The Mexican States of Tlaxcala and Michoacán each passed legislation banning the planting of genetically modified corn to protect natural plants from further contamination of transgenes. Together, both states produce about a third of all of Mexico’s corn. Below this story is a detailed timeline of genetic contamination and legislation in Mexico.
By Aleira Lara
It’s been an exciting couple of months in the debate over Mexican maize with some good news for Mexican agriculture and biodiversity. However, the consequences of recent frosts in northern states and the aggressive propaganda of the industry is still putting at risk Mexican’s basic grain. Here’s the latest:
GM free States arising in Mexico:
Because of the lack of interest of federal government to protect the large diversity of Mexican maize against the contamination of GM crop, Michoacán State congress passed by a majority the “Law of Promotion and Protection of Native Maize as Alimentary Patrimony of Michoacán State”, which will allow the protection of 18 of the 59 races of this crop that exist in Mexico. Michoacán is the fourth largest maize producer on a national scale and represents 30 percent of Mexico’s total maize crop area.
Michoacán’s initiative follows the recent approval of the “Law of Promotion and Protection of Native Maize as an original patrimony, in constant diversification, and alimentary for Tlaxcala State”. Both states decided to go ahead with the protection of such an important crop for Mexican society.
This process is directly related to the lack of political will of the federal government to promote local production and the fierce interest of multinational companies such as Monsanto, Syngenta, Pioneer and Dow Agroscience to impose GM maize within Mexican territory. We hope that this process will continue and that more and more states will protect their maizes races, especially the northern states that are currently developing GM maize experimental trials such as “Sinaloa” and “Chihuahua”.
Another defeat for Monsanto
In January, the secretary of agriculture announced his decision to deny pilot trials to Monsanto in the State of Sinaloa – principal producer of white corn for human consumption in Mexico. Pilot trials are the next step after the experimental stage.We have been working hard in this state, facing the will of local authorities that are closely linked to the industry and have distributed GM maize propaganda widely within the region.
Recently we’ve released a new report ““Cultivos transgénicos: cero ganancias” (GM crops,zero profit”) in local meetings. Moreover, in 2007 we made a formal complaint to theProcuraduría General de Protección al Ambiente (Profepa) (Environment Protection Agency).We received additional information in 2010 related to the irregularities in GM trials in Sinaloa state. We published this information and we asked for the suspension of experimental trials in the country. Here is the what the government press release had to say: This is why all Federal Government resolutions are based in scientific principles are decided impartially according to the Law of Biosafety of Genetically Modified Organisms and all the implications it has of official institutions that are concerned”
Read the whole press release in Spanish.
Biotech industry’s propaganda after bad harvests
On the other side, the consequences of recent frosts in northern states on maize production and the aggressive propaganda of the industry is still putting Mexican’s basic grain at risk.
Our warnings to the Mexican government have fallen on deaf ears and now the tragic loss of more than 5 millions foods grain confirms our worse fears: a model that neglects and excludes indigenous and small corn producers from public policies, that ignores and doesn’t take care of the ecological production and instead concentrates the nation’s resources in mono-crop industrial agriculture is vulnerable to massive failure. The biotech industry won’t hold back and wants to take advantage of the recent crisis to push forward the planting of its transgenic seeds as the magic tool against climate extremes. We are fighting hard to counter these false statements despite of their strong lobbying. The biotech companies are trying to take advantage of a dramatic situation directly related to the economical model they represent.Our struggle for Mexican maize, people and agriculture is still on, and we hope that this year will be full of victories for our campaign, in order to prevent Mexico to be a center of origin of a basic grain to liberate the GM crop on a commercial scale within its territory.
(Data thru 2006 from History Commons)
Mexico bans the planting of genetically modified crops. [Mother Jones, 7/9/2002]
Grupo Maseca, Mexico’s top producer of corn flour, says it will phase out its use of genetically modified corn. Mexico purchased $500 million of US corn in 1998. [Food & Drink Weekly, 9/13/1999; Canadian Business, 10/8/1999]
Dr. Ignacio Chapela, a microbial ecologist, and his assistant, David Quist, a graduate student at UC Berkeley, discover the presence of genetically modified (GM) genes in native Mexican maize growing in the remote hills of Oaxaca, Mexico. The contaminant genes contain DNA sequences from the cauliflower mosaic virus, which is often used as a promoter to “switch on” insecticidal or herbicidal properties in GM plants. Contamination is also found in samples from a government food store that purchases animal feed from the US. The Oaxaca region is considered to be the birthplace of maize and the world’s center of diversity for corn, “exactly the kind of repository of genetic variation that environmentalists and many scientists had hoped to protect from contamination,” the New York Times reports. Scientists worry that the genes could spread through the region’s corn population reducing its genetic diversity. Critics of genetically modified crops have long argued that the technology cannot be contained. According to Dr. Norman C. Ellstrand, evolutionary biologist at University of California at Riverside, the discovery “shows in today’s modern world how rapidly genetic material can move from one place to another.” The findings are not good news for the biotech industry which is currently lobbying Brazil, the European Union, and Mexico to lift their embargoes on genetically modified crops. [New York Times, 10/2/2001; Manchester Guardian Weekly, 12/12/2001; BBC, 3/13/2002] It is later learned that the contamination resulted from Oaxacan peasants planting kernels they purchased from a local feed store. Though there’s a moratorium on the growing of GM crops, there’s no such ban on animal feed containing GM seed. [Cox News, 10/2/2001]
Mexico’s Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources announces that it has found genetically modified (GM) corn growing in 15 different localities. It began investigating potential GM contamination after two Berkeley scientists found maize growing in Oaxaca (see October 2000) that was contaminated with genetically engineered DNA sequences from the cauliflower mosaic virus. [New York Times, 10/2/2001] Mexico does not release its study until January 2002 (see January 2002).
When Dr. Ignacio Chapela, a microbial ecologist who recently discovered the presence of genetically modified (GM) genes in Mexican maize (see October 2000), meets with a Mexican agricultural official to discuss the GM contamination, he is warned not to publish his research. Chapela later recalls in an interview with BBC Newsnight, “He [told] me how terrible it was that I was doing the research and how dangerous it would be for me to publish.” When he refuses to back off the issue, the official suggests that Chapela join a research team tasked with proving that the suspected GM genes are actually naturally occuring gene sequences similar to the ones in GM corn. “We were supposed to find this in an elite scientific research team of which I was being invited to be part of and the other people were two people from Monsanto and two people from Dupont supposedly… .” Monsanto denies its scientists were involved in any such study. Chapela also meets with Mexico’s Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources, whose officials are concerned about the discovery. They launch their own investigation and also find evidence of contamination (see September 18, 2001). [BBC, 6/2/2002]
Berkeley grad student David Quist and Dr. Ignacio Chapela, a microbial ecologist, publish the results of a study (see October 2000) finding that native Mexican maize has been contaminated with genetically modified genes. The study—published by the British journal Nature after an eight-month long peer-review process—presents two arguments. In addition to reporting the discovery that some of Oaxaca’s maize contains transgenic material, the paper says they found transgene fragments scattered throughout the plants’ modified DNA. [Quist and Chapela, 11/29/2001 ] The study’s second conclusion causes a controversy because it contradicts the assertions of the biotech industry that genetic engineering is a safe and exact science, and that the technology is capable of controlling precisely where the modified sequences are positioned, how they will be expressed, and whether or not they will be passed on to successive generations. One of the main arguments of the technology’s detractors is that the methods used to insert trangenic genes into an organism’s DNA cannot be done with accuracy and therefore are liable to produce unpredictable and undesirable effects. Following the publication of Quist and Chapela’s article, other Berkeley biologists—who work in a Berkeley University program partially funded by Syngenta, a major biotech firm—criticize the study, leading Quist and Chapela to acknowledge that the analyses of two of the eight gene sequences in their paper were flawed. However they stand by their conclusions that the remaining six sequences contained scattered modified gene sequences. Critics of the article also note that both Quist and Chapela strongly oppose the genetic engineering of crops and participated in an unsuccessful effort to block the Berkeley-Syngenta partnership. The issue soon grows into a very large controversy that some suggest is fueled by the efforts of the biotech industry, and in particular, the Bivings Group, a PR firm on Monsanto’s payroll. Forum postings at AgBioWorld.org are reportedly traced to a Bivings’ employee. It is also noted that another person posting on the forum makes “frequent reference to the Center for Food and Agricultural Research, an entity that appears to exist only online and whose domain is [allegedly] registered to a Bivings employee.” Bivings denies that it is in any way connected to the forum postings. In spite of the controversy surrounding the article’s second finding, the other conclusion, that Mexico’s maize has been contaminated, is largely uncontested, and is buttressed by at least three other studies (see January 2002; February 19, 2003-February 21, 2003). [Associated Press, 4/4/2002; East Bay Express, 5/29/2002; BBC, 6/2/2002; Mother Jones, 7/9/2002]
Mexico’s Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources publishes the results of its study (see September 18, 2001) on transgenic contamination in Oaxaca and nearby Puebla. The study found contamination levels between 3 and 13 percent in eleven communities and between 20 and 60 percent in four others. Tests conducted on maize sold in government food stores revealed that 37 percent contained the GM genes. [East Bay Express, 5/29/2002]
In an unprecedented move, Nature runs an editorial pulling its support for a controversial study by Berkeley scientists David Quist and Dr. Ignacio Chapela on genetic contamination of native Mexican maize. The study, published the previous fall (see Late November 2001), reported that native maize in Oaxaca had been contaminated with genetically modified (GM) genes and that transgene fragments were found scattered throughout the plants’ modified DNA. Immediately after being published, the article came under attack by pro-GM scientists who disputed Quist’s and Chapela’s second finding. “In light of these discussions and the diverse advice received, Nature has concluded that the evidence available is not sufficient to justify the publication of the original paper,” the journal’s editor, Philip Campbell, writes. “As the authors nevertheless wish to stand by the available evidence for their conclusions, we feel it best simply to make these circumstances clear, to publish the criticisms, the authors’ response and new data, and to allow our readers to judge the science for themselves.” Though the journal withdraws its support, it does not retract the article. [Associated Press, 4/4/2002; East Bay Express, 5/29/2002; Mother Jones, 7/9/2002] The decision to withdraw support is based on the opinions of three unnamed independent experts whom Nature consulted. Only one of those experts, however, disputed Quist’s and Chapela’s finding that there was evidence of contamination. All three agreed that the second finding—that transgene fragments were scattered throughout the plants’ modified DNA—was flawed. [BBC, 6/2/2002]
Jorge Soberon, the executive secretary of Mexico’s biodiversity commission, announces that government scientists have confirmed that genetically modified (GM) corn is growing in Mexico. The finding supports what two US scientists reported several months earlier (see Late November 2001) in a highly controversial paper published in the journal Science. Calling it the “world’s worst case of contamination by GM material,” he says 95 percent of the sites sampled in Oaxaca and Puebla were found to have GM maize. Samples taken from these sites indicated a contamination level as high as 35 percent. [Daily Telegraph, 4/19/2002; Mother Jones, 7/9/2002]
A study conducted by a coalition of North American civil society organizations finds that cornfields in nine Mexican states—Chihuahua, Morelos, Durango, Mexico State, Puebla, Oaxaca, San Luis Potosi, Tlaxcala, and Veracruz—are contaminated with genetically modified (GM) DNA. A total of 2,000 plants from 138 farming and indigenous communities are tested. Contaminated corn is discovered in 33 of these communities, or 24 percent. Contamination levels vary from 1.5 percent to 33.3 percent. Some plants are found to contain as many as four different types of GM DNA—one herbicide-resistant variety and three Bt varieties, including Starlink, which is banned for human consumption in the US. Several plants in at least one of the contaminated fields are deformed. “We have seen many deformities in corn, but never like this,” Baldemar Mendoza, an indigenous farmer from Oaxaca, says during a news conference. “One deformed plant in Oaxaca that we saved tested positive for three different transgenes. The old people of the communities say they have never seen these kinds of deformities.” [ETC Group, 10/11/2003]
The US, Mexico, and Canada enter into a trilateral agreement that allows food and grain shipments to have GM contamination levels as high as 5 percent. Shipments containing less than the five percent level will only have to bear a label indicating that the grain may contain genetically modified organisms. Additionally, accidental contamination of corn shipments into Mexico will not trigger any labeling requirements. Only the distributor will have to be informed of the contamination. The Mexican government enters into the agreement without the Mexican Senate’s approval. [Associated Press, 2/26/2004] Critics of the deal say the US is attempting to protect agricultural biotech companies and US agriculture. A large percentage of the country’s crop is genetically modified and as a result US farmers and biotechs are having a tough time finding markets abroad. Raising the acceptable contamination limits in other countries will help increase US grain exports. Critics also say that the deal could have a dramatically adverse effect on the genetic diversity of Mexico’s maize. It could result in the planting of more genetically modified corn since small farmers have been known to occasionally plant feed as seed. A few years before, maize growing in Oaxaca and Puebla was discovered to contain genetically modified genes (see October 2000; April 18, 2002). It is believed that the contamination was caused in part by farmers who had planted feed from local stores selling grain imported from the US. The ETC Group, a Canadian-based organization that is opposed to genetically modified crops, warns that if Mexico permits the import of grain with such high levels of contamination, the country’s “maize crop would be riddled with foreign DNA from the Rio Grande to Guatemala in less than a decade.” [ETC Group, 2/26/2004] Greenpeace believes that US efforts to convince countries to lower the accepted levels of contamination are aimed at undermining the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (see January 24-29, 2000), which has been set up to regulate transboundary shipments of genetically modified organisms. [Greenpeace, 2/11/2004]
The Mexican Department of Agriculture turns down all seven requests filed by biotech companies to plant experimental fields of genetically engineered corn in northern Mexico. Companies that applied for permits included Monsanto, Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc., and others. [Associated Press, 10/18/2006]
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. The green light was 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. [Farming UK, 3/19/09]
Calderon took office under a storm of controversy over election fraud in the 2006 election, prompting millions to protest. The protests were crushed by US and Mexican military. (Click here for links to several news reports, plus this one by Al Giordana.)
Also see Phantoms in the machine: GM corn spreads to Mexico by author and filmmaker Marie-Monique Robin (The World According to Monsanto), Aug. 19, 2010.