Corn conundrums in Latin America

Mexico’s first crop of genetically modified maize – due to be harvested later this month – is stoking anxiety about the risks of biotechnology. Jan McGirk reports.

“Poor Mexico – so far from God and so close to the United States!” Porfirio Diaz, the iron-fisted Mexican general, famously quipped. To the peasant corn farmers and green activists who protested in the streets after the Mexican government reversed its ban on growing genetically modified foods and approved experimental planting of gene-spliced corn crops in the north of the country, it must seem like the United States draws ever closer.

The decision to allow genetically engineered corn to be sown inside Mexico, the birthplace of this cereal crop, is anathema for many Mexicans. In the central highlands, where wild grass called teosinte was first cross-bred into the staff of life some 9,000 years ago, corn is viewed not only as a staple food but as a sacrament of Mesoamerican civilisation. Some indigenous tribes in Mexico still worship Centeotl, the Aztec corn god who protects harvests, and passions run high if any threat to corn is perceived.

Yet laboratory-altered corn, patented by the seed giants Monsanto and Dow AgroSciences, is already ripening on 13 hectares in Sinaloa and Sonora states, and the first harvest is expected later this month. An analysis is expected in July. Farm groups and environmentalists filed an appeal with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in February 2010, arguing that Mexican officials have been unwilling or unable to prevent the illegal spread of genetically modified crops in their country and that it is too soon to permit biotech plantations before the consequences of genetic contamination – possibly irreversible – are fully understood. They are concerned that Mexican seed dealers have smuggled in thousands of sacks of genetically modified corn with impunity. The commission can refer cases to the Inter-American Human Rights Court if a government does not comply with its recommendations.

“Small producers will be affected the most [by GM contamination], since they use native corn seed; the bigger producers all use sterile hybrids anyway,” says Kirsten Appendini, an agrarian economist from the Colegio de Mexico. “The dependency of farmers on one big company for buying seeds is undesirable.”

“The worry is that everybody will be affected by genetically modified corn, environmentally, through the reduction of biodiversity,” Appendini adds. “As for the health issues – we don’t know the consequences over time. So if you eat tortillas, as we all do, there are unknown risks.” The concern is that, by manipulating genes in a plant that is consumed, biotechnicians might eventually trigger allergies, toxins, adverse nutritional effects or new diseases.

Typically, a Mexican eats nearly 10 times as much corn each year as an American, so when French researchers at Caen University concluded that rats had suffered kidney and liver damage after being fed genetically modified corn, Mexicans paid attention. Greenpeace Mexico launched a new campaign, “Hands off our corn!”, and rallied in front of the local Monsanto office in April this year. Local celebrities joined activists to complain that allowing fields of genetically modified corn in the country violates “the human, economic, social and cultural rights of farm communities and consumers”.

They also demanded that the government enforce mandatory labelling on genetically modified foods so that consumers can make an informed choice to avoid them. Considering that genetically modified corn products are ubiquitous in a multitude of local and imported processed foods containing glucose, maltodextrin, cornstarch, corn gluten, corn syrup, corn oil and the like, the task could be a logistical nightmare.

Officials in Mexico City recently announced their own initiative to promote the conservation of native maize varieties around the capital. The programme, part of the United Nations’ International Year of Biodiversity, also aims to detect any transgenic corn growing in district fields in an effort to prevent cross-pollination.

“There’s no easy way to get rid of the transgenic corn once it’s out there, because you must know where to find it,” says George Dyer, a bio-economist affiliated with the University of California. “We know so little about how the trangenes move. In some studies, researchers have claimed to have found traces, and then later found nothing. If you don’t know how much is out there, how can you pull it out? That said, around 5% of seed stocks in Mexico test positive for GMOs.”

Dyer also praises Mexico City’s new maize preservation plans as environmentally sound.

“Mexico City is committed to safeguarding our invaluable natural resources,” says Martha Delgado, Mexico City’s minister of the environment. “We take very seriously our responsibility in working to reduce the world’s current rate of biodiversity loss.” According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 80% of maize varieties that existed as recently as the 1930s are already gone.

At least 55 native types of Mexican maize are still cultivated, ranging in colour from deep blue to red, white and spotted. Huitlacoche, a purplish black fungus that grows on some cobs, is a prized delicacy in Mexican cuisine. It was rechristened “Mexican truffle” by gourmands in the United States, where most growers scorn the stuff as “corn smut” – a blight to be eradicated. Villagers in Mexico say that their heirloom corn needs far less regular fertiliser and pesticide than the genetically modified strains and can better resist pests and disease while in storage.

“Many farmers don’t produce corn for profit because they are consuming all they grow,” says Dyer. “They are willing to spend money growing corn for social reasons. In remote areas, a man would feel ashamed if he could not grow enough corn to feed his own family and had to buy from outside.” Surveys show that 80% of Mexico’s 2.6 million small farms are tiny plots suitable only for subsistence.

The uniformly fat, yellow genetically modified cobs imported from the United States are mostly destined for cattle-feed lots or chicken coops and not meant for the Mexican table, where white corn meal is traditionally preferred. The remainder is supposed to be used for biofuel, fibre and processed foods, although products that bleach cheap, yellow kernels sufficiently white for tortillas are widely available. In practice, there’s little effort to separate food from fodder and Mexico imports 30% of its corn from America – close to 10 million tonnes a year.

Genetically modified corn, first designed to resist Monsanto’s powerful weed-killer, was launched by the company in 1995 and insect-resistant strains soon followed. Now, 80% of the US corn crop is gene-spliced. Proponents insist that genetically modified corn produces greater yields with less pesticides and soil erosion, and that drought resistant strains are the next big breakthrough. However, the repeated application of the weed-killer Roundup is creating new superweeds that have already sent the bioengineers back to the drawing board. It is reminiscent of the way the overuse of antibiotics contributed to the rise of drug-resistant supergerms.

According to one researcher, who asked not to be named, Mexico’s economic woes have overridden concerns about the genetic pollution of native corn varieties. She also noted that the powerful biotech companies, which fund much of the pertinent agricultural research, are eager to expand their markets south of the border and tend to pressure academics.

Victor Villalobos, now director general of the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA), has pointed out that Mexico must weigh its biological concerns against the cost of feeding its population of more than 100 million people. “We are not a country that should remain behind in technological innovation,” he told the Chicago Tribune in 2004.

The new technology can seem rather ominous. “Pharma-crops first caused the widespread alarm inside Mexico,” explains George Dyer, an expert on corn. “It’s possible to grow different molecules, say vaccines or antibodies, within the corn. Some are intended to be eaten. Other times the medical product is removed from the grain and marketed. But in places where people keep seed stocks, this is problematical. Using staple crops like corn to grow swine medicine that is not intended for human consumption was perceived as a risk.”

Many Mexicans were shocked when Epicyte, a Californian biotech firm that is now defunct, designed an experimental contraceptive corn in 2001. A technique that transformed corn plants into horticultural mini-factories that could grow contraceptives in the field was misunderstood and rumoured to be an out-of-the-box solution to world hunger – a way to lower the sperm count of the peasants by doctoring their diet.

Controversy has raged in Mexico ever since contamination from transgenic corn was detected 1,400 kilometres south of the US border in an Oaxaca field by agronomists at the University of California, Berkeley in 2001. And genetically modified corn StarLink, approved solely for animal feed, had mysteriously ended up in supermarket taco shells manufactured in Mexico the year before. The rhetoric on both sides has been heated; mutual mistrust and acrimony have mounted over the years.

Opponents of genetically modified corn are derided as hysterical “globofobicos” (literally: fearful of globalisation) – resistant to scientific advancement and ideologically opposed to multinational corporations. On the other hand, Monsanto is vilified as a profiteering poison-vendor, responsible for inventing the military defoliant Agent Orange and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), but now trying to rebrand itself as a benign agri-business innovator, with a mission to end world hunger through improved crop yields.

Helen Rimmer, food campaigner at Friends of the Earth, takes issue with this self-image: “GM crops don’t feed the world – they simply make record profits for the big businesses that sell the patented seeds and chemicals needed to grow them.”

Even Nina Fedoroff, a tireless supporter of genetically modified foods and the science and technology adviser to US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, recently admitted: “We preach to the world about science-based regulations but really our regulations on crop biotechnology are not yet science-based.”

Jan McGirk is a former correspondent for
The Independent, who has reported on environmental issues and disasters in Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.

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