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GMO crops issue muddied by differing views among senior agricultural officials

It remains unclear whether the GMO ban applies to corn used for livestock feed

The federal agriculture minister and his deputy are divided over whether corn used as animal fodder will be exempt from Mexico’s move to ban imports of genetically modified corn by 2024, according to a report by the news agency Reuters.

President López Obrador published a decree on the last day of 2020 stating that GMO corn imports for use in the food industry will be phased out by 2024.

But ambiguity in the wording created uncertainty as to whether genetically modified corn used as livestock feed would also be banned. Mexico imported some 16 million tonnes of GMO yellow corn last year, almost all of which came from the United States and was used as fodder. The uncertainty is a concern for U.S. corn growers who export to Mexico and farmers who work in this country’s US $12 billion livestock industry.

Reuters reported that “if liberally interpreted and successfully implemented,” the decree could end that dependence entirely. If there is “a more restrictive interpretation,” the animal feed exports could continue.

A source close to Agriculture Minister Víctor Villalobos told Reuters that the minister believes that fodder will be exempt from the ban on GMO corn. Villalobos, who has long advocated biotech crops,  told United States Agriculture Secretary as much earlier this year.

But Reuters said “there are signs that Villalobos and his moderate allies have not yet won that battle and may be losing.”

Deputy Agriculture Minister Víctor Suárez, a former federal deputy for the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, is opposed to the importation of all GMO corn, whether it’s used as fodder or not.

Ambiguity in the decree was the result of behind-scenes wrangling between factions in the agriculture ministry, one led by Villalobos and one headed by Súarez, according to Reuters, which cited three sources with knowledge of the matter.

Súarez is an advocate of “agroecological” farming, a frequent critic of big agribusiness and has said that animal feed GMO corn imports will be covered by the ban.

López Obrador has failed to provide clarity on the issue and it is not known when he will commit one way or the other. Meanwhile, the uncertainty for U.S. exporters and Mexican importers remains.

Sources close to health regulator Cofepris say that its leadership shares Suárez’s view that imports of GMO livestock feed should be prohibited, Reuters reported.

The regulator, formally known as the the Federal Commission for Protection Against Sanitary Risks, has not approved any new GMO corn varieties since late 2018, when López Obador took office. The approvals have been sought by leading GMO seed companies such as Bayer of Germany and the United States’ Corteva.

In addition, Cofepris is delaying new import permits for the crop, National Farm Council president Juan Cortina said last month.

Reuters said it was unable to arrange an interview with Villalobos despite multiple requests and Suárez was unwilling to discuss any differences with his boss. More than a dozen farm sector leaders consulted by the news agency said they were increasingly worried that imports of GMO corn used as fodder would be banned despite the agriculture minister’s assertions they wouldn’t be.

“The text of the decree specifies that the agriculture, environment and health ministries as well as [the science council Conacyt] will interpret it, and officials in charge of the latter three are all believed by several industry leaders to be sympathetic to Suarez’s views. None of the agencies involved responded to requests for comment,” Reuters said.

Cortina, the farm council chief, said there is no certainty about what will ultimately be decided. Assuming fodder imports will be exempted is “totally wrong,” he said.

The agriculture industry is right to be worried, Reuters said, because “López Obrador has a track record of confounding critics and taking drastic steps in line with his nationalist, big business-skeptic views.”

The issue is a highly sensitive one in Mexico – the birthplace of modern corn – where anti-GMO activists say that genetically modified corn has already contaminated fields where native, organic varieties of the grain are grown.

With reports from Reuters 

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