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U.S. Tries to Force Potentially Hazardous GM Corn on Mexico

U.S. Position Based on Sham Regulatory Regime That Does Not Ensure GMO Safety, Mexico Fully Justified in Prohibiting GM Corn for Staple Corn Products

March 21, 2024
Center for Food Safety

The Center for Food Safety (CFS) today released an analysis supporting Mexico in its bid to maintain restrictions protecting its food supply from potentially hazardous genetically modified (GM) corn. The Mexican government has prohibited use of GM corn for masa dough to make tortillas and other staples of the Mexican diet. The United States is trying to force Mexico to repeal its policy under a dispute resolution mechanism of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). Mexico is also concerned about the health impacts of residues of the herbicide glyphosate in GM corn, and is phasing out use of the weed killer.

The fully-documented CFS analysis, submitted last week to an USMCA dispute settlement panel, addresses U.S. GMO regulation, known and suspected risks of GM corn, and the hazards of glyphosate.

The United States' Sham GMO Regulatory System

CFS maintains that Mexico cannot be forced to rely on U.S. protestations that GM foods are safe, because the U.S. position is based on a sham regulatory system designed to promote GM food acceptance domestically and abroad rather than ensure GMOs are safe. What passes for GMO oversight fails the definition of "regulation" in USMCA, says CFS, since it is not mandatory, and is filled with loopholes and inconsistencies rather than applying generally to all GMOs.

"GMO regulation in the U.S. was crafted by Monsanto, now owned by Bayer, and is a critical part of our government's promotion of the biotechnology industry," said Bill Freese, Science Director of CFS and expert on biotech regulation. "The aim is to quell concerns and promote acceptance of GMOs, domestically and abroad, rather than critically evaluate potential toxicity or allergenicity."

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has only a "voluntary consultation program" for GMOs – not mandatory. FDA admits that it "does not conduct a comprehensive scientific review of data generated by the [GMO] developer," and brags that its program eases market introduction of GM foods. Nor does FDA approve GMOs as safe, but rather only conveys the GM crop developer's assurances that the GMO is not substantially different than conventional varieties.

"When governmental review is optional; and even when it's conducted, starts and ends with the regulated company's safety assurances – what's the point?" asked Freese. "Clearly, it's the PR value of a governmental rubber stamp."

In 2020, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) largely deregulated GMOs, meaning for most GM crops there is no assessment of environmental risk, and no mandatory gene containment measures even at the experimental field trial stage. If companies "self-determine" that their GMOs fit into one of several large exemption categories, they don't even have to inform USDA before growing them outdoors. Thus far, 79 GM plants have been exempted, and there could be many more. An ongoing lawsuit launched by CFS and allied food and farming groups challenges USDA's deregulation rule.

Industrial GM Corn for Biofuels

In 2011, USDA approved a GM industrial corn meant solely for ethanol production, but imposed no isolation measures to keep it out of the food supply. This GM corn, known as Enogen, is being grown in thousands of fields and has widely contaminated non-GM white corn in Nebraska, where farmers are suffering huge losses as a result, and fear they may have to stop growing white corn altogether. Tortillas and other products made from masa flour contaminated with Enogen's starch-degrading enzyme are sticky, gooey and fall apart. Even 1 kernel of Enogen in 10,000 of food-grade corn is enough to cause starch degradation and ruin products. Enogen's engineered enzyme also has properties characteristic of food allergens, and so may pose health risks as well.

"Enogen is one more sign the U.S. has become a lawless "Wild West" for GM crops," said Freese. "Any regulatory system with an ounce of credibility would have banned it. But the U.S. government doesn't care how many farmers or others are hurt, as long as the biotechnology industry's interests are served."

GM Corn and Food Allergies

Most corn in the U.S. has been engineered to express insecticidal toxins derived from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, so-called Bt corn. Although the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ostensibly regulates these insecticidal toxins, after three decades the Agency has still not established general testing requirements to assess their toxicity or allergenicity to humans. Nor does EPA set any limits on toxin levels, even in GM varieties with up to six toxins.

"The insecticidal protein (Cry1Ab) in a widely grown GM corn has three characteristics of food allergens: resistance to digestion, heat stability and structural similarity to a known allergen," said Freese. "It's quite similar to the toxin in StarLink, a GM corn banned over two decades ago because leading food allergists said it could cause allergies. Yet EPA has ignored the evidence and left Cry1Ab corn on the market."

Freese notes that food allergies afflict nearly 32 million Americans, and have increased by 50% since the 1990s. While many food-allergic reactions are mild, they can occasionally take the form of life-threatening anaphylactic shock, which is more often fatal in children than adults.

U.S. Corn and Glyphosate

Roughly 90% of U.S. corn is glyphosate-resistant, meaning it can be sprayed directly with the herbicide, which is classified as "probably carcinogenic" by international authorities. The EPA facilitated introduction of this GM corn by raising the tolerance (maximum residue level) for glyphosate on corn from 0.1 to 5 parts per million, a 50-fold increase. FDA detected glyphosate residues in 63% of corn samples in 2016, and glyphosate has also been found in Kellogg's corn flakes.

In a lawsuit against EPA over glyphosate brought by CFS, a federal court in 2022 rescinded the Agency's human health assessment of the herbicide because it was so deeply flawed and contradictory, particularly in its dismissal of glyphosate's cancer-causing potential.

"The Mexican government's prohibition of GM corn for tortillas and other masa corn products is fully justified," concluded Freese. "The U.S. government's case against Mexico has no more scientific merit than its sham GMO regulatory regime, and should be rejected by the USMCA dispute resolution panel."

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