BY PETER EWART
Special to the News
Mexico is the ancient home of corn. Over thousands of years, it was the Mayans and other Meso-Americans who developed corn (also known as maize) into a crop, using its many varieties as a staple food to fuel their civilizations (1). It is this sacred food which is under threat today from multinational chemical companies and the US government who are demanding that Mexico keep open its doors to the weedkiller glyphosate and genetically modified (GM) corn.
In December of 2020, responding to farmers, Indigenous peoples, and others, the president of Mexico Andres Obrador issued a decree phasing out glyphosate by 2024. The decree states that “in recent years, different scientific investigations have warned that said chemical has harmful effects on health, both in humans and in some animal species, and has been identified as a probable carcinogen in humans by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.”
In that regard, Mexico is not alone in its concerns. People in the U.S and Canada have launched thousands of lawsuits and protests against Bayer-Monsanto (the giant multinational which manufactures glyphosate) on the grounds that the chemical caused cancer and other illnesses. For example, a California school groundskeeper who used glyphosate in his duties was recently awarded $289 million in damages by a jury after he contracted a terminal case of non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Bayer-Monsanto has even been forced to announce that it will pay $10.9 billion into a fund to settle tens of thousands of court cases.
Glyphosate is a chemical that “inhibits photosynthesis (the process of making new tissue) in plants, making it a very effective weed killer” (2). Plants not resistant to its effects shrivel up and die. Around the world, about 820 million kilograms are used every year with a large portion in North America. The weed killer was first developed by Monsanto back in 1974 and marketed as “Roundup.” But production really took off after the corporation introduced “Roundup Ready” crops in 1996.
These crops, including corn, soy and canola, were genetically modified (GM) to tolerate glyphosate. Thus, fields could be drenched with the chemical, killing weeds but allowing the cash crops to survive. In addition, it is also used to spray golf courses, school playgrounds, and other venues, as well as forest lands in the Interior of BC so as to kill off broad leaf species of trees and promote the “money trees” of spruce and pine (3).
Today, much of the grain and pulse crops in Canada and the US are dependent in one way or another on the spraying of glyphosate. The U.S. exports about $3 billion of GM, glyphosate-tolerant corn every year to Mexico which makes Mexico dependent on a foreign country for much of its basic food. This corn is heavily subsidized by the U.S. government making it hard for Mexican farmers to compete.
As a result of its widespread usage, the chemical seeps into just about every corner of life, whether food, soil, water or air. For example, in 2015-2016, glyphosate residue was detected in 36.6 per cent of grain products, 47.4 per cent of bean, pea and lentil, and 11 per cent of soy. Just over 31 per cent of cereal baby foods contain the chemical. It has also been found in beer and other products. The problem is compounded in Mexico because the people there eat, on average, a pound of corn a day, much of which is imported.
An added problem for Mexico is that this imported GM corn from the U.S. threatens the diverse native species of corn developed over the centuries by Mexican farmers. As a result of this and other reasons, the Mexican presidential decree will also block the importation of genetically modified corn by 2024.
According to President Obrador, the purpose of the decree is to place “political power first and foremost at the service of the public interest” and the “general welfare of the population”, and “not private interests.” It is to be “congruent with the agricultural traditions of Mexico” (4) and to achieve self-sufficiency and food sovereignty.
In response, successive U.S. administrations have put pressure on the Mexican government to revoke the decree. Various leaked documents have exposed how top U.S. government officials have worked closely with Bayer-Monsanto to force Mexico to back down (5). This happened to the government of Thailand which some observers believe reversed a ban on glyphosate after pressure from U.S. officials and Bayer-Monsanto (6). However, so far, Mexico has not changed its position despite being threatened that provisions in the US – Mexico – Canada (USMCA) trade deal could be used against it as well as other means.
It is indeed one of the great ironies of the current model of corporate-dominated globalization that the very country that created cultivated corn for the people of the world is now having an adulterated, toxic version shoved down its throat.
Peter Ewart is a writer based in Prince George, British Columbia. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Fussell, Betty. The Story of Corn. University of New Mexico Press. 1992.
- Environmental Defence. “What’s in your lunch. How glyphosate finds its way into your children’s food.”
- Stop the Spray BC
- Pesticide Action Network. “Mexico ousts glyphosate and GM corn.”
- Stancil, Kenny. “Emails reveal US officials joined with agrochemical giant Bayer to stop Mexico’s glyphosate ban.” Common Dreams. February 16, 2021.
- Tanakasempipat, Patpicha. “Bayer campaign against glyphosate ban revealed.” Bangkok Post. September 18, 2020.