Features | Seeds of worry

Charles Mostoller, a former Daily editor, reports from Mexico’s movement against genetically modified corn

After 14 years of the North American Free Trade Agreement’s devastating effects on the majority of Mexican farmers, Mexico’s food system now faces another serious threat. Illegally planted and unknowingly imported since the late nineties, genetically modified (GM) corn has contaminated farms all over Mexico, threatening the livelihoods of small farmers, endangering consumer health, and putting at risk the incredible genetic diversity of native Mexican corn.

But for over a year now, farmers, scientists, and activists all over Mexico have been mobilizing under the banner Sin maíz, no hay país – without corn, there is no country. The campaign has been organizing protests against the import of GM corn and in support of maiz criollo, known in English as “Indian corn” or maize.

At a recent Sin maíz, no hay país event in Huajauapan, Oaxaca, longtime indigenous-rights activist and honorary Zapatista Commander Don Felix Serdán called for the prohibition of GM corn, saying that it represented a threat to food security and to Mexico’s sovereignty.

“If we lose our corn, we lose our sovereignty, our very dignity,” he says. “We will depend on the U.S., we will have to buy their GM seeds. That will be slavery. Now, we’re no longer self-sufficient and there is no food security…. We have the responsibility to avoid the contamination by GM corn, to protect our communities.”

The sad story of Mexico

Mexico’s 109 million people consume about 300 million tortillas every day. Nobody knows how much of the maize in these tortillas is genetically modified, and serious concerns persist about GM corn’s effects on human health.

The planting of GM corn has never been legal in Mexico, although some biotech companies have permission to plant small “pilot fields” to test out their GM varieties. But according to a recent Reuters article, there are an estimated 9,000 hectares of GM corn in northern Mexico’s Chihuahua state. The government is aware of this, but has done nothing to stop it.

Mexico does allow the importation of GM corn, and since the late nineties, enormous quantities of it have entered – unlabelled – into Mexico’s food system. Farmers also unwittingly plant GM corn, and native varieties have been contaminated by GM corn all over the country – thanks to the fact that pollen can travel long distances by wind.

The Mexican government hasn’t taken any steps to slow or stop the influx of GM corn, nor has it tried to study the consequences of GM contamination or the effects on human health. And despite the importance of Mexico’s native corn diversity, and the fact that GM contamination has been discovered all over the country, the corn keeps flooding into Mexico.

“Today, approximately 60 per cent of the corn that enters Mexico is genetically modified,” says Cati Marielle, Director of the Sustainable Agricultural Systems division of the Environmental Study Group (known by its Spanish acronym, GEA), a non-governmental organization dedicated to helping indigenous farmers.

“It’s the sad story of Mexico, to be subordinate to the interests of the United States government, which in turn represents the interests of transnational corporations,” she continues.

Financial interests v. health risks

In the U.S., a GM corn variety approved only for livestock feed made its way into Taco Bell food and triggered a massive recall scandal in 2000. The corn, known as Starlink and made by biotech company Aventis, had been marketed as feed corn because of the possibility of adverse health effects in humans.

Introducing radically different elements into food is not something to be taken lightly. But that’s just what biotech companies have done; they have charged ahead with the unlabelled distribution of GM food, despite little real knowledge of long-term health issues. When that GM food is corn, the lifeblood of Mexico, there is even greater cause for concern.

In Mexico some 44 million tons of second-generation foodstuffs are produced annually from imported GM corn, possibly including Starlink corn. GM corn is distributed without any indication that it is modified. More than 11 million tons of GM corn were imported last year, of which 8 million was directed to internal food production, representing one-third of the corn consumed annually in Mexico.

Since corn products are the foundation of the Mexican diet, the pervasiveness of GM products worries Marielle and health advocates.

“Officially, GM corn only enters [Mexico] for consumption by animals and for industrial products for human consumption. But if you go to the supermarket, you’ll find an astonishing quantity of products that contain corn, although it appears that you aren’t buying corn,” Marielle says.

Greenpeace Mexico has published a list of commercial products that contain GM corn. It includes various commercial brands of tortillas, as well as snacks and breakfast cereals. GM corn is also the basis for many industrial food products like corn syrup, fructose, and vegetable oils.

The principal biotechnology corporations doing business in Mexico are Monsanto, Dupont-Pioneer, Syngenta, and Dow. But Monsanto is the key player, both in Mexico and worldwide; it owns 90 per cent of GM seed patents globally and raked in profits of $8.6-billion last year. The company is infamous for its aggressive legal action against farmers whose crops are unwittingly contaminated by Monsanto’s patented varieties.

A Monsanto press representative, Darren Wallis, says that GM products have been eaten by humans since their inception, but does not reply to questions about GM corn’s possible negative effects.

“Biotechnologies, from Monsanto and many other companies,” says Wallis, “have been used in parts of the world now for more than a decade. Food products from staple crops like corn and soybeans have used ingredients from these crops for the same amount of time and have been widely consumed by people around the world.”

GM contamination: is it worth it?

The long-term effects of GM contamination on native maize are still unknown – even the science behind genetic modification remains unclear. The biotech companies themselves are clueless as to exactly how and where transgenes attach themselves to DNA in the process of creating a GM food variety.

When GM contamination of native maize was discovered throughout Mexico in 2001 by both independent and government studies, it was revealed that some plants had been contaminated more than once, and by different GM corn varieties – including Starlink. Farmers in areas of contamination have also reported high rates of mutated cobs.

Although the real extent of contamination is uncertain, it is clear that GM corn can seriously affect insect populations – both pests and those beneficial to crops – with possibly catastrophic results.

One of the most common types of GM corn is known as Bt corn. Bt is a primary contaminator of maize in Mexico, and produces its own insecticide thanks to the genetic fusing of a toxic bacteria, Bacillus thuringiensis, into the corn genome. Some studies have shown that Bt pollen is harmful or fatal to the larvae of Monarch butterflies – millions of which breed each year in central Mexico – although the biotech industry’s own studies claim otherwise.

More alarming is that crop-destroying pests can become resistant to the Bt toxin, posing a threat not only to GM farms, but contaminated ones as well – which could lead to widespread crop failures in the not-so-distant future.

Even Monsanto has realized this. Although the company has published strategies on avoiding the development of Bt-resistant pests, it maintains that such a possibility is unlikely.

“[Bt corn] is a good tool for farmers because it is toxic to target pests like the corn ear worm in corn, and specific pests in cotton, and is something already found in nature,” says Wallis.

To protect non-GM corn varieties from contamination, Monsanto suggests separating some corn in “refuge areas” in order to maintain separate pest populations and avoid contamination from GM varieties.

“Monsanto has a rigorous stewardship plan that protects technologies, like Bt, and promotes its longevity. For Bt in particular, this comes in the form of natural refuge in cotton and refuge acres in corn,” Wallis says.

In spite of such efforts, Marielle feels that the risks just aren’t worth it.

“When we talk to Monsanto’s scientists who work with GM crops, they say, ‘What we know is really very little.’ With so much information lacking, they want to sell us a product that’s really not as safe as they say it is,” she says.

It’s the patents, stupid

Recently, Mexico has passed two laws relating to the planting and sale of GM seeds: in 2005, the Biosecurity Law – known as the Monsanto Law for that company’s alleged involvement in its creation – and in 2007 the Law of Seed Production, Certification, and Sale. Both laws set the stage for the legal planting of GM corn, as well as the criminalization of farmers found to have fields contaminated by GM corn.

These laws are part of a process to institutionalize the rights of the transnational agro-biotech sector, similar to one already established in the US and Canada. After a few years of planting GM crops – in test fields, or by farmers who have bought the seed – Monsanto takes farmers whose fields have been contaminated to court for patent violations, forcing these farmers to buy Monsanto’s GM variety, year after year.

In Canada, Monsanto won a case in 2001 against Percy Schmeiser, a Saskatchewan canola farmer whose field was contaminated by the company’s GM canola from a neighbouring field.

Although the judge ruled that Schmeiser did not have to pay Monsanto, he is not yet free from their grasp. In 2005, Monsanto’s canola continued to pop up in Schmeiser’s field, cross-pollinating his crop and contaminating his seed.

According to Marielle, the issue comes down to biotechnology patents.

“Everything is tied to the patents,” she says. “For farmers, they represent a threat to a common good – maize – with the inheritance of hundreds of generations of farmers and 7,000 years of maize agriculture in Mexico. Fifty-nine maize races with over 1,200 identified varieties are cultivated here. There is a continuous diversification of maize that creates varieties adapted to every ecological niche.”

But Marielle says that Monsanto wants to control the seed and fertilizer markets, turning every farmer it can into a lifelong client, and in the process effectively wiping out the genetic diversity of maize.

“It’s not just the introduction of a GM gene into the native maize varieties, but the fact that the gene is the private property of Monsanto, entering into a public good,” she emphasizes.

Monsanto: a step ahead of the game

Marielle believes that Monsanto’s next step is to appropriate the genome of native maize varieties, and to turn some of them into Monsanto’s private property.

“To date, all GM seeds are made out of hybrid seeds, but Monsanto is very interested in knowing what is it that makes a maize variety blue, or red, or resistant to droughts. They are promising to develop a GM corn that is drought-resistant,” she says. “But here in Mexico we already have drought-resistant varieties – or how do you explain that farmers plant corn in the desert? It’s because farmers have been selecting, throughout many centuries, to adapt their seed to such extreme conditions.”

Monsanto has already made inroads with farmers in the north of the country, despite the fact that it remains illegal to promote GM corn in Mexico. Of course, the farmers in Chihuahua who planted 9,000 hectares of it had to buy it from somewhere.

“Recently, farmers in the north have been quoted saying that ‘We want GM corn, and since the government hasn’t decided its position, we’re already planting it’,” says Marielle, adding that Monsanto has influence in Mexico through an organization called Agrodinamica Nacional A.C.

Leonardo Estrada, a leader of the National Confederation of Farmers (CNC) – tied to the country’s longtime ruling party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) – in Guanajuato state, says that the CNC has strong ties with Monsanto and other bio-tech firms.

“We have a special office in the CNC, the office of Storage and Comercialization, which already has all the necessary ties and connections with the transnationals that can sell us GM seed,” he says.

Recently, Monsanto signed an agreement with the CNC, formalizing the future sale of GM seed to CNC farmers as soon as it is legal. In exchange, Monsanto has initiated a project to “conserve” native varieties, hoping to create a database and seedbank of Mexico’s maize varieties.

The project could give Monsanto the raw material to start patenting new GM varieties based on Mexico’s native maize.

Monsanto’s stated goal in undertaking efforts to “conserve” Mexico’s maize diversity is to protect maize in the poor southern Mexican states – by not planting there. Some of most contaminated regions, however, are in Oaxaca and Puebla, two southern states that are among Mexico’s most impoverished.

Out of reach?

Biotech companies are campaigning hard in Mexico’s industrialized north, trying to convince farmers to buy GM corn. Farmworkers are led to believe that GM corn will save them money, and are generally unaware of the risks of contamination.

“We are really ignorant as to how GM corn works,” says Miguel, a farmer from Guanajuato state. “But GM corn yields more, and it doesn’t need herbicides. In total, it already comes with everything, which for us represents a lot of money saved. We want the government to let us plant it, because it yields more with less water.”

Biotech companies’ own studies support the claim that GM corn yields more product, but critics argue that independent data indicates otherwise.

“Independent studies by scientists in the U.S. and Europe demonstrate that the improvement in yields isn’t true,” Marielle argues. “In some cases, yes, but it’s never more that ten percent. Sometimes it’s negative. There’s one study that shows that, in the U.S., the average yield increase is two percent. Is it really worth it to run so much risk for such an insignificant increase in yield?”

Monsanto, however, maintains that GM corn is beneficial to farmers because of yield increases.

“In [GM] corn, some of the most dramatic benefits have come in the shape of increased yields which have helped create more food and feed for people and animals,” says Wallis.

Although some farmers believe that they will save money with GM technology, even its proponents admit that small farmers can’t afford to buy the large quantities of seed, fertilizer, and irrigation that GM corn requires.

“We have to make the federal government give us a subsidy, because our farmers in the CNC don’t have the financial capacity to be buying large volumes of seeds,” Estrada says. “We are only waiting for the financial resources to bring [GM corn] in.”

A recent study on GM crops by Friends of the Earth International shows that since 1994 – when herbicide-tolerant varieties of GM soy, corn, and cotton were introduced in the U.S. – there has been a 15-fold increase in herbicide use.

Some of the GM corn varieties in Mexico are herbicide-tolerant, resulting in the increased application of glyphosate – a Monsanto-produced herbicide known as Roundup. In Mexico, Monsanto’s glyphosate-resistant YieldGuard corn varieties, along with Monsanto’s Bt corn, are the principal GM contaminators of native maize.

Sin maíz, no hay país

A lot of attention has been paid recently to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a so-called “doomsday” bank in Norway to keep the world’s seed wealth in suspended animation. But farmers are the real seed bank; they are the original biotechnicians, constantly adapting and bettering their seed as conditions change. Helping farmers maintain that seed diversity is the real key to food security.

Corn is one of the most important crops on the planet, with some 687.2 billion kilos harvested in 2006 and 2007. Although the majority of that corn is produced in the U.S. and in China – and a large portion has recently been diverted to production of ethanol and other industrial products like glues – it remains a staple food crop all over Africa and the Americas. Preserving the diversity of Mexico’s maize is key to future world food security.

The import and planting of GM corn in Mexico – whether illegal or legal – threatens to contaminate maize all over the country, turning campesinos into Monsanto’s slaves, obligated to buy its seed year after year.

Campesinos in contaminated areas filed suit in 2002 with the Commission for Environmental Cooperation of North America (CEC), NAFTA’s ruling authority on environmental issues, calling for a review of the risks of GM corn in Mexico. The CEC report called for Mexico to uphold its ban on planting GM seed, and to minimize the import of GM produce.

For the moment, Monsanto is content to wait before taking Mexican farmers to court to formalize their patent rights.

“Right now they’re not going to persecute those who have contaminated fields. What they want to do is let their seed proliferate throughout the country,” says Marielle.

But indigenous farmers all over Mexico have begun to fight back, holding rituals to cleanse their maize and starting their own seed banks to protect local diversity. However, testing for GM contamination is prohibitively expensive, costing over $200 for each sample.

According to Marielle, a moratorium on the import of GM corn is the only solution to wprotecting Mexico’s maize. She argues that consumers must reject GM products and force the government into action.

“What is really needed is a total moratorium. And it’s nothing more than a question of political will. It could be done tomorrow,” says Marielle. “Why can Japan, who imports a lot of corn and rice from the U.S., successfully reject the importation of GM crops? Because the government of Japan is very strong, and most importantly, Japan’s consumers are very strong.”

On January 31, in one of Mexico’s biggest protests ever, some 200,000 farmers from all over the country flooded Mexico City’s central plaza, calling for the government to re-negotiate the terms of NAFTA’s agricultural chapter and to immediately stop the importation GM corn.

Bety Cariño is an activist from Oaxaca’s Sierra Mixteca – 150 kilometres from where GM contamination was first discovered in 2001 – and part of the Sin maíz, no hay país campaign. She says that GM contamination represented the final straw to not just farmers, but also to Mexico’s indigenous peoples, for whom maize is often an important cultural item.

“The government has abandoned real support for the countryside, leaving our fields empty here in the Mixteca, where the youth have to leave for the United States to survive, leaving their communities behind and abandoning the field,” she says. “And now, GM corn is going to finish off the countryside – which is to say, Mexico’s indigenous peoples.”

However, thanks to organizations like GEA and Greenpeace and the Sin maíz, no hay país campaign, Mexican consumers and farmers are learning the risks of GM corn and starting to fight back.

Despite the government’s inaction, campesino and indigenous activists all over Mexico have vowed to keep fighting to do what no one else will: protect Mexico’s corn, farmers, and indigenous peoples.

“Better to die fighting,” says Don Serdán with tears in his eyes, “than on our knees, begging for the food that we ourselves can produce.”


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