Mexican farmers resist government’s attempt to ban GM cotton

By Luis Ventura

April 20, 2021

Though genetically modified (GM) cotton has been safely cultivated in Mexico at a commercial scale more for than 20 years, the government is jeopardizing the future of the nation’s textile industry by restricting new approvals of GM seeds.

Cotton farmers are fighting back. They’ve started to organize and demand access to GM cotton seeds through the Comite Nacional Sistema Producto Algodon (National Committee on the Cotton Product System). They have asked President Andres Manuel Lopez-Obrador to instruct the Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) to allow them to use GM seed and criticized the “unilateral decisions of SEMARNAT.”

No new GM cotton seeds

The push-back began after the United States Department of Agriculture’s Global Agricultural Information Network (USDA-GAIN) recently reported that SEMARNAT has not approved any GM cotton seed planting permits since 2019. The agency cited concerns  about the possibility of GM varieties intermixing with traditional wild cotton populations found in the south of the country. However, these wild varieties are not found in the north, where the majority of commercial cotton is grown.

The permit rejections have had significant ramifications for cotton planting in Mexico, as producers now can access only a few outdated GM seed varieties that are not compatible with all growing areas and result in poor yields and ineffective pest protection. This is creating a highly uncertain situation for the country’s cotton farmers and textile producers.

The USDA also reported that cotton farmers are facing another significant challenge in addition to the delay of approval of new GM cotton seeds — the reduction of federal support for pest mitigation practices. Farmers see this as putting their future at risk.

Cotton farmers organize

Relbo Treviño, president of the National Committee on the Cotton Product System, declared that this measure is putting farmers  on the brink of economic collapse. He warned that if the government continues the same policy, it is “condemning practically 1.4 million people who depend on cotton cultivation in the country to be unemployed.”

This is the first time that all farmers and farmer organizations from the cotton-producing region of Mexico closed ranks and expressed their rejection of these measures. The farmer organizations that endorse this demand for GM cotton seeds are San Luis Rio Colorado Cotton Product System from Sonora, Union of Cotton Producers from Chihuahua, Cotton Product System Committee from the Region of Coahuila and Durango,  State Cotton Product System Committee from Mexicali and the State Council of Cotton Producers from Tamaulipas, according to a report by a national newspaper.

These organizations are asking to have a voice in the decision-making process around the use of GM cotton seed in the country. They asked “to be listened to and to be considered in the decisions because their insistent calls to SEMARNAT to have an open dialogue and find a solution together had been completely ignored.”

Appealing to economic concerns 

Though it flouts science, the anti-GM stance of the Lopez-Obrador administration is not surprising because he campaigned on the pledge that he would ban new GM crops. But farmers and cotton producers were surprised his administration decided to ban a GM crop with a long safety record in Mexico. In fact, GM cotton has been so successful that there is no longer any conventional cotton seed in the country. In other words, if GM seed is denied, there is no other seed available to cotton farmers. Though there are bans on GM corn and GM soybean, farmers who grow these crops do have access to conventional hybrid seeds that have allowed them to survive.

Farmers are hoping they will prevail because of the economic importance of the cotton industry in Mexico.  In 2018, before the restrictions began, cotton farmers “exported around 64 thousand tons of cotton fiber, which represent an economic benefit for the country of 103 million dollars.” However, producers say, if the government continues to restrict access to improved seed, yields will decrease dramatically due to pest pressure on cotton in the fields. Farmers saw pests almost wipe out the cotton industry until it  was rescued by the introduction of GM cotton seeds. They believe that without the use of technology, the industry will be eventually lost in Mexico.

The country’s cotton planting area was reduced by 30 to 35 percent in 2020 due to the lack of GM seeds, leading to a situation where the farmers are desperate and may begin to import GM seeds illegally. This could be a serious problem as the Secretary of Agriculture would lose control of the traceability and monitoring now required under GM regulations

US vs Mexico

The government’s decisions to prohibit the importation of glyphosate, GM corn and improved cotton seeds from the United States is leading to a commercial war due to the extremely valuable  volume of trade between the two nations. A trade war could result in thousands of millions of dollars in damage, according to the former negotiation boss of the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement. Alarmed by that prospect, food and agriculture associations in the US affirm that the relationship with Mexico is deteriorating.

Image: Mexican cotton blankets. Shutterstock/Tati Nova