15 Minutes With… Emily Whiston, Global Segment Leader at EnviroLogix
What’s the best way to make progress? Test the parameters of your current situation and adjust accordingly. And how best to do that in the grain industry? Look to the expertise of a business like Portland, Maine’s EnviroLogix. There, they are pushing diagnostic boundaries forward in life science laboratories, grain markets, and the food supply chain, including those that are helping suppliers comply with the new ban on GMO corn in Mexico.
Back in December 2020, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador issued a decree banning GM corn for human consumption in Mexico. Mexico imports, on average, about 16-17 million metric tons of corn annually from the U.S., valued at $5 billion. With 92 percent of the corn grown identified as genetically modified, the American grain industry has a right to be concerned. The opposing parties continue to be at odds. Currently Mexico is allowing GM corn for animal feed and industrial use but stands firm against human consumption. In other words, the 630 million corn tortillas produced in Mexico daily can no longer be made with GM corn.
Enter EnviroLogix, which has been instrumental in partnering with customers on compliance with the new corn rules taking effect in Mexico, which as recently as last month have not been officially decided. At the forefront of the discussion is Emily Whiston, a global market segment leader for the company with a Ph.D. in microbiology. She oversees EnviroLogix’ innovative platform for testing solutions such as rapid detection of GMO traits in seed, corn, soybeans, and other crops; mycotoxins in grain and milling co-products; and agriculture-based food allergens.
We asked Whiston to clarify the details and the current situation for our Unconventional Ag News readers and elaborate on how her company is assisting with defining the possible solutions. And for those who want to learn more from Whiston and EnviroLogix, they will be in attendance as a sponsor at this week’s Unconventional Ag conference in Dallas, December 12-13.
1). What does the ban look like in practice? And what are the current restrictions?
This ban has narrowed significantly in scope for implementation since it was announced in 2020. Currently implementation of the law is focused specifically on white corn used in tortilla production. This is a cultural food sovereignty question for the Mexican government, who would like to see an entirely domestic, non-GMO white corn supply chain. To that end, in addition to the GMO ban for white corn, Mexico has also imposed a 50 percent tariff on white corn imports.
2). What does this loss mean for U.S. farmers?
Not as much as originally feared! White corn represents just 3 percent of U.S. corn product exports to Mexico, and the majority of white corn in the U.S. is already non-GMO. The vast majority of U.S. corn exported to Mexico is yellow corn and DDGS for the feed market; these imports are not impacted by Mexico’s current GM ban. In 2023, white corn exports fell by an estimated 75 percent, but total corn exports from the U.S. to Mexico are actually expected to increase almost 3 percent.
3). Reports are that researchers in Mexico are making progress producing more non-GM yellow corn seeds to help replace imported grain from the U.S. Has this been an issue you’ve come up against?
Currently, U.S. exports represent almost 40 percent of Mexican corn consumption. Replacing that volume domestically needs a lot more than optimized seed stocks. Corn hybrid varieties that have been bred for intended regions are certainly important, but new high-yield varieties won’t solve the issue of production and infrastructure capacity overnight. The GM corn decree states an intention to “gradually” substitute corn imports for the feed market, but there will be significant competition for agriculture land from the valuable fruit and vegetable market that represents over $44 billion worth of exports to the U.S. from Mexico.
4). The original decree also included a ban on glyphosate, where does that stand?
The glyphosate ban is still set to be implemented in 2024 for chemical use in Mexico. Banning glyphosate for agricultural use has been challenged by trade groups within Mexico, given the potential for wide-ranging production impacts. In terms of impact to U.S. corn exports to Mexico, we do not see market or regulatory signals to indicate that this ban will be applied to grain imports.
5). How can companies prepare to comply?
There is already a robust identity-preserved GM grain global infrastructure. We are seeing Mexican tortilla producers adopt the same GM testing strategies used by U.S. and Canadian grain companies. Companies in Mexico are taking simple steps to prove that their white corn is non-GM with rapid on-site tests that enable risk management, paired with third party laboratory tests to confirm in-house data. This is the testing strategy used in the U.S. to meet the Non-GMO Project standard, as well as in Europe to meet labeling law requirements. Testing ensures that the non-GM corn supply chain maintains identity preservation without fraud or unintentional co-mingling, which we’ve seen in the non-test-based U.S. organic standard.
ABOUT EMILY WHISTON
Emily Whiston is the global market segment leader for EnviroLogix, which is a global industry leader in grain testing technology. EnviroLogix technology is used throughout the world to manage risk and drive rapid decision-making for GMO, mycotoxin, and allergen contamination.
Whiston earned her Ph.D. from the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology at the University of California, Berkeley. With over 10 years of experience in academic research and nine years in grain diagnostics, she brings a deep understanding of plant genetics and molecular detection to the agricultural industry. At EnviroLogix, Whiston has worked in technology discovery, new product development, strategy, and marketing. Whiston is passionate about STEM education and outreach in her local community in southern Maine and enjoys spending time at her family’s oyster farm in the waters of Casco Bay.