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Mexico's ban on tortillas made using GMO corn is an argument that can be tasted

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Mexico's president says the country will no longer allow tortillas to be made with genetically modified corn. Now, that might sound like a boring policy decision, but this is a much bigger story involving a trade spat worth billions of dollars with the United States and a tradition that goes back thousands of years. NPR's Eyder Peralta explains.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: We meet chef Alejandro Pinon right outside his restaurant, Los Danzantes.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PERALTA: A cello player practices in the plaza in front of us. The kitchen is still getting ready. There was a time, says Pinon, when tortillas here in Mexico City were diverse. They came in greens and blues and pinks and purples. They were beautiful and handmade.

ALEJANDRO PINON: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: But, he explains, as tortillas industrialized, they were standardized.

PINON: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: "And you notice it immediately," he says. The color is different. The taste is different. Corn was domesticated right here in Mexico. For thousands of years, farmers here carefully mixed varieties of maize in small plots of land. But globalization made American yellow corn more common because it's so cheap. And now GMO corn is muscling its way into the market.

PINON: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: GMO corn, he says, is devastating to native species. Corn is pollinated by the wind, which means the GMO variety can quickly mix, wreaking havoc on native corn. To Pinon, that would equal destroying Mexican history.

PINON: (Through interpreter) That native corn is the collective memory of our ancestors.

PERALTA: Corn has always been a touchy subject in Mexico. When the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, came into effect in 1994, there was fear that small-scale farmers in Mexico would go out of business. But Antonio Nunez Naude, a professor at El Colegio de Mexico who has studied the corn market for decades, says that didn't happen. Small farmers kept producing, but suddenly Mexican corn became less biodiverse.

ANTONIO NUNEZ NAUDE: That is to say that the varieties of corn that was produced by small farmers has been reduced.

PERALTA: Mexican farmers started using yellow corn popular in the United States because it was hardier and would produce more corn flour. Now a new trade deal has thrown in another complication. It seems to open the door to transgenic corn.

NUNEZ NAUDE: They don't write transgenic, but they write free trade and promotion of modern seed varieties.

PERALTA: But shortly after the trade deal went into effect, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador announced a future ban on GMO corn. He argued genetically modified maize was bad for human health.

NUNEZ NAUDE: The health part is not scientifically proven.

PERALTA: The WHO says GMO corn is safe. Besides that, this was a huge issue for the U.S. They sell an estimated $3 billion in corn a year to Mexico, and most of it is GMO. So the U.S. protested. Lopez Obrador pushed back the ban date. Tensions eased. But then last month, he said, Mexico would ban GMO corn from being used in tortillas. Nunez Naude says this was an uppercut.

NUNEZ NAUDE: It can provoke a trade conflict.

PERALTA: President Lopez Obrador's health argument had no basis. But his tortilla argument, says Nunez Naude, is valid and powerful and popular. It's an argument Mexicans can literally taste.

(SOUNDBITE OF PANS CLATTERING)

PERALTA: Back at the restaurant, chef Alejandro Pinon walks me to the kitchen. A cook is making tortillas from a corn that has been produced by a single family for hundreds of years. She makes a little ball of dough and, almost in one movement, presses it into a circle and throws it onto a hot skillet.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY DRONING)

PINON: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: "She's like a finely-tuned watch," says Pinion.

PINON: (Speaking Spanish).

(SOUNDBITE OF TORTILLA SIZZLING)

PERALTA: She flips the corn tortilla, and it puffs up with steam. Today they're a delicate teal color. Pinon takes a fresh tortilla, dashes it with some salt.

PINON: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: "This is a very Mexican taste," he says, "a very ancient taste." And he's right. They're not the yellow tortillas you get at the supermarket. The corn melts in your mouth. It's delicious. Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Mexico City.

(SOUNDBITE OF MANA SONG, "OYE MI AMOR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.