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ENVIRONMENT: Monsanto Stands Firm on GM Maize in Mexico

Diego Cevallos* - Tierramérica

MEXICO CITY, Nov 10 2006 (IPS) - The powerful biotech corporation Monsanto, which anti-genetic modification activists charge is corrupt, maintains that it has a positive image around the world and announces that it will continue to fight to ensure that Mexico, birthplace of maize, will open its doors to transgenic varieties of the grain.

In an interview with Tierramérica in Mexico City, Eduardo Pérez, director of technology development for Monsanto in northern Latin America, said that although “activism has created a mistaken perception of us,” it does not affect the company’s commercial performance.

In 2005, some 8.5 million farmers in 21 countries planted genetically modified (GM) crops over 400 million hectares. Most of the transgenic seed was produced by Monsanto.

The corporation has been accused of pressuring and bribing government officials, of going after farmers who fail to pay royalties to Monsanto for seed production, of altering scientific reports, and even of having taken part in creating agent orange, the chemical weapon that became infamous during the Vietnam War (1964-1975).

The representative from Monsanto, a company that rarely grants press interviews, denies many of those charges, but does acknowledge that there was a case of bribery. Pérez announced that the firm does not plan to leave Mexico, despite the Vicente Fox government’s ban on GM maize.

TIERRAMERICA: In October the Mexican government refused, for the third time since 2005, to allow experimental crops of Monsanto’s genetically modified maize. What will the company do?

EDUARDO PEREZ: We made the requests at the initiative of the government itself, because they needed our seeds to carry out experiments. We don’t know in detail the arguments, but if they are reasonable we’ll accept them. It’s necessary to obtain scientific information in a responsible way, so that officials can decide whether or not commercial cultivation of transgenic maize would be of benefit.

TIERRAMERICA: There are still regulations pending, which need to be approved before these crops will be allowed, but despite this your company is pressuring the authorities.

PEREZ: We are not pressuring, we are only doing our job. We are focused on providing information, and of course we have an interest in crop experimentation. That is why we are talking with decision-makers in order to determine what they need, if they have all the elements and if we can help in any way. We maintain that for experimentation it is not necessary to have the complete regulatory system in place.

TIERRAMERICA: Do you see the arrival of genetically modified maize in Mexico as inevitable? The activists say that if it is allowed here, you will ultimately have a free pass for any other country.

PEREZ: I believe to the extent that scientific data is generated and the authorities have safety measures for moving on to a commercial phase, this technology should be available to the farmers. We have no doubt about the benefits of this type of product; we have proved them in many parts of the world. Bringing them to Mexico is important, but no more important than in other countries that already use GM seeds. It should made clear that it’s the farmers who are asking for this technology.

TIERRAMERICA: Those opposed to GM crops say the Monsanto seed generates dependence, because the farmers aren’t allowed to use others, or they could face lawsuits.

PEREZ: We guarantee that we will not sue farmers who cultivate transgenic seed without realising it. The lawsuits on this matter that we have filed in other countries are against those who have used our technology in a premeditated way and to take advantage of us. The commitment is to provide solutions, but nobody is obliged to accept them.

TIERRAMERICA: It has been charged that GM maize could have profound environmental, health and cultural consequences.

PEREZ: This is a debate among scientists that has often been politicised, to the point of affirming without basis that transgenic maize is going to contaminate and deteriorate biodiversity. But the more than 150 million tonnes of transgenic maize that circulate in the world have not produced any harm. As for cultural impact, I don’t think there will be changes, but I do think it is necessary to define which communities are centres of maize origin in Mexico, to maintain that status.

TIERRAMERICA: An executive from Monsanto declared in 2005 that if the company’s GM maize were not approved, the company would leave Mexico.

PEREZ: I don’t know how the response from that colleague was interpreted, but if a blocked regulatory system persists in Mexico, one that is unpredictable and to a certain point dilatory, the company will take the decision to direct some of the resources we use here to some other country. But we will not leave Mexico. We have been here for many years and we made a commitment to this country.

TIERRAMERICA: Monsanto has a negative image; the activists make serious accusations against the company.

PEREZ: Activism created a mistaken perception of us, but it doesn’t affect the company. If we had a poor image, we wouldn’t be in 120 countries. Nor would our products, like hybrid seeds and herbicides, be the preferred choice of farmers in Mexico.

TIERRAMERICA: In 2002 Monsanto was fined for paying 700,000 dollars to officials in Indonesia to convince them to allow GM crops. How did that affect the company’s image?

PEREZ: It wasn’t Monsanto that did it, it was an intermediary. But the law is clear: although they acted without our consent, the company is the one sanctioned, and that is why we paid the fine. Now the company has a very strict policy so it won’t happen again.

TIERRAMERICA: Is Monsanto one of the inventors of agent orange?

PEREZ: I don’t have much information about that; I wasn’t even born then. Just as easily it could have been some other company involved.

(*Originally published Nov. 4 by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Environment Programme.)

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