Government Action Could Mean the End of Mexican Cotton

Spurred by environmental and health concerns, Mexico has stopped approving genetically modified cotton seeds. The move has met resistance in the northern states, where farmers depend on the modified crops.

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Government Action Could Mean the End of Mexican Cotton

Lilette A. Contreras, GPJ Mexico

Bernardo Freis and his son, Willy Freis, harvest cotton in the rural El Oasis farming community in Ojinaga, Mexico.

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CHIHUAHUA, MEXICO — For almost a decade, Cornelius Letkeman Banman has produced cotton in El Oasis, a desert-like town in the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua, where the climate is perfect for growing one of the country’s most economically significant crops. In fact, conditions are so ideal, the state has become the country’s leading producer.

In 2013, Letkeman moved his family of six to this rural Mennonite farming community in the Ojinaga municipality, where he could focus on planting cotton, which doesn’t require as much water as other crops he used to grow, such as corn, beans and alfalfa. The Mennonites have historically moved continually to avoid religious persecution. Letkeman’s community in Chihuahua can be traced back to Switzerland in the 16th century when members of the Swiss Anabaptist movement followed the teachings of former Catholic priest Menno Simons. They fled through Europe and into southern Russia, with many eventually landing in the Mexican border state of Chihuahua in the early 20th century.

Wherever they found themselves, they relied on their deep-rooted knowledge of farming to survive. But now this aspect of their culture faces a threat, as the Mexican government has moved to phase out genetically modified cotton seeds, a more robust cotton seed developed to resist certain herbicides and pesticides, due to environmental concerns.

The government has not approved any new GM cotton seeds for planting permits since 2019 and plans to phase out the use of glyphosate, the most common pesticide used in the production of GM cotton, by 2024. Cotton farmers now face serious seed shortages as the existing supply runs low; they have very little access to alternative seeds. Letkeman says the restrictions mean Mexico can’t compete with countries like the United States, China and India, where farmers have access to the latest GM seeds. He and other farmers anticipate a drop in demand and a devastating effect on the more than 10,000 people who depend on cotton to survive.

Letkeman has worked in farming since he was in junior high, getting his hands dirty in the fields after school. Today, there is no sign of those dirty hands. Dressed in a suit and shiny shoes, he has a paler complexion than his fellow farmers, who spend most of their day outside. Letkeman works in an office about half a mile from his home, surrounded by his cotton fields and overseeing his team of farmworkers, which includes his four children when they’re not studying.

Introduced in 1996, GM cotton provided a much-needed alternative to conventional cotton, which was struggling due to excessive pest damage. Letkeman recalls when he started using GM cotton seeds. “I went from producing three or four bales per hectare to eight bales on average,” he says. The introduction of a new alternative led to an increase in production that made cotton one of the most important crops in Mexico.

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Lilette A. Contreras, GPJ Mexico

Cornelius Letkeman Banman works in an office surrounded by cotton fields. His family is part of El Oasis, a Mennonite farming community in Ojinaga.

Chihuahua produces 80% of the country’s cotton; the rest is produced in the other northern states of Baja California, Coahuila, Tamaulipas, Sonora and Durango. In recent years, Mexico has fallen behind globally in cotton production. It ranked ninth following the 2017-2018 season, according to data from the United States Department of Agriculture, but since GM cotton seeds were phased out in Mexico, the country has fallen to 13th.

A March 2022 press release from the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, known as SEMARNAT, stated that they would reevaluate the appropriateness of genetically modified crops in light of their responsibility to protect the country’s genetic reservoir of native cotton as well as the health of the environment.

In response Fisechisa, a group of 23 cotton growers in Chihuahua, of which Letkeman sits on the board, held a meeting in July with Mauro Parada Muñoz, head of the state’s Ministry of Rural Development, to request that GM cotton seeds be permitted again. Letkeman says he was assured of Muñoz’s support but has heard nothing since.

Concerns continue to grow over the herbicide glyphosate and those crops that have been genetically engineered to survive its use, such as cotton, which has become the largest genetically modified crop in Mexico. Glyphosate was classified as “probably carcinogenic” to humans in a report released by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization, in 2015. Environmental groups such as Greenpeace have campaigned for a ban on genetically modified organisms and glyphosate.

“The adoption of GMOs and glyphosate increasingly moves us away from enjoying food sovereignty and self-sufficiency,” says Viridiana Lázaro, an agricultural and climate specialist with Greenpeace Mexico. “The use of such contaminants puts the diversity of agricultural varieties conserved in the fields — fundamental for the production of food in our country — at deep risk.”

Arturo Zubía Fernández, director of agriculture at Chihuahua’s Ministry of Rural Development, says he plans to approach SEMARNAT once he has a broader picture of the threat GM cotton seeds pose to the environment.

Lilette A. Contreras, GPJ Mexico

Cotton is baled for collection in a field in El Oasis, Ojinaga, Mexico.

“The important thing here would be to look at the results they’re getting out of the state and out of the country to confirm that it’s sustainable,” he says. “And I’d like to think that if in the United States they already have a new variety, it’s surely because the quality has improved, as well as the production, and a reduced need for water and agrochemicals.”

SEMARNAT declined Global Press Journal’s requests for comment.

Cotton farmers like Bernardo Freis need to find a solution soon. He’s already considering alternatives.

“If this issue isn’t resolved, then we’ll have to plant a new crop and just forget about cotton,” says the father of five, who works alongside his 14-year-old son to farm 100 hectares (247 acres) of cotton fields. “Support for farming is being cut all over the place, and I don’t know when it will end … only God does.”

But Letkeman says leaving cotton farming isn’t an option for many families.

“Many of them own their own machinery that they bought with loans,” he says. “If this doesn’t get better, then many won’t be able to pay off their loans, they’ll lose the machinery, and it will be a big problem. The investment they made was for cotton, not another type of crop. The sustenance and income of these families are at stake.”

Letkeman says the GM seeds currently available in Mexico, which he sells from the reception area of his office, are more than five years old, before the phase out started. Meanwhile, GM technology continues to advance.

“Unfortunately, we don’t have those seeds because of the ideology of those in public administration who argue that we already have enough seeds,” Letkeman says.

Working with conventional cotton seeds, he adds, would make it impossible for the cotton to survive since it can’t resist infestation or drought.

“Cotton,” he says, “would practically disappear.”

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Lilette A. Contreras, GPJ Mexico

A tractor and cotton trailer stand idle in a field in the El Oasis farming community in Ojinaga.

Lilette A. Contreras is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Cuauhtémoc, Mexico.


Sarah DeVries, GPJ, translated this article from Spanish.