Biotech Winner Takes All

US & Canada trade dispute with Mexico over GM corn ban exposes biotech industry agenda of control

Colorful street market in Mexico

Carts selling tacos made with maize tortillas (traditional Mexican flatbreads) in Jala, Nayarit, on the Pacific coast of Mexico, during the town's annual two-week Feria del Elote, or maize ear festival. Photo credit: Eloise Phipps/CIMMYT (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 DEED)

The governments of Canada and the US are using the Canada-US-Mexico trade agreement (CUSMA) to challenge Mexico’s 2023 presidential decree, which bans the use of GM corn in traditional foods such as tortillas and aims to eventually replace GM corn in processed food.

The trade challenge was launched by the United States, and the Government of Canada has joined as a third party, even though Canada does not actually export any corn to Mexico. Canada is participating in the dispute in an attempt to force Mexico to open its market to all genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Corn (maize) is a staple of the Mexican diet and is central to Mexican culture and agriculture, history and national identity, and to Indigenous cultures and spiritual practices. The official translation of the presidential decree into English explains that “the main purpose of these measures is to protect the rights to health and a healthy environment, native corn, the milpa, biocultural wealth, peasant communities and gastronomic heritage; as well as to ensure nutritious, sufficient and quality diet.”

Mexico is the centre of origin of corn. Indigenous farmers in Mexico have, over millennia, developed and safeguarded corn biodiversity by keeping thousands of traditional landraces (varieties) under cultivation, all uniquely adapted to their local growing conditions and communities. In naming the farming and biocultural system called the “milpa,” the decree is referring to the rights of Indigenous peoples to cultivate corn according to ancient practices and to carry forward related cultural and religious traditions.

In this context, unwanted contamination by genetic material from genetically engineered corn is an existential threat to the future of corn, and to the sovereignty of Indigenous peoples in Mexico. Canada is pursuing this dispute without regard to the unique relationship that Mexico has with corn.

Mexican farmer in his maize plot, growing the giant Jala corn landrace

Mexican farmer J. Isabel Rafael Moncada stands in his maize plot, in Jala, Nayarit, on the Pacific coast of Mexico. At 77 years of age, he has been growing maize for more than 70 years. He grows various landraces, including the Jala maize landrace, which is famed for producing the world’s largest ears.
Photo credit: Eloise Phipps/CIMMYT (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 DEED)


At a 2010 gathering of the Network in Defense of Maize, Eutimio Díaz of the Wixarika people described how, “for Indigenous people, maize is first, maize is ours, and we are part of her.” He said his communities have made a firm decision to defend their maize, and therefore, “we will not accept any seeds from the government, because we don’t know what they are, or for what real purpose they are giving them to us.” Sergio Bautista, of the Nahua people in the Huasteca region of Hidalgo, stated that “we will not plant any seed from SAGARPA [the Ministry of Agriculture].” He said, “maize is very sacred to us, it is our life.”

Because Mexico is the global home of corn diversity, the contamination of maize in Mexico by genes from genetically engineered corn could pose a serious threat to food security nationally and globally.

Miscreant politics & mutant corn

Mexico already has a moratorium on growing GM corn. It was established in 1998 to protect native corn, but contamination was nonetheless found in remote communities in Mexico in 2001 and 2003. Indigenous farmers worked long and hard together to remove this GM contamination and restore their varieties. For over twenty years, these same farmers have resisted the introduction of GM corn, while fighting for the restrictions that Mexico has now decreed. 

The spread of genetic material from GMOs would be an unpredictable threat to corn selection and breeding. For example, researchers discovered that the contaminating DNA from GM corn was moving around inside the corn’s genome and was found in several unexpected places. This is the type of genetic chaos that explains strange characteristics that can appear in contaminated corn, setting back farmers’ breeding and jeopardizing food security. In 2003, Indigenous community representative Gabriela Linares Sosa testified that the contaminated corn found in remote areas of Oaxaca, “differed starkly from the norm: they were more than six feet tall and featured up to seven seedless cobs.”

In its notice of intent to join the trade challenge as a third party, the Government of Canada argued that all countries should approve the same GMOs as Canada so that GM contamination does not cause trade disruptions (if Mexico has not approved a particular GMO, any imports contaminated with that GMO are illegal, and need to be returned or destroyed). The government says this is important because companies may not want to introduce GM seeds in Canada if they do not also have approval in Mexico, and this would deprive Canadian farmers of access to these GM products.

Farmers sitting outside a red building, holding up very long ears of corn

Farmers wait to register their participation in the annual competition for the world’s longest maize ear, in Jala, Nayarit, on the Pacific coast of Mexico, August 2007. Photo credit: Eloise Phipps/CIMMYT. (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 DEED)


The reality is that the governments of Canada and the US are key global actors in promoting and supporting the use of genetic engineering in food and farming. These countries now see their interests as aligned with those of the biotechnology industry. The US accounts for 37.5% of global GM acres, and Canada accounts for 6.6%. (91% of global GM acres are planted in just five countries: the US, Brazil, Argentina, Canada, and India.)

Over 90% of all corn grown in the United States, and 88% of the corn grown in Canada, is genetically engineered. Almost 100% of Canadian canola and sugar beet is GM, and 81% of soy. These high adoption rates are often argued as a sign of the superiority of these GM seeds and the benefits they bring to farmers. In reality, there is little choice but to buy those GM seeds in a market controlled by just a few companies. In the case of canola, this GM market domination was partly secured by contamination itself. 

Contamination takes all

There are two responses to the threat of GM contamination: contain GMOs, or accept contamination. Accepting contamination frees the biotechnology industry to introduce any GMO, anywhere, without having to attempt to control it. Such freedom to contaminate appears to be central to the industry’s strategy for success. Whether intended or not, the result of the gradual unwanted spread of GMOs will be an all-biotech food system where companies, rather than farmers, control seeds. 

GM contamination is the unwanted escape and spread of genetically modified organisms or genetic material from GMOs to non-GM plants, animals, and foods. Critically, GM contamination is living pollution that can self-replicate. Once released into our environment, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) can be difficult or impossible to control or recall. Human error, biology, pollinator and wind movement, extreme weather events, and other factors make GM contamination predictable. 

GM contamination is living pollution that can self-replicate.

Already, the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network has documented the unintended escape in Canada of GM canola, flax, wheat, and pigs. The diversity of these incidents shows that the risks cannot be managed by current government regulation or through industry-developed “best practices.” Instead, government needs to regulate segregation and containment measures for some GMOs, and recognize that the only way to prevent contamination from certain GMOs is to stop their release altogether. Some GMOs are too prone to escape, and others, such as maize in Mexico, have consequences that are too serious if escape occurs. 

Policymakers in Canada have talked about the goal of coexistence between GM and non-GM farming but the biotechnology industry’s goal is monopoly, and, as evidenced with canola in Canada, contamination serves this agenda. 

Taking over the future of agriculture

The biotechnology industry wants genetic engineering to be the future of agriculture. Genetically engineered seeds already dominate corn, soy, and canola production in North and South America. Most of these GM seeds are also tied to the use of herbicides, enhancing market control in the global agrochemicals market as well. Currently, 100% of all GM seeds grown in Canada are herbicide-tolerant, which means that they are designed to be used with specific brand-name herbicides, most of them glyphosate-based. Herbicide sales have increased by 244% in Canada since GMOs were first approved in 1995, and the use of genetic engineering has facilitated an unprecedented amount of consolidation in both the global pesticide and commercial seeds markets. Six companies now control 58% of the global seed market and 78% of the global pesticide market. 

The biggest seed and pesticide companies in the world control most of the GMOs currently grown. These GMOs were first established in the big commodity crops that are traded globally for animal feed, biofuels, and processed food ingredients, but every crop offers a potential patenting and market opportunity. 

Mexico’s decree restricting GM corn uses mentions the path to food self-sufficiency, an agro-ecological transition, and food sovereignty. However, the biotechnology industry seeks control for profit and is implementing a winner-takes-all strategy, aided by Canadian government policies and by GM contamination, that is incompatible with this vision. Mexico’s defense of maize is standing in the way of the biotechnology industry’s agenda, in the global fight over the future of agriculture.


Lucy Sharratt is Coordinator of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN), a project of the MakeWay Charitable Society.

Further Resources:

For full citations and further details see the 2024 report by the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, Canada & US vs. Mexico’s Ban on GM Corn

Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, 2019, GM Contamination in Canada – The failure to contain living modified organisms: Incidents and impacts 

Statement from the National Farmers’ Union, signed by 31 Canadian organizations, in solidarity with Mexico: We support the right of the people of Mexico to determine their own relationship with corn

Take action in solidarity with Mexico:

Sign the petition: Canada must withdraw from trade challenge

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