Mexico stalling GMO corn permits ahead of ban, says top farm lobby

A farmer holds different types of corn cobs in Otzolotepec, on the outskirts of Mexico City, February 7, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso/File Photo/File Photo

MEXICO CITY, June 10 (Reuters) - Mexico is holding up import permits for GMO corn, the head of the country's main farm lobby told Reuters, saying the government intended to apply a GMO ban to the grain used in animal feed despite contradictory comments by a top U.S. official.

In an interview, National Farm Council President Juan Cortina said among hundreds of agricultural product import permits awaiting a resolution are at least eight for genetically modified corn even though the ban is not set to go into effect for three years.

"They're not giving us extensions, there haven't been any administrative changes, they just don't respond," said Cortina, referring to delays of up to two years from the Health Ministry's sanitary protection agency, COFEPRIS, which is responsible for approving the permits.

COFEPRIS said it could not comment on specific cases, but added that it was in touch with various business groups, including the National Farm Council, to seek faster processes without "sacrificing our scientific rigor."

If the prohibition on GMO corn is implemented, it would dramatically upend the multibillion-dollar grains trade between the United States and Mexico, forbidding some 16 million tonnes of annual U.S. yellow corn exports to its southern neighbor, nearly all of it GMO.

Late last year, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador issued an executive order phasing out GMO corn and the herbicide glyphosate by 2024, arguing that Mexico must attain food self-sufficiency without using toxic chemicals.

Industry leaders on both sides of the border have since been seeking clarity over how far-reaching the corn ban will be.

Cortina contradicted the assurance that U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said he received from his Mexican counterpart that the prohibition would not be applied to GMO corn used for livestock feed read more , saying he had not received those assurances and he believed the government had no plans for carve-outs.

Mexico's Agriculture Ministry declined to comment.

"Ideologically charged" officials were fighting for a broad interpretation, said Cortina.

He stressed that the farm industry would fight against the government-ordered phase-out of GMO corn as well as a widely used weed killer despite a recent string of losses in the courts.

He predicted the legality of the ban would "probably" ultimately be decided by the Supreme Court.

"We're fighting this in the courts and we're also fighting it in talks with the government," said Cortina, who argues the policy will impose higher costs and is not supported by science.

Judges have so far sided with the government against legal complaints to stop the decree read more . However, Cortina said more than a dozen challenges launched by the National Farm Council as well as companies including German pharmaceutical and crop science giant Bayer AG (BAYGn.DE) will continue.

Earlier this year, Deputy Agriculture Minister Victor Suarez, a key architect of the bans, told Reuters that GMO corn and the herbicide glyphosate are dangerous and growing domestic output and sustainable farm practices must be prioritized. read more

Cortina argued that decades of scientific research have shown both GMO corn and glyphosate are safe, and warned of "huge damage" to Mexico's trade relations with the United States if the bans are fully implemented.

Cortina noted that many of the permit delays have also prevented shipments of glyphosate even though the text of the planned ban states the government will first develop an alternative.

While Mexico's science agency CONACYT has issued guidance on how glyphosate imports will be reduced this year, Cortina said no such guidance has been provided for GMO corn.

He said Mexican grains buyers, especially the country's massive livestock sector, will not be able to replace current import volumes with alternative supplies by 2024.

Reporting by David Alire Garcia and Adriana Barrera

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.