Biodiversity, Development & Aid, Environment, Food and Agriculture, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

MEXICO: Cradle of Maize Rocked by Transgenics

Diego Cevallos

MEXICO CITY, Mar 16 2009 (IPS) - Mexico has lifted the ban on experimental cultivation of transgenic maize imposed in 1999 in this country where the crop was first domesticated and shaped human culture. Biotech giants have put forward two dozen projects for approval and have announced investments of 382 million dollars up to 2012.

Ears of maize at Yaluma, in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas.  Credit: Mauricio Ramos/IPS

Ears of maize at Yaluma, in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. Credit: Mauricio Ramos/IPS

The green light given by the government of conservative President Felipe Calderón to the trials, by means of an executive decree which came into force early this month, has provoked the indignation of activists and campesinos (small farmers) opposed to genetically modified (GM) maize.

GM maize seeds have been subjected to recombinant DNA techniques in the laboratory, to introduce one or more genes from other species which confer desirable properties such as higher yields or resistance to herbicides or disease.

The groups opposing the measure warn that it will consolidate domination of the global market of GM seeds by transnational corporations and jeopardise the rich genetic diversity of native maize, domesticated in this country over 9,000 years ago and regarded as sacred by campesinos and indigenous people.

“The activists wanted to reject experimental cultivation of transgenic maize on behalf of all Mexican farmers, but reason won out,” Fabrice Salamanca, head of Agrobio México, told IPS. Agrobio represents the transnational biotech corporations based in this country: Bayer, DuPont, Monsanto, Syngenta and Dow.

According to Salamanca, these companies are poised to invest in experimental cultivation, related research and infrastructure. “We hope that approval for the first field trials will be given in August,” he said.

The applications are for experimental cultivation in northern Mexico, where large-scale maize cultivation is concentrated, based on commercial hybrid seeds or varieties improved by cross-pollination.

“There are no applications to experiment with GM varieties in the southern states, where maize is grown as a subsistence crop for local consumption using native varieties, and where the wealth of traditional genetic diversity is located,” Salamanca said.

“No one is against the protection of native varieties of maize; on the contrary, we think there should be programmes to support its producers. We will be working with agribusiness producers, a sector where it is logical to use transgenic seeds,” said the head of Agrobio México.

The new decree limits the size of experimental plots to two hectares, which must be at least 200 metres away from other crops and separated from them by natural barriers, such as screens of trees planted on their perimeters. The ears of corn must be removed from each plant to avoid pollen being dispersed by the wind. At the end of the trial, after scientific assessment of the crop and harvest, the grains produced must be burned.

The biotech firms hope that the experiments will demonstrate the advantages they claim for their GM seeds, and that in a year or so commercial planting will be allowed.

Miguel Colunga, leader of the Democratic Campesino Front (FDC) in the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua, said “the government made a terrible mistake when it allowed these experiments, because it has put (the country’s) biodiversity and food sovereignty at risk.”

The FDC, part of an alliance of environmental and campesino organisations calling itself “Sin maíz no hay país” (roughly, “No maize means no Mexico”), will carry out protest demonstrations against the permits that are granted for experimental maize crops. “We might even burn the plots,” Colunga warned.

On Mar. 6 the government published the decree introducing reforms and additions to the regulations for the Biosafety Law, approved in 2005. The new regulations allow experimental cultivation of transgenic maize after plans for the experiment have been duly authorised.

The Agriculture and Environment Ministries must promote in situ conservation of native breeds and varieties of maize and its wild relatives through subsidy programmes or other mechanisms in order to conserve biodiversity, the decree says.

It also stipulates that before permission is granted for experimental cultivation, the authority must verify that there is no conventional alternative to the GM organism in question.

In cases where the authorities determine the non-authorised presence of genetically modified material in breeds, varieties and wild relatives of maize, they must take measures to eliminate, control or mitigate such presence, it says. Silvia Ribeiro, the Latin America spokeswoman for the non-governmental Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC Group), said the Calderón administration “concocted its own interpretation of the law in order to allow experimental crops because of pressure from transnational corporations.”

The Biosafety Law, regulations to which were only added in 2008, stipulates that the authorities must define special rules for experimental cultivation of maize. Instead, “they have issued some low-level rules that no one will follow,” Ribeiro said.

In spite of the ban on growing transgenic maize, traces of GM varieties have been found from time to time on some farms since 2001, even in the south of the country where commercial seeds are not used. In some cases investigations are ongoing, but most incidents have never been investigated.

Ribeiro and Colunga accused the members of Agrobio of bribing large farmers in the north of the country to keep pressing for the experiments to be allowed. “The companies have exerted pressure in every possible way,” Ribeiro complained.

“I know that some farmers grew transgenic maize illegally in Chihuahua at the request of the companies themselves, so that the government would have no alternative but to accept it,” Colunga said.

Large agricultural producers in the north, represented by organisations like Agrodinámica Nacional, have been demanding permits to cultivate transgenic maize on the grounds that they would be able to produce higher yields at greater profits.

Mexico produces 21 million tonnes of maize annually on a surface area of some 8.5 million hectares. Over three million campesinos, most of whom are poor, plant native maize or use seeds that have been improved by traditional methods, but there are also large agribusiness concerns that produce the crop.

Mexico is not self-sufficient in maize, its staple food, and has to import some 10 million tonnes a year from the United States, mainly yellow maize which is used as animal feed – and which has drawn the most attention from the biotech industry.

In the United States both transgenic and traditional varieties of maize are grown, on a surface area of 32 million hectares, with an annual production that is more than 15 times that of Mexico.

Agrobio’s Salamanca said the companies never bribed or exerted undue pressure on farmers or the government. “These fake accusations create a false controversy, egged on by activists who claim to speak for all farmers, which is not true,” he said.

GM seeds are expanding their market share because they are in demand from farmers who appreciate their benefits, and there is no evidence that they cause any harm to health or the environment, Salamanca maintained.

However, the potential dangers of transgenics have been documented in several cases. In the United States, GM StarLink maize was withdrawn from the market in 2000 after consumers were affected by allergies.

In addition, the transgenic MON-863 variety of maize, patented by Monsanto, was found to harm rats in laboratory experiments.

But there are no conclusive data. Some renowned scientists support transgenic crops, while others oppose them.

According to Ribeiro, the Mexican government’s decision was not a defeat for the social movement, “but an imposition arising from pressure and bribes from the transnational companies.”

The global environmental watchdog Greenpeace, campesino organisations and a group of Mexican research scientists belonging to the Union of Scientists Committed to Society (UCCS) have carried out demonstrations and debates in the past few years to oppose transgenic maize.

They argue that corporations “enslave” the farmers who buy their seeds, as they oblige them to sign contracts according to which they can only sow the original company seed and are forbidden from saving the best seed from the harvest for the next year’s sowing season, the ancestral practice used for crop improvement.

But their greatest concern about transgenic varieties is that, if released into the environment, they could decimate the biological diversity of native maize and even alter the balance of this country’s remarkable biodiversity.

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