Upstart Corn Activists in Mexico Just Beat GMO Goliath Bayer-Monsanto

Mexico's Supreme Court voted down an appeal by several chemical and seed companies to allow them to cultivate genetically modified corn.
October 20, 2021, 12:00pm
A protestor shows the variety of Mexican corn during a protest against GMO corn.
A protestor shows the variety of Mexican corn during a protest against GMO corn. Photo by Jesus Alvarado/picture alliance via Getty Images.

MEXICO CITY—In a real-life David versus Goliath moment, a small group of Mexican activists just won a major battle in a longstanding legal dispute with big farming monolith Bayer-Monsanto and other chemical and seed companies. 

Mexico's Supreme Court just rejected appeals by companies including Bayer-Monsanto, Synganta, and Corteva, and voted to ratify an injunction that restricts the cultivation of genetically modified corn. The injunction was submitted in 2013 by a small group of activists and has effectively stopped Monsanto, which was bought by Bayer in 2018, and other companies from turning Mexico's massive and culturally important corn industry into genetically modified organisms (GMOs) for 8 years.

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“It's a remarkable story,” Timothy Wise, a senior advisor at the Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy and author of the book Eating Tomorrow which details the case, told VICE World News.

“How are these pesky, little, underfunded groups with their inexperienced legal teams taking on these freaking companies?”

The legal fight began in 2013 when a group called Demanda Colectiva en Defensa del Maíz Nativo, or the Collective Lawsuit in Defense of Native Corn in English, petitioned the Mexican government to halt the use of genetically modified corn because the country's constitution guarantees the right to a clean environment. The coalition of farmer, consumer, and environmental groups that makes up the collective argued that genetically modified corn causes cross-pollination and endangers native corn varieties, which is a staple of Mexican culture, cuisine, and its environment.

The court agreed that the collective had a right to have their petition heard, and ordered a precautionary injunction that stopped the companies from planting genetically modified corn until then. Over the past eight years, the petition has still yet to be heard, and the injunction has remained in place even though Bayer-Monsanto and the other companies have submitted dozens of appeals. 

Throughout, the lawyers and activists from the collective have stood their ground and weathered the companies’ legal challenges, and the October ruling by the Supreme Court has shut down their appeals once and for all. 

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With no date in place for the petition to be heard, the injunction remains against the multinational corporations.

The collective released a statement celebrating the ruling as an “important decision”, but noted that “we still have a long way to go to achieve the definitive ban on transgenic corn in Mexico, an action that will guarantee the preservation and protection of native corn, of the milpa, of the rights of peasants to a healthy environment.”

But while their petition will eventually be heard in court, Wise believed that the injunction played a crucial role in saving the Mexican corn industry from GMOs because previous governments “were on the side of the companies.”

During the presidencies of Felipe Calderón (2006-2012) and Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-2018), according to Wise, the Mexican government supported the use of genetically modified corn in Mexico.

“In other words, it wasn't just the companies against the collective, it was the companies and the government against the collective,” he said.

But even so, the collective was able to win several court cases where the companies tried to appeal the injunction. Then, in 2018, Mexico saw a change of the guard when Andrés Manuel López Obrador won the presidency with a mandate to support the country’s disenfranchised, which included many rural farmers involved in the corn industry. 

López Obrador rang in 2021 by making a presidential decree on New Year's eve to get rid of the cultivation and importation of genetically modified corn entirely in Mexico. 

“That's a massive shift in the government's position relative to this judicial case,” said Wise. He called the change in government in Mexico “the biggest loss that the companies have faced.”

“Because even if they win in court on the petition now, I think all that would signify is that for some reason, the court does not recognize that the Constitution protects Mexican citizens from the contamination of their environment,” he said. “The government could still restrict GMO plantings and ban them, which is what it's on track to do already with a presidential decree.”

But in his opinion, the small group of activists who maintained the injunction for years are the heroes who blocked the use of GMOs on the corn industry until the government finally landed on the side of the small farmers and peasants in the affected areas.

“It's absolutely certain that if the injunction hadn't been in place and the collective hadn't stepped up, there would have been a much stronger and certainly more successful push to get GMOs commercially grown [in Mexico].”