by Renée Alexander + Simran Sethi

Originally published by The Counter

Last month, on her first international trip as Vice President, Kamala Harris offered a blunt message to Mexican and Central American migrants considering “the dangerous trek” to the United States: “Do not come.” Rather than quell waves of migration through punitive measures at the border, she said, the Biden administration would encourage people to remain in their own countries by focusing on programs that provide “hope at home.”

The administration’s idea (at least in theory) is to focus on root causes for the departure, rather than crack down on those who are vulnerable—or desperate—enough to risk the journey. But any attempt at genuine reform will need to weigh the impact of U.S. trade policies on poverty abroad, particularly relating to food and agriculture.

Mexico is now the United States’ single largest agricultural trading partner, largely the result of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a treaty enacted in 1994 that eliminated tariffs on the majority of goods produced and traded between the United States, Mexico, and Canada. Although NAFTA was heralded by the U.S. government for reducing barriers to trade, as The Counter previously reported, the pact devastated rural economies in Mexico, flooding the market with cheap, government-subsidized U.S. corn and gutting domestic corn prices by nearly 70 percent. This shift led an estimated 2 million farmworkers to abandon the countryside to seek work in big cities or across the border in the United States.

The United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA)—the replacement for NAFTA that entered into force in 2020—further entrenched this challenge. Touted by then-U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue as a “better deal for America’s farmers, consumers, and workers that will set them up for success for decades to come,” USMCA has done little to benefit Mexico’s small and subsistence farmers or stem the flow of migration that dropped during the height of the pandemic but is, again, increasing. New data released on Friday by U.S. Customs and Border Protection showed that June was the highest month for new arrivals at the southern border since President Biden took office.

Nearly all of the 16 million tons of corn Mexico imports each year is used for livestock and industrial purposes, while corn for human consumption is grown domestically.

Now, days out from the expiration of the latest ban on non-essential travel between the U.S. and Mexico, it is unclear how the Biden administration intends to reckon with this legacy. But if our southern neighbors seek “hope at home,” they may find it in the form of policy changes cultivated within Mexico itself.

On December 31, 2020, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador signed a decree that could enable Mexican farmers to reclaim their livelihoods within their home country. The order calls for the phase-out by 2024 of two pillars of American agribusiness: glyphosate and genetically engineered (GE) corn, particularly corn grain consumed as part of “the diet of Mexican women and men.”

Glyphosate is an herbicide sprayed on corn and other crops that have been genetically engineered to tolerate its plant-killing properties. It is the active ingredient in Roundup, a flagship product of the company formerly known as Monsanto, that, in 2018, was acquired and fully absorbed by the German chemical company Bayer.

López Obrador’s decree was created with the explicit goals of rebuilding self-sufficiency and reclaiming food sovereignty, efforts that eroded under NAFTA due to a requirement that Mexico open its markets to U.S. corn. Mexico now purchases 25 percent of American corn exports, amounting to more than $2.7 billion annually. Nearly all of the 16 million tons of corn Mexico imports each year is used for livestock and industrial purposes, while corn for human consumption is grown domestically. Nevertheless, the imports represent one-third of Mexico’s overall demand for corn.

Because of how the decree was phrased, it remains unclear whether GE corn for animal feed will be subject to the eventual ban. While Mexico’s Agriculture Secretary Victor Villalobos Arambula has assured U.S Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack that only grain for human food products will be affected, the vaguely-worded decree is subject to interpretation by the government ministries of Agriculture, Health, and Environment as well as CONACyT, the National Council of Science and Technology. The latter three of these four parties are more closely aligned with Deputy Minister for Agriculture Víctor Suárez, an agronomist and key architect of the decree, who advocates for banning all GE corn imports.

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