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Trade is not nice or polite when it comes to agriculture. “Let’s not pretend that we're in a global free market,” said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. We need “stability and certainty.” Especially when “food security is under threat,” Trade Minister Mary Ng added, describing policy options under the Canada-United States-Mexico Agreement (CUSMA).

This hardnose balance of values and commerce explains Canada’s success in protecting its dairy market, with a panel win over the United States recently in November. Canada’s supply management system provides security for dairy producers and Canadian consumers. Much of this is focused on stable prices that farmers attain and that households and businesses pay for milk, cheese and other products. To help everyone in the food chain, Canada prioritizes food security.

Mexico faces similar threats but with corn, something experienced since NAFTA’s implementation in 1994. The trade pact required tariff-free access to low-priced American corn, making Mexico vulnerable to unstable supplies and fluctuating prices. In 2006-07, it experienced a “tortilla crisis” when rising global demand for American corn led to price spikes for the grain, a daily staple for Mexicans. These experiences motivate Mexico’s current approach to CUSMA. In short, it contests the purported advantages of lower-priced U.S. corn.

For Mexico, what is at stake is having a secure supply of maíz (corn), needed on a daily basis, if not more frequently, by Mexicans. Just about any meal depends on corn, especially for rural and working-class communities. Otherwise, Mexico’s food security depends on what the U.S. exports, its prices and its determinations of what is safe or not.

Mexico’s food security goal is to determine how it feeds its people. So far, it has made impressive progress with various efforts. This includes the government buying corn from small- and medium-scale farmers at higher prices. It also aims to decouple the prices Mexican maíz consumers pay from the influence of overseas commodity exchanges. This looks similar to the benefits provided by Canada’s supply management system.

Because of this, Canada should give its dairy perspective, emphasizing food security, in an ongoing trade dispute over Mexico’s ban on genetically modified (GMO) corn.

Why? Because national values and necessities similarly motivate Mexico. Its ban is a food security measure. Replace “dairy” with “corn” and Mexican and Canadian justifications look more alike than different. Consistent positions from Canada would provide the needed certainty.

In a decree from February 2023, Mexico banned GMO corn for human consumption. This applies to tortillas or masa (dough). The ban does not touch corn in animal feed or industrial use.

Accordingly, the decree has no commercial impact. Just one per cent of American corn is white corn, which Mexicans eat and grow. Canada does not export corn to Mexico, while American farmers export yellow corn.

Canada uses #SupplyManagement to prioritize food security. It should use the same rationale to help #Mexico avert a corn crisis, writes Ernesto Hernández-López. @ProfeErnesto1 #dairy #milk #CUSMA #cdnpoli #trade

Nonetheless, the U.S. invoked a trade panel, erroneously citing export losses. Canada joined as a third party.

For Mexico, the fight is about culture. The saying, “Without corn, there is no country” (Sin maíz no hay país ), is a battle cry. It names a movement to preserve corn. These deep sentiments motivate prohibiting GMO corn. Maíz originated in Mexico centuries ago. It is present everywhere and always. Enjoyed simply in tacos, tamales, and other forms.

Maíz is sacred. The Mayan text Popul Vuh describes this as a creation story, told since 300 BCE. The Aztecs had multiple gods for maíz. Corn continues to feed daily dreams of Mexican food worldwide. Put simply, Mexican culture is maíz.

To preserve this, Mexico protects corn. Since 2013, it has been illegal to plant or sell GMO corn seeds because they alter gene-sequencing in non-GMO corn plants. Mexico is the world’s most diverse genetic archive for corn, with 59 distinct varieties. Millions see corn as a significant part of national culture and diets.

By outlawing GMO corn, Mexico secures safe supplies of white corn. Without it, there is no food security. Recent experiences with the pandemic, food price spikes and supply chain breakdowns add inspiration. The ban is a significant step, capitalizing on the production of non-GMO corn from Mexican and American farms.

Mexico will continue importing corn-based animal feed. The ban has no impact on this kind of corn, GMO and yellow and the overwhelming part of American exports.

In this duel, the U.S. and Mexico see different things when it comes to corn and maíz. The U.S. focuses on potential exports. Mexico worries about actual threats to its culture and security.

As it weighs in, Canada should remember its reasons to protect dairy farmers and consumers in the face of lower prices and oversupply from the U.S. Mexico faces the same, but with corn. Why favour Iowa corn farmers over Wisconsin dairy farmers?

For cynical reasons and not principled ones. In 1996, American officials said Canadian dairy protections threatened the “credibility” of North American free trade. Not really. Decades later, the countries share the “world’s largest and most comprehensive trading relationship.” Now, two CUSMA panels approved Canada’s supply management system for dairy. They show how trade agreements adapt.

Canada’s consistency in dairy and corn disputes would bolster the sustainability of trade rules. Otherwise, mounting food security threats will tear apart obligations for this young pact. Unable to adjust, the World Trade Organization and the European Union face these tensions.

CUSMA should avoid this. It can. One way is for Canada to listen to its own advice of prioritizing market stability when it comes to food security.

Ernesto Hernández-López is a professor of law at the Dale E. Fowler School of Law, Chapman University, in California. He writes about international trade law and agriculture.

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How come when we know that more grain is grown for livestock consumption than is grown for human consumption producing much less dairy and meat is not pushed. We know meat/dairy is not required for food security but grain is. Also, so much land space, soil deterioration, fertilizers , water is used in growing feed for animals while humans starve so farmers can maintain their unnecessary production quotas $$$$$. Not to mention the absolute environmental destruction from methane emissions, water and land pollution, chemicals/fertilizers/anti biotics use, all these negative impacts from animal agriculture massive, unnecessary production to our REAL FOOD INSECURITY ISSUES and OUR SURVIVAL ON OUR PLANET. ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM . Farmers should be moving on to more sustainable crops....none meat and dairy. SERIOUSLY I AM SICK AND TIRED OF PROTECTING A INDUSTRY THAT IS EQUALLY AS DESTRUCTIVE AS THE OIL AND GAS INDUSTRY and more heavily subsidized. SERIOUSLY ...and to say nothing about the EXTREME animal abuse that is a legalized, inhumane business operation that is intentionally over looked to protect greed in our food system/the powerful animal agriculture industry. A system massively producing a product we can easily survive without, is not environmentally sustainable and is a gluttinous, wasteful, destructive industry.

With respect to comparisons between Canada's dairy protection and Mexico's need for white maize, not sure it's correct to say that Canada's trade laws re dairy have anything to do with food security. Those laws protect dairy farmers from competition. I don't see any evidence they improve Canadians' food security.

I also fail to see how Mexico's GMO ban has anything to do with getting maize into consumers' hands at a reasonable price. Why not develop a Mexican GMO white maize tailored to Mexico's climate with improved yields? You could even license that to US farmers to grow for you, if wanted. There's no evidence that such a GMO would pose any threat to indigenous maize cultivars.

I think you should look into the subject a bit more before saying things so confidently. There is in fact quite a bit of evidence that GMO maize could contaminate not just Mexican cultivated corn but also ancestral wild varieties that exist nowhere else. Corn is wind pollinated--therefore, the pollen blows on the wind. Of course there's risk of contaminating other corn.

While protecting Canadian dairy farmers from competition, so that they can have a decent and predictable income, is one goal of Canada's supply management, another reason is certainly to manage supply--hence the name "supply management". If you leave things to "free markets" supply tends to fluctuate unpredictably. Prices may drop, but in an unstable way, and if they drop far enough that farmers can't make ends meet, they may switch to other kinds of farming or drop out altogether, reducing supply until some time after scarcity makes prices rebound. On the other hand, if prices drop because of competition from foreign producers, local producers could simply be driven out of the market in the medium term . . . but those foreign producers may be replicating that "free market" supply fluctuation, meaning their cheap supply could dry up at times, or foreign supply could be unreliable for other reasons. So, failing to manage supply certainly has bad food security implications. Whether maintaining food security was one of the intentions of the people who established supply management I don't know, but that is one of the effects.

As to maize at a reasonable price . . . again, that's not reliable. There are very strong reasons to control the supply of dietary staples. And in the specific case, how many people and countries have gotten screwed because they trusted the Americans? List is long. Trusting your core diet to a neighbour with whom you often have serious policy disputes sounds like an invitation to blackmail.

In case it's not clear by this point, I agree fairly strongly with this article and support Mexico's right to control its food.