreement. That agreement was designed to ensure safe, efficient trade, including GE crops.

Counseled by a cadre of discredited anti-biotechnology activists, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador now claims health and safety concerns about GE corn. In a move that mirrors the unfounded scare tactics of anti-biotechnology activists, Mexican politicians are also citing concern about glyphosate, a widely used and thoroughly vetted herbicide.

If implemented, the Mexican gambit – its February 2023 corn decree – will result in a ban of GE corn imports from the U.S. Despite decades of experience and well-documented evidence to the contrary, Mexico claims the ban is justified, repeating debunked health and environment risk claims. Mexico also misleadingly suggests GE imports threaten native maize varieties.

The U.S. is contesting the decree, with support from Canada. The dispute will take months if not years to resolve. We don’t have to wait for that outcome to reach one important conclusion: Restricting access to that much grain would be devastating for a country like Mexico, already under societal stress. There’s no way the loss of that much grain could be made up through alternatively proposed organic agroecology farming. This means food insecurity will increase, with political and social unrest to follow.

Critics have long claimed food derived from genetically engineered crops is dangerous. Almost 30 years of credible, scientific research and testing has failed to find proof. Likely the most famous claim of harm comes from a discredited and retracted research paper published in 2012. Mexico has cited this tainted research in support of its ban.

Responses from world food safety experts (here and here and here) proved devastating for the so-called Seralini paper. In addition, worldwide food safety assessment bodies requested the authors provide them with raw data for further analysis, a standard element of the scientific review process.

The authors neither replied nor presented the raw data. If the claims had been grounded in sound, unbiased work, the authors could have addressed the many shortcomings identified by food safety authorities. They did not. Moreover, no other attempt by other scientists have been able to reproduce their original claims.

Following the initial media hype, authorities around the world felt pressure to reevaluate GE crops. After examining the concerns, a host of organizations, from the World Health Organization to the American Medical Association, came to similar conclusions: consuming foods derived from GM crops is safe.

Similarly, critics have repeatedly questioned the safety of products like glyphosate, an herbicide used by farmers around the world. Glyphosate and other herbicides are used in some GE crop production. If they are banned, all crop production will greatly diminish. 

The greater weight of the scientific community demonstrates these herbicides are safe when used appropriately. There are literally hundreds of studies to make the case (here and here). 

Nevertheless, in 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer declared glyphosate, along with other herbicides, “probable or possible” carcinogens. Almost immediately, environmental activists, ignoring the “probable” and “possible” distinctions, were claiming glyphosate and other herbicides were in fact carcinogenic. “Fear sells,” as the saying goes, and mainstream media often amplified the fear without critical assessment.

Examination of the declaration turned up some disturbing activities by IARC reviewers. Notably, at least four of the IARC participants had been paid by anti-pesticide activist groups and also collected fees testifying for litigators with multi-million-dollar financial interests in IARC outcomes. The consulting scientist who helped lead the process later admitted he had been employed by glyphosate litigators before, during, and after his work with IARC.

The IARC findings have been rejected by regulatory agencies around the world, including the European Food Safety Authority, which recently cleared glyphosate as safe.

The Mexican claim that glyphosate represents a threat is not supported by science. This dichotomy between science and government policies ignores an important reality: If herbicides like glyphosate are banned, farmers will be forced to revert to more environmentally damaging options. This is a critical aspect of sustainable agriculture that politicians often overlook or fail to appreciate. 

Unfortunately, recent agroecology-promoting European Green Deal political interests, themselves seeking to ban herbicides, have been pushing trading partners like Mexico to adopt “mirror clause” agreements – aligned with European Union pesticide restrictions. Not surprisingly, EU-funded activist groups have been at the forefront of lobbying in support of Mexico’s proposed herbicide and GE bans.

Mexico’s claims about threats to biodiversity also don’t stand up to close scrutiny.

Maize was first domesticated in the region 6,000 to 10,000 years ago. Maize domestication is a story of gene flow and farmer selection, with tens of thousands of local varieties evolving over time. Many are now protected at genetic resource centers in the U.S. and Mexico, ensuring the present genetic biodiversity of maize is safeguarded for future generations.

Mexico has imported genetically engineered corn for more than 25 years. What the research shows – that critics ignore – is there has been very little movement of U.S. corn genes, including biotechnology derived genes, across Mexico over that period. The science is clear: GE corn does not threaten Mexican maize biodiversity.

The philosophy of organic agriculture has been around in some form since the 1930s. The movement has rebranded several times, as “natural,” “organic,” or “regenerative.” Recently, “agroecology” has come into fashion. All renditions preach no synthetic inputs and reliance on circular agriculture, with significant recycling of nutrients.

What the advocates don’t tell you: Promised utopian yields in harmony with nature run up against the reality of food production. There is no such thing as a free lunch. Study after study comes to the same conclusion: organic yields 25%-50% less than conventional agriculture.

Unfortunately, this has not slowed those who advocate for widespread adoption of organic agroecology in the developing world. The belief that large-scale agroecology production can be both “all-natural” and meet human needs is being promoted in national and international governance. There are even factions within the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization and CGIAR, which researches food security, that are actively pushing this type of restrictive agriculture in many developing countries.

The hard truth is that rich countries can afford to adopt organic methods – and the yield drags that come with it – while less affluent countries cannot. A 10-year study by a European think tank focused on sustainable development, found conversion to agroecology in Europe would result in 35% yield drops. Europe could afford to make up that gap with imports. For less wealthy developing nations, the consequences of that would be catastrophic.

This push for agroecology in Africa was on display at a conference in Nairobi in 2019. Speaker after speaker touted the purported dangers of modern farming and the virtues of agroecology. They were weak on science but strong on emotion. Fortunately, the Kenyan government was not fooled and continues to support research-and-development programs in modern plant breeding, including genetic engineering and gene editing. 

Dramatic shifts in agriculture policy can be devastating for farmers. This was clearly demonstrated after the Sri Lankan government banned glyphosate in 2015. This resulted in a massive drop in agricultural output. Reduced yields and economic hardships followed. Doubling down, the Sri Lanka then went further to ban all synthetic fertilizers and pesticides in 2022.

The sudden shift caused the collapse of Sri Lankan agriculture. Civil unrest and protests followed. Politicians fled the country, but the damage was done. It was all too predictable.

In a similar manner, Mexican policy now dictates a countrywide shift to innovation-eschewing agroecology agriculture. The banning of “transgenics and dangerous pesticides” is the first step. 

Last year Mexico imported 17 million tons of GE yellow corn from the U.S. It is unrealistic to believe that traditional varieties and agroecology-based agriculture can replace those imports.

Motivated by misinformation and fear, and egged on by activists, Mexico is the latest country to shun modern agriculture and attempt to become food self-sufficient using agroecological systems. It is estimated a ban on GE corn will raise feed prices 81%, which will cause similar price increases for food, particularly meat. The ban on glyphosate will have similar negative effects.

Mexico’s claims are simply not supported by science. Reliance on agroecological agriculture will guarantee its farmers will be unable to increase yields to match population growth in the coming decades. Only by using the best of every type of agriculture, traditional and modern, can Mexico meet this goal.

Rob Wager is a recently retired biochemistry and molecular biology faculty member at Vancouver Island University. 

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