Mexico: Setting a “New Social Ethic” of Sustainability?

By Veronica Limeberry*

Maize plot using agro-ecological options in Mexico/ International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s decree phasing out the use of the herbicide glyphosate and genetically modified (GMO) corn has strong support in Mexico – for now – and could conceivably show a way ahead on sustainable development for other countries. Announcing the decree on New Year’s Eve, AMLO framed it as creating a “new social ethic” in food production that puts the wellbeing of the Mexican people before the interests of private companies and profits. The government is moving ahead with implementation of the decree this month despite rapid and harsh pushback from Mexican and U.S. agribusiness. The U.S. Farm Bureau Federation, whose members sell GMO corn to Mexico, appealed to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Vilsack to oppose Mexico’s move.

  • Advocates of sustainable development have long opposed the use of glyphosate, the world’s most commonly used herbicide. The chemical was declared a probable carcinogen in a 2015 World Health Organization (WHO) report. Concern about glyphosate has surged in Mexico since a 2019 study by the University of Guadalajara found that all 148 children in the study had glyphosate in their urine, and all had chronic health conditions. The herbicide’s producer, Bayer-Monsanto, is in the midst of one of the largest settlements in history ($10.9 billion) involving tens of thousands of suits claiming that it causes cancer and death. Despite these growing concerns, glyphosate sales grew from $3 billion in 2015 to $8.5 billion last year, and industry watchers forecast them to be over $13 billion by 2027.

AMLO’s decree on GMO corn also reflects growing interest in Mexico to reclaim the country’s agricultural biodiversity. Mexico is the center of origin of over 59 food varieties, including corn, beans, squash, and cocoa. Mexican corn has long been part of the country’s national identity. The campaign Sin Maíz No Hay País (Without corn there is no country), launched more than a decade ago, embraces the grain as “the basis of our culture, our identity, adaptability and diversity.” Nonetheless, Mexico imported 18 million tons of GMO corn from the United States in 2020, comprising 40 percent of corn consumption. Seeking to reverse this, progressive deputy agriculture minister Víctor Suárez led the push for the decree and emphasizes “achieving self-sufficiency and food sovereignty.”

The decree includes radical terminology and establishes agroecology as national policy informed by Mexican food identity and traditions. AMLO and Suárez have defended its emphasis on sustainable, ethical, and increased food production “through the use of agroecological practices and inputs that are safe for human health, the country’s biocultural diversity, and the environment, as well as congruent with the agricultural traditions of Mexico.” The measure has the support of rural communities and both houses of Congress.

  • Some of the AMLO Administration’s rhetoric seems intended to provide leadership to other countries seeking alternatives to herbicides like glyphosate as well as GMO foods while trying to decenter the needs of industry. Numerous studies point to agrarian crises in many countries – such as the farmers’ movement in India – for which AMLO’s move conceivably offers a model. The Mexican decree offers language of community, sovereignty, and wellbeing attractive to advocates of agricultural sustainable development for the future. It will take some time, however, to see if Mexico’s approach persuades others that it can be implemented and retain popular support over the long term.

March 31, 2021

* Veronica Limeberry is a doctoral student at American University focusing on agroecology, food sovereignty, and indigenous territorial rights.

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