National | Opinion

We must Respect Mexico’s Food Sovereignty

September 29 was Mexico’s national day celebrating the central place corn has in Mexican society and history. This year, there is a new threat to its future. Corn as we know it today was developed from an ancient plant called teocinte by Indigenous peoples over thousands of years, making Mexico the crop’s biological and cultural centre of origin. Corn is a staple of Mexican cuisine, and cultivating corn provides a livelihood for Mexican farmers. Corn’s significance for Mexico cannot be over-stated, and indeed is considered sacred by many. Mexico has announced a ban on importation of genetically modified (GM) white corn for human consumption, which otherwise could replace traditional corn in the countryside and in peoples’ diets. However, under the Canada-United States-Mexico Trade Agreement (CUSMA) the United States has launched a formal dispute, aiming to disallow this ban. Canada has formally signed onto this dispute as a third party supporting the USA, in spite of the fact we do not sell any corn to Mexico.

We, in Canada’s National Farmers Union, support Mexico’s decision, as we believe they have the right to determine their own food sovereignty. In recognition of National Corn Day, we recorded a video statement (start at 41:30) of solidarity which was shown in Mexico on Friday. As President of our organization, I was honoured to speak alongside NFU member and Mohawk seed keeper Celeste Smith to share the following message:

We are very pleased to speak in support of the Government of Mexico’s decision to uphold your food sovereignty.

Our organization is Canada’s largest voluntary direct membership farm organization. We represent family farmers and farm workers from across the country in all sectors of agriculture. We aim to build a food system where financially viable family and co-operative farms produce high quality, healthy, safe food using practices that protect our soil, water, biodiversity and other natural resources. We promote social and economic justice for food producers and all people living in Canada and around the world.

The NFU has always been concerned with power imbalances between large agribusiness corporations and our farmers and their communities. We want to build a food system where people have a democratic say on what we produce, how we produce it, and what we eat. 

It is for these reasons and based on these principles that we wrote to Canada’s Minister of International Trade on June 8 and again on August 22, 2023, urging her not to involve Canada in the USA’s trade dispute with Mexico over your country’s restrictions on importation of genetically modified white corn for dough and tortillas.

We called on our Minister to respect Mexico’s decision. We expressed our support for the reasons Mexico has put these measures in place – which are to uphold your food sovereignty, including the traditional Indigenous farming systems known as milpa; to protect the world’s biodiversity as the center of origin for corn; and to preserve Mexico’s biocultural heritage, namely the agroecological practices of milpa and corn’s role in your culinary heritage.

We reminded our Minister that Canada is proud to have signed the UN Convention on Biodiversity in 1992, and that the commitments we made then still stand. We agreed to regulate, manage or control risks associated with GMOs that could affect the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity, or pose risks to human health. And we agreed to respect, preserve and maintain knowledge, innovations and practices of Indigenous communities that support biodiversity. 

We also highlighted the fact that Canada recently passed a law implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and said it would be inconsistent with UNDRIP for Canada to dispute Mexico’s right to protect Indigenous peoples’ food and agricultural heritage.

We oppose the use of trade agreement dispute mechanisms to take away democratic rights, and to put the interests of multinational corporations ahead of human communities. Fair trade is possible, but must be grounded in inter‐dependent, ecologically sound, resilient agriculture and food systems that are governed democratically by the citizens who live and work in each country.

In closing, the National Farmers Union in Canada stands in solidarity with Mexico’s determination to protect your rich and beautiful cultural heritage, your life-giving biodiversity and the right of your people to enact food sovereignty. 

Jenn Pfenning, NFU President,

Celeste Smith, IPC (International Programs Committee) Co-chair and Traditional Indigenous argriculturalist,