WASHINGTON — The Biden administration said on Monday that it would take initial steps toward challenging a ban that Mexico has placed on shipments of genetically modified corn from the United States, restrictions that have rankled farmers and threatened a profitable export.
Mexico has planned to phase out the use of genetically modified corn, as well as an herbicide called glyphosate, by 2024. About 90 percent of corn grown in the United States is genetically modified.
Senior administration officials have expressed concerns to the Mexican government about the measures for more than a year in virtual and in-person meetings, saying they could disrupt millions of dollars of agricultural trade and cause serious harm to U.S. producers. Mexico is the second largest market for U.S. corn, after China.
On Monday, U.S. officials said that they were requesting consultations over the issue with their Mexican counterparts under the terms of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which governs the terms of trade in North America. Biden officials said that parties to that agreement, which was signed in 2020, had committed to base their regulation on science, and that Mexico’s ban on genetically modified corn did not conform to those promises.
The consultations are the first step in a process that could lead to the United States bringing a formal dispute against Mexico. The parties must meet to discuss the issue within 30 days and, if the talks are not successful, the United States could turn to a separate dispute settlement procedure under the trade agreement. That process that could potentially result in the United States placing tariffs on Mexican products, if no other resolution can be reached.
Senior officials with the Office of the United States Trade Representative said they were focused on finding a resolution through the talks at hand. But in a statement, the office said that it would “consider all options, including taking formal steps to enforce U.S. rights under the USMCA” if the issue was not resolved.
Mexico bought more than 20 million metric tons of corn from the United States in the 2021-22 marketing year, which runs from September to August, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The National Corn Growers Association has said that the impending ban would be “catastrophic” for American corn producers and Mexican consumers alike and undermine the principles of the trade agreement. The industry has maintained that bioengineered corn is safe for human consumption, contrary to health concerns cited by Mexican officials.
It is illegal to grow genetically modified corn in Mexico, where maize was first domesticated 8,700 years ago and where white corn is a staple crop. Environmental groups and some farmers in Mexico worry that any imports of bioengineered corn would threaten native species, as the varieties can cross-pollinate.
The Mexican government in February moved to soften its restrictions, by saying it would allow genetically modified corn to be brought into the country for animal feed and industrial use, though not for human consumption. Tom Vilsack, the U.S. agriculture secretary, said he was “disappointed” in the decision.
It also remains to be seen whether domestic corn production in Mexican is sufficient to replace imports, the eventual goal of the Mexican government. Last year, farmers in Mexico grew 27.3 million metric tons, about 38 percent below domestic demand. One analysis projected that corn costs could rise by 20 percent in Mexico and increase rates of food insecurity should the ban remain in place.