Mexico Corn Dispute and USMCA Rules

Vilsack Sees No Need to Compromise With Mexico on Biotech Corn

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack spoke to reporters on Monday at the San Juan (Puerto Rico) Convention Center. The secretary said U.S. policy on biotech corn is that Mexico is required to base trade rules on science, not the Mexican president's desire to protect the country's corn heritage. (DTN photo by Chris Clayton)

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (DTN) -- Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack sees no reason for the United States to compromise in its support of biotech corn exports to Mexico, highlighting that the conflict is a classic trade barrier.

Speaking to reporters at the American Farm Bureau Federation annual meeting in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Vilsack said the U.S. has a Jan. 15 reply date that will come from U.S. Trade Ambassador Katherine Tai's office. The U.S. will continue stressing provisions of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) to make the case against any ban.

"The message is pretty simple, which is we believe in a science-based system." Vilsack said, noting some of the issues raised by Mexico's President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. He reiterated the point about trade policy focusing on a system based on science. "Until such time as we see that, we're going to continue to push the USMCA." He added, "There is no secret about this."

President Joe Biden is in Mexico meeting with Obrador, as well as Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The North American leaders are discussing immigration problems and energy policy, but the battle over U.S. corn isn't expected to rise to the level of presidential talks.

The offer from Mexico proposed not to place a biotech import ban on yellow corn used only for livestock feed. Vilsack reiterated Mexico could be faced with not having enough non-biotech feed for the country's livestock industry. That would lead to fewer livestock, supply-chain problems and ultimately higher prices for Mexican consumers.


Responding to a question, Vilsack said there is no reason for the U.S. to compromise its position. Obrador may have concerns over the heritage and culture of corn. If that is the case, then there is a market for Mexican farmers to sell non-genetically modified white corn. That doesn't allow Mexico to exclude corn imports.

"I'm reasonably certain that the market down there is going to want what corn is produced by Mexican producers that's non-GMO for their tortillas," Vilsack said. "And that's what the market is saying, and the market will respond to that. But that doesn't necessarily provide a reason to prevent other corn from coming into Mexico."

U.S. agricultural groups and the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO) released a statement Monday calling on the three governments to follow the framework of the USMCA and use committees outlined in the trade deal "to align on best practices and resolve trade disputes such as Mexico's proposed ban on some uses of biotech corn and other agricultural technologies." The statement was backed by the National Corn Growers Association, the Corn Refiners Association and the North American Millers Association.


USDA has $3.7 billion to help with disasters from 2022 farm losses.

Congress approved disaster aid for 2022 losses in the omnibus bill that passed in late December. Vilsack said USDA is focused on getting out phase two of the Emergency Relief Program (ERP) for 2020 and 2021 losses. USDA just opened up those programs, looking to support producers who may not have received funding from prior programs because of past income or production data. Then there is another Pandemic Assistance Relief Program. The ERP Phase 2 and PARP application period is open from Jan. 23 through June 2.

USDA also adjusted the Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program (NAP) to help veterans, beginning farmers and farmers who are socially disadvantaged.

More details about the disaster ERP and NAP details can be found here:…

Asked about permanent disaster aid, Vilsack said farm policy needs to have a disaster approach that is flexible enough to deal with regional differences. That includes being "flexible enough to deal with a disaster that we didn't know was going to occur."

He added, "Maybe people knew about derechos before I drove into one several months ago. But I sure as heck didn't know about them and they are absolutely destructive."


Setting up talk about need for a new farm bill, Vilsack pointed out the last two years have generated record farm income nationally. At the same time, however, more than half of farmers rely on off-farm income for their families.

"I don't think I'm alone in being concerned about the fact that we have farmers who are doing quite well -- and more power to them. That's great. But we've got a lot of farmers who aren't (doing well) and we want to keep them on the land. We want to create new ways for them to profit on their farming operation."

Highlighting some of the investments at USDA that came from funds during pandemic aid programs, Vilsack said he thinks funding in renewable energy, biobased businesses and carbon markets "lays the groundwork for conversation within the context of a farm bill."

Vilsack said the farm bill, combined with USDA funding from the Inflation Reduction Act, create "extraordinary opportunity" for Congress to build out those efforts in the farm bill.

"We ought to be about trying to make sure we keep people on the land, that they can take it and give it to the next generation is what most farmers -- all farmers -- want and that we create a rural economy that's thriving," Vilsack said. He added, "We've never had such a good opportunity -- if we take it."

Asked about the possible challenges of 260 lawmakers who have never voted on a farm bill, Vilsack said getting a farm bill passed is "by no means an easy thing to do in any Congress, under any circumstance."


Vilsack announced to Farm Bureau members that USDA is looking to approve up to $88 million for 21 various fertilizer projects across 15 states. Those projects, if quickly funded this spring, could help contribute to expanding fertilizer production for the 2023-24 crops, Vilsack said.

USDA is opening up a public-comment period on the fertilizer projects under the Fertilizer Production Expansion Program while they undergo environmental review, which takes time. The comment period will allow people to share any concerns they may have on the projects.

"We're basically putting the projects out, getting any comment while we're also doing the environmental review," Vilsack said. "So that we conclude both of them at the same time, so that we're then in a position to make awards. And those awards, obviously, we can get the resources out as quickly as possible."

The secretary emphasized that each of the facilities would be "independently owned" and working in "next-generation" fertilizer projects.

"The point of this is that it's a concerted effort on our part to begin -- and I emphasize the word, 'begin' -- the process of trying to figure out how we can be more self-reliant when it comes to inputs than we've been in the past," Vilsack said.

Later on this spring, USDA also will announce more than $400 million that will go to expand or help fund some larger, long-term fertilizer production facilities.


Asked about stressing the value of agriculture to the general public, Vilsack pointed to the 141 projects funded by $3.1 billion in Commodity Credit Corp. funds under the Partnership for Climate-Smart Commodities. Vilsack said the partnership is a vehicle to "get the word out" about agriculture. He noted nearly 100 universities are involved, as well as dozens of food and retail companies that serve customers around the country, and major conservation and environmental groups with millions of members.

"There's a real opportunity for us through that effort to get information about the importance of agriculture, and the need for unity within agriculture," Vilsack said. "And I'm thinking big here, I'm thinking not just creating a way in which we have more income streams for farmers, so they have a chance to make it and pass it on -- I'm also thinking about if we, as a farming community can unify, then maybe there are some lessons for the entire country in this. And God knows we need that."

For more AFBF coverage, see:

-- "AFBF Sees Farm Bill in 2023,"…

-- "Farm Bureau Signs MOU With John Deere on Right to Repair Policy,"…


EDITOR'S NOTE: DTN is a participant in a climate-smart grant through the Farmers for Soil Health project that will look to increase cover crops in conservation tillage in 20 states that produce more than 85% of the country's corn and soybean crops. Part of the goal of that project is to help double cover crop acres nationally.

Chris Clayton can be reached at

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Chris Clayton