WASHINGTON — In the latest escalation of a trade dispute over Mexico’s proposal to limit imports of genetically modified corn, the US Trade Representative (USTR) on March 6 said it is requesting technical consultations with the Mexican government under the Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS) Chapter of the United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement (USMCA). 

Officials now have 30 days to discuss and resolve the issue, with the US government saying it would “consider all options, including taking formal steps to enforce US rights under the USMCA,” which could include tariffs on Mexican goods.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador announced in late 2020 that he would implement a decree banning biotech corn imports into the country beginning in early 2024. The overwhelming majority of US corn is genetically modified. Mexico softened its stance several weeks ago, temporarily reversing course on plans to ban GM corn in animal feed after the United States threatened trade retaliation.

Mexico imports about 17 million tonnes of genetically modified corn per year from the United States, mostly yellow corn that is used in animal feed products. About 20% of its corn imports from the United States involves white corn that is used in products from human consumption such as flour and tortillas.

US Trade Representative Katherine Tai said the United States hopes that through the technical consultations an outcome can be reached that respects each country’s sovereignty and benefits both countries and their agricultural producers and stakeholders.

“The United States has repeatedly conveyed our serious concerns with Mexico’s biotechnology policies and the importance of adopting a science-based approach that complies with its USMCA commitments,” Ms. Tai said. “Mexico’s policies threaten to disrupt billions of dollars in agricultural trade and they will stifle the innovation that is necessary to tackle the climate crisis and food security challenges if left unaddressed. We hope these consultations will be productive as we continue to work with Mexico to address these issues.”

In a statement on its website, Mexico’s Ministry of the Economy said it will “take advantage of this mechanism provided for in the TMEC to demonstrate with data and evidence that there has been no commercial impact and that, on the contrary, the Decree is consistent with the Treaty itself.”

Mexico said the ban was proposed because GM corn may have adverse health effects, even when used as fodder. But the United States said Mexico has yet to provide scientific justification for this claim.

The USTR said the ban could “threaten to disrupt billions of dollars in agricultural trade.”

“Mexico is an important partner, and we remain committed to maintaining and strengthening our economic and trade ties,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “A robust, transparent agricultural trading relationship, founded on rules and science, is vital to ensuring food security, mitigating the lingering effects of food price inflation, and helping to address the climate crisis. Innovations in agricultural biotechnology play a key role in advancing these critical, global objectives. While we appreciate the sustained, active engagement with our Mexican counterparts at all levels of government, we remain firm in our view that Mexico’s current biotechnology trajectory is not grounded in science, which is the foundation of USMCA.”

Representatives from the US corn industry applauded the action announced by the USTR.

“We are pleased USTR is taking the next step to hold Mexican officials accountable for the commitments they made under USMCA, which include accepting both biotech and non-biotech commodities,” said Tom Haag, president of the US Corn Growers Association. “Mexico’s position on biotech corn is already creating uncertainty, so we need US officials to move swiftly and do everything it takes to eliminate this trade barrier in the very near future.”

Ryan LeGrand, chief executive officer of the US Grains Council, added: “We have had a long and productive relationship with Mexico. It is our No. 1 market for US corn, and we support this action because it will likely be the most expedient way to ensure that positive relationship continues.”