The Mexican government has been supportive of the development of biotech crops, including corn, while recognizing the importance of centers of origin of corn and centers of genetic diversity.  Mexico’s biosafety law states that centers of origin for native corn species are not allowed to have biotech corn plantings.  A recently released draft map by Mexican regulators of such centers would restrict areas for biotech corn production to only the northern areas of the country and non-arable desert areas.  No timeframe has been provided for release of a final map.

Biotechnology policies in Mexico are coordinated by the Inter-ministerial Commission on Biosecurity and Genetically Modified Organisms (CIBIOGEM) created in 1999.  In February 2005 the Mexican Congress passed legislation that authorized the planting of controlled genetically modified organisms.  In March of 2008, the Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources published in Mexico’s Federal Register the implementing regulations for the 2005 bio-safety law.  Provision 86 of the bio-safety law provides for the Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources and the Secretariat of Agriculture, Livestock, Rural Development, Fishery and Food to jointly determine the centers of origin and genetic diversity of corn and the geographic areas in which related species are found.  Both Secretariats are to establish resolutions providing the measures required for protection of the species and geographic areas.

Changes in implementation rules in 2009 allowed developers and research institutions to experiment in 2010 with biotech corn in northern states.  According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA), 20 permits for field trials were approved for independent scientists at local universities and public research institutions.  More than 75 biosafety measures and conditions were required by government regulators.  The trials were focused on the agronomic equivalence of biotech corn, the biological effective of insect resistant corn and the effectiveness of herbicide tolerant corn.

According to a December 2011 report by the U.S. Agricultural Attaché in Mexico City based on information from the Mexican government, about 20.6 acres of experimental plantings of biotech corn occurred in January and February of 2011.  These were from nine applications with a number of different biotech events.  Two requests for pilot testing, the next step in the approval process, were denied.  Only a fraction of the requested area for planting and conducting the tests were permitted.  All transgenic seed has to go through three different testing phases: experimental, pilot, and commercial.  Biotech crops tested in Mexico were developed in the U.S. and passed through the U.S. regulatory system.

Mexican corn production for the 2011-12 marketing year is estimated by the Foreign Agricultural Service of USDA at 20.5 million metric tons (MMT), roughly the same size of the Indian and Ukrainian corn crops and the sixth-to-eight largest in the world.   About 75 percent of corn production is white corn for human consumption; only 6 percent is yellow corn.  Mexico is expected to import 9.8 MMT of corn in 2011/12, mostly from the U.S.  The corn imported is yellow feed corn for livestock and poultry consumption.  The Mexican government has a continuing goal of increasing domestic yellow corn production to lower the need for feed imports.  Northern commercial growers of white and yellow corn have yields close to the U.S., while traditional growers producing mostly white corn have lower yields.

The U.S. Attaché reported that Mexico is cultivating approximately 100,000 acres of biotech crops (mainly cotton and soybeans), mostly for experimental and pilot testing purposes in accordance with the biosafety law.  The government does not require additional reviews or approvals for stacked events that combine in a single plant two or more already-approved biotech traits.  Mexico has no significant trade barriers to biotech crops or foods derived from biotechnology.   At least 94 biotech events are now authorized for use in Mexico, with the most recent being Bollgard II Flex cotton announced in early 2012.  There is a 2 percent maximum foreign material tolerance in imports for biotech corn, which is a serious issue of contention for many importers.  Biotech soybeans are also imported from the U.S.

The Secretariat of Agriculture approved 23,000 acres of commercial biotech cotton for 2011 and may approve up to 500,000 acres for 2012.  In September of last year, Agro Bio, a private organization that includes the main agricultural biotechnology developers active in Mexico (Monsanto, Pioneer, Syngenta, Dow, and Bayer Crop Science) launched “Cotton Plan 2020” to increase cotton production through the use of biotech cotton seed from 750,000 bales in 2010 to 3 million bales in 2020 on 1.2 million acres.  Mexico could be self-sufficient in cotton production by 2016 and an exporter by 2020.  According to Agro Bio, biotech cotton requires only 0.4 quart of insecticide per acre instead of 4.0 to 5.0 quarts of pesticide applications for non-biotech seed.  The government of Mexico has not publicly supported the program and the Confederation of Mexican Cotton Associations believes the ideal production is 1.15 million bales on 500,000 acres.

Mexico has grown biotech crops since 1996 and is one of the original six countries to first grow them.  Mexico struggled with a government regulatory structure until its biosafety law was passed in 2005.  With the provisions of that law fully implemented, Mexico is ready to move forward with expanding biotech crop production.  While Mexico has a unique issue as the center of origin for corn, none of the other biotech applications is unusual.  The Mexican government can draw on the regulatory work already completed in the U.S. for corn, soybeans and cotton, and also draw on research in Brazil where all three crops are widely grown and India where biotech cotton is a major crop.  They could also draw on research by major importers like the EU, Japan, South Korea and China.

Corn markets outside Mexico are large enough to continue to supply corn for livestock and poultry markets in Mexico until the government can reconcile concerns about genetic diversity with the costs of those policies.  The government has instituted trade policies that allow users to competitively source feed grains throughout the world to avoid higher costs for Mexican consumers of meat, dairy and poultry products.

Ross Korves is an Economic Policy Analyst with Truth About Trade and Technology