Posts Tagged 'corn'

The Great Mexican Maize Massacre

Gene Giants Prepare the Genetic Wipe-out of One of the World’s Most Important Food Crops

Agribusiness giants Monsanto, DuPont and Dow are plotting the boldest coup of a global food crop in history. If their requests to allow a massive commercial planting of genetically modified (GM) maize are approved in the next two weeks by the government of outgoing president Felipe Calderón, this parting gift to the gene giants will amount to a knife in the heart of the center of origin and diversity for maize. The consequences will be grave – and global. With the approvals and December planting deadlines looming, social movements and civil society organizations have called for an end to all GM maize in Mexico. Mexico’s Union of Concerned Scientists (UCCS) has called on the Mexican government to stop the processing of any application for open-field release of GM maize in Mexico.[1]ETC Group joins these calls, and appeals to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) – intergovernmental bodies mandated to support food security and biodiversity – to take immediate action.

Outrage and alarm rang out through Mexico when the world’s two largest commercial seed companies, Monsanto and DuPont (whose seed business is known as DuPont Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Inc.), and Dow AgroSciences (the world’s 8th largest seed company) applied to the government for the planting of 2,500,000 hectares (more than 6 million acres) of transgenic maize in Mexico.[2] The land area is massive – about the size of El Salvador. Scientists have identified thousands of peasant varieties of maize, making Mexico the global repository of maize genetic diversity. If the agribusiness applications are approved, it will mark the world’s first commercial-scale planting of genetically modified varieties of a major food crop in its center of origin.

“If Mexico’s government allows this crime of historic significance to happen, GMOs will soon be in the food of the entire Mexican population, and genetic contamination of Mexican peasant varieties will be inevitable. We are talking about damaging more than 7,000 years of indigenous and peasant work that created maize – one of the world’s three most widely eaten crops,” said Verónica Villa from ETC’s Mexico office. “As if this weren’t bad enough, the companies want to plant Monsanto’s herbicide-tolerant maize [Mon603] on more than 1,400,000 hectares. This is the same type of GM maize that has been linked to cancer in rats according to a recently published peer-reviewed study.”[3]

The poor in Latin America, but also in Asia and Africa, will particularly feel the effects, where breeding from maize diversity supports their subsistence and helps them cope with impacts of climate chaos. Along with Mexico, southern African countries Lesotho, Zambia, and Malawi have the highest per capita maize consumption in the world.[4]

The Mexican government insists that the target areas in the north are not part of the center of origin for maize, as traditional varieties weren’t found there. But this is not true: peasant varieties have been collected in these states, although to a lesser degree than in areas to the south. Many scientists as well as the National Biodiversity Commission (Conabio) consider the whole Mexican territory to be the center of origin for maize.[5] According to a review made by Ceccam (Center for Study of Change in Rural Mexico), the government’s newly drawn ‘center of origin’ map is historically and scientifically wrong, designed in order to justify the planting of GM maize by transnational companies.[6]

Commercial-scale planting (and subsequent re-planting) of GM maize will contaminate peasant varieties beyond the target regions, via the dispersal of GM pollen by insects and wind, as well as via grain elevators and accidental escape from trucks that transport maize all over Mexico. Scientists expect that contamination’s negative effects on peasant varieties might be irreversible and progressive, thanks to the accumulation of transgenes in its genome, leading to an erosion of biodiversity.[7]

Hundreds of Mexican agronomists and other scientists as well as Mexico’s peasant, farmers’ and consumers’ organizations have voiced their opposition to the proposed planting, but the outgoing administration of President Calderón – with nothing to lose before his term ends on December 1 – is expected to side with agribusiness. Mounting pressure, both inside and outside the country, may complicate matters.

If the planting is allowed, however, farmers growing maize may become unwitting patent infringers, guilty of using “patented genes” and may be forced to pay royalties to the patent owners, as has already happened in hundreds of cases in North America.

“It would be a monumental injustice for the creators of maize – who have so benefited humankind – to be obliged to pay royalties to a transnational corporation that exploited their knowledge in the first place,” said Silvia Ribeiro, ETC Group’s Latin America Director.

In 1999, the Mexican National Agricultural Biosafety Commission established a moratorium on GM maize trials and commercial planting because of Mexico’s unique position as the center of origin and genetic diversity for maize. Calderón’s government arbitrarily broke the moratorium in 2009, although the conditions that motivated the moratorium were unchanged. Since then, the new biosafety commission (CIBIOGEM) has given its approval of 177 small GM maize field trials to 4 transnational companies (Dow AgroSciences, DuPont, Monsanto and Syngenta). The GM field trials themselves have been criticized for lacking biosafety rigour – failing to comply even with Mexico’s weak biosafety law.

Silvia Ribeiro argues: “The so-called public consultations have been a charade, since the trials were approved without taking into account critical comments – even when they represented the majority of comments, many of them from well-known agronomists and other scientists. On top of that, the results of the trials were kept confidential, but are now providing the justification to allow commercial planting.”

After his official visit to Mexico in 2011, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier de Schutter, recommended that the Mexican government reinstate the moratorium on GM maize, both because of its impact on biodiversity and on Farmers’ Rights.[8] The Mexican government ignored the recommendation.

Ana de Ita of Ceccam points out that the area applied for in the Sinaloa and Tamaulipas (Mexican states in the North of Mexico) exceeds the area currently planted to irrigated maize there. “So it appears the companies are planning to replace the whole area of maize as well as other crops,” she says. “This is outrageous, as there is no reason for Mexico to risk its own history and biodiversity with GM maize. Mexico already produces enough maize to exceed the human consumption needs in the country, and it could produce much more by supporting peasants and small-scale farmers without handing over its food sovereignty to transnational companies.”

Maize is central to the cultures, economies and livelihoods of the Mexican population, where most people eat maize in different forms every day. The amount of maize that Mexicans consume far exceeds the average per capita consumption of most other countries (115 kg/year). 85% of the Mexican maize producers are peasants and small farmers, with fields smaller than 5 hectares. These producers have an essential role in providing more than half the food for the population, particularly the poor. At the same time, they are caring for and increasing the crop’s genetic diversity because of the decentralized way they grow maize – planting many different varieties, adapted at local levels, along with a number of other crops and wild species.

In 2009, the Network in Defense of Maize,[9] together with La Via Campesina North America, sent an open letter signed by thousands of other organizations and individuals to FAO and the CBD, asking them to take action to prevent GM maize contamination in Mexico.[10] The former directors of both international organizations dodged the request, even though both institutions have committed to protect agricultural centers of origin.[11] We now ask the new directors of FAO and the CBD to take immediate action to protect the center of origin and diversity of maize.

For further information:

Silvia Ribeiro, ETC Group Latin America Director, silvia@etcgroup.org
Verónica Villa, ETC Group, Mexico, veronica@etcgroup.org
Tel: (+52) 55 63 2664

Ana de Ita, CECCAM, anadeita@ceccam.org.mx
Tel: (+52) 56 61 53 98

Pat Mooney, ETC Group Executive Director, mooney@etcgroup.org
Tel: 1-613-241-2267

Red en Defensa del Maíz: http://redendefensadelmaiz.net/
Centro de Estudios para el Cambio en el Campo Mexicano, ceccam: http://www.ceccam.org/


[1] UCCS (Unión de Científicos Comprometidos con la Sociedad), “Statement: Call to action vs the planting of GMO corn in open field situations in Mexico,” November 2012, available online:http://www.uccs.mx/doc/g/planting-gmo-corn.
[2] The list of commercial applications for environmental release of GMOs is available here:http://www.senasica.gob.mx/?id=4443. (In Mexico, DuPont Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Inc., is known by the name PHI México.)
[3] Gilles-Eric Séralini et al., “Long term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize,” Food and Chemical ToxicologyVolume 50, Issue 11, November 2012, pp. 4221–4231. See also, John Vidal, “Study linking GM maize to cancer must be taken seriously by regulators,” The Guardian, 28 September 2012, available online: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2012/sep/28/study-gm-maize-cancer.
[4] Alfred W. Crosby, review of James C. McCann, Maize and Grace: Africa’s Encounter with a New World Crop, 1500-2000 in Technology and Culture, Vol. 47, No. 1, January 2006, pp. 190-191.
[5] A. Serratos, El origen y la diversidad del maíz en el continente Americano, 2nd edition, September 2012, Mexico City Autonomous University and Greenpeace, available online:http://www.greenpeace.org/mexico/es/Footer/Descargas/reports/Agricultura-sustentable-y-transgenicos/El-origen-y-la-diversidad-del-maiz-2a-edicion/; National Commission for Biodiversity, Project Centers of Origin and diversification. http://www.biodiversidad.gob.mx/v_ingles/genes/centers_origin/centers_origin.html.
[6] Ceccam, La determinación de los centros de origen y diversidad genética del maíz, Mexico, 2012, available online: http://www.ceccam.org/publicaciones?page=1.
[7] UCCS, “Transgenic Maize Estrangement,” México, 2009, available online:http://www.unionccs.net/comunicados/index.php?doc=sciencetrmaize.
[8] Olivier de Schutter report on Mexico, paragraphs 53-55. See Mission to Mexico, 2011, available online: http://www.srfood.org/index.php/en/country-missions.
[9] The Network in Defense of Maize includes more than 1000 indigenous communities and civil society organizations. It was created in 2001, when it was first discovered that native Mexican maize had been contaminated by GM maize. Since then, the Network has resisted the advance of GM maize contamination at the local level, particularly in rural areas. Both ETC Group and Ceccam are members of the Network (http://endefensadelmaiz.org).
[10] The letter is available online: http://www.etcgroup.org/content/open-letter-international-civil-society-organizations-transgenic-contamination-centers.
[11] The CBD’s former Secretary General, Ahmed Djoghlaf, did not reply to the open letter. The former FAO Director General Jacques Diouf did not reply either, but delegated Shivaji Pandey, Director of FAO’s Plant Production and Protection Division, to respond. Pandey, a well-known advocate of genetically modified crops, wrote that FAO could offer advice, but that biosafety was a Mexican issue.

The Fight for Corn.

In an era of food crisis, the fight for corn has intensified, and the importance of this grain – a staple of the diet of Mexico and a large part of the world – has been revealed to the fullest extent. The scenario we are faced with is a battle between a culture that revolves around the material and symbolic production of corn, as well as the cultural, social, and historical value placed upon this crop by humankind, and the network of commercial and political interests that sees this prodigious crop simply as another way to increase power and profit by means of plundering its native lands.

Corn is under imperialistic attack in its place of origin, primarily at the hands of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which has increased Mexico’s food dependency. A popular resistance stands in opposition to this assault, playing its role in a geostrategic struggle exacerbated by climatic imbalances caused by global warming, as well as the corruption of the agroindustrial production model.

Why does corn attract transnational companies? Because it is the most efficient producer of biomass of any grain. One can get an idea of its efficiency of the corn plant is compared with that of wheat. One grain of wheat will produce one slender spike while one grain of corn will produce two robust ears. The yield per hectare of corn can be double that of wheat. Annual corn production worldwide is more than 850 million tons.

In contrast to the other cereals, there are different varieties of corn for almost any climate, from valleys to mountains, and for almost any type of soil. Its cycle is short, and rural families have created simple methods for storing it, preserving it, and preparing it.

Nobel Prize winner Octavio Paz acutely observed that the invention of corn by the Mexicans is only comparable to the invention of fire by the early humans. From the inedible grass of the teocintle or teosinte, ancient Mexicans created modern corn, which was spread across Mesoamerica and eventually around the world. The 60 or so breeds and the thousands of different varieties native to Mexico act as a genetic reservoir and a crucially important strategic good in terms of the global food supply and economy, the worth of which can be expressed on a scale of billions of dollars each year. Corn has become the livelihood of families in rural communities as well as an accessible food source for poor urban families (corn makes up 60 percent of Mexicans’ caloric intake). It is also a fundamental raw material for livestock and the global food industry due to its versatility and large number of by-products and applications.

Corn is both a product and a means of support in the history and popular culture of Mexico. Both the history of the grain and the history of the people are intertwined to such an extent that correlations between price curves for corn and the vicissitudes of Mexican politics and economy have been documented from the 18th to the early 19th century. The rise of corn prices, for example, resulted in poverty, food shortages, famine, epidemics, emigration, unemployment, crime, and begging. This turmoil generated the social tension that led to the outbreak of the War for Independence.[i]

Today, corn is Mexico’s most important crop. It makes up a little more than half of the area sown and represents 30 percent of the total production value. Mexico is the fifth largest corn producer in the world, yielding around 21 million tons per year. However, Mexico imports almost 10 million tons annually – a third of what it consumes. The other primary producers of corn in order of importance are the United States, China, Brazil, and Argentina.

Because of its unique qualities, corn quickly became a coveted good and was introduced to the market with a clear tendency toward privatization. The crop’s transformation from a communal resource to an economic good has been made possible by means of a global strategy with three blocks meant to shut off the route to rural self-sufficiency through local food production.

The first block is the imposition of technology meant to appropriate the characteristics of the corn seeds, as well as the traditional knowledge associated with them. The second block is the establishment of a legal framework that legalizes dispossession through registers, certificates, and patents. The third block: agro-food policies that favor transnational companies and harm small and mid-sized producers. According to investigators Adelita San Vicente and Areli Carreón, “This is clear when we look at the earnings and the concentration of seed companies worldwide. 20 years ago there were thousands of companies that sold seeds, the majority of which were small family-owned businesses. After decades of mergers and acquisitions, today only a handful of companies manage commercial seed, especially regarding the corn and soy industry sectors. In the case of corn, four companies – Monsanto, Dupont, Syngenta, and Dow – control more than three quarters of the market, excluding China. These same companies own the majority of the agro-biotechnological patents.”[ii]

The global importance of corn explains the interest that transnational companies have in controlling the crop in its place of origin and making it a private asset. These companies started out using hybrid varieties of corn associated with the use of chemical fertilizers and agro-toxins. They have now created transgenic corn, which puts the diversity of the native varieties at enormous risk. Once native crops are destroyed by genetic contamination, corn producers could find themselves defenseless against the climate crisis.

Less Corn for More Money

Even now, while the world suffers through the stampede of food prices (particularly the price of corn) and the climatic events in the United States, multinationals like Monsanto are rubbing their hands in anticipation of the profit to be made from high prices coupled with a high demand for the seeds. Climate changes in the United States have led to low expectations for the next corn harvest,[iii] which is already impacting grain prices and reverberating through other foods as well. The worst drought that the United States has seen in the last half century – caused by the highest temperatures on record – can be attributed to the climate crisis. A sixth of the corn harvest of the United States has been destroyed, prompting hyperinflation of food prices just as the financial and global energy crises have escalated.

The rise in corn prices[iv] and its repercussions on other food stirred memories of the 2008 crisis which caused revolts in numerous countries and gave rise to the tortilla crisis in Mexico. The UN acted immediately to prevent a global food crisis.[v] It urged governments to take “swift and coordinated action” in order to prevent rising food prices from creating a disaster that would have harmed millions of people by the end of that year.

Aside from corn, two other basic grains in the world food supply – wheat and soy – are rising in the inflation spiral. UN agencies assert that elevated prices of food are the symptom and not the disease, and argue that the root causes of the price crisis must be addressed. It is not exactly clear what this means, but from the rural perspective it would mean trading the agro-industrial production model for another based on food sovereignty, oriented toward the local markets at a time of growing demand for food and climate crisis.

The ongoing measures taken by many governments, however, do not point in this direction. According to data made public in the newspaper La Jornada from the Working Group on Foreign Trade Statistics, Mexico showed record-breaking corn imports[vi] during the first semester of 2012 in comparison to the same period of the previous year, when national corn production fell due to frosts and droughts. Imports were also at a record high with respect to the first half of 2007, when the tortilla crisis struck, and even compared to imports occurring during both the 2008 and 2009 lapses of the global financial crisis. According to the same source, in the first six months of 2012 1,931,000,000 dollars were spent on corn imports.

Mexico went from importing 396,000 tons of corn in 1992, before the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), to 9.8 million tons during the 2011-2012 cycle.[vii] The measures put in place by NAFTA dismantled the institutions supporting agro-food production and generated conditions of even greater inequality among the member countries. Food dependency now represents almost 50 percent of what is consumed in Mexico, and the government recognizes the existence of 28 million people who are starving[viii] – 20 million of whom live in the countryside.

The Hunger that Came from the North.

“¡Hunger, hunger! Bark the dogs of Urique”, exclaimed the elderly people, repeating a fable from the Porfirian era. During that time, the region of the Tarahumara inhabited by the Rarámuri was held prisoner by famine and was the scene of precursory uprisings to the Revolution. Time has come full circle, and now that region of Chihuahua, in the north of Mexico, is suffering a humanitarian catastrophe due to a shortage of food that has been compared by the magazine Proceso to what is occurring in many African countries.[ix]

The current famine has brought hundreds of indigenous people to the hospital with acute malnutrition, the diseases derived from which have killed many of them. This is the most extreme manifestation of the consequences of the application of the free market economic model on rural areas. This model has dismantled institutions of credit, consumable goods, insurance, wholesale, and programs supporting rural production, creating a food shortage that is aggravated by climate change.

Last year, an atypical drought that lasted for more than 18 months devastated corn and bean harvests in the region, and temperatures near -20 degrees Celsius only made the problem worse. 20 thousand tons of corn for self-consumption was lost. Of the 150 thousand tons of cereal that is produced commercially in Chihuahua, only 500 tons remained. Of the over 100 thousand tons of beans that are harvested each year, there were barely 20 thousand. The production of oats decreased by 80 percent. The lack of food affected a quarter of a million inhabitants of 4,478 rural and indigenous communities. But the problem did not stop there.

For the current spring-summer cycle, an insufficient harvest is anticipated. The Rarámuri, therefore, only planted 4 thousand of the 40 thousand hectares normally reserved for the production of basic grains, principally corn.[x] Those who dared to plant did so with native seeds without ample humidity in some areas of Guachochi, Urique, and Batopilas.

Yet this is merely a warning of what is to come. The state of food emergency is not exclusive to the indigenous zones in the north of the country. It is spread throughout practically the entire rural area, as is shown by the food poverty figures mentioned above. The agricultural policies that have been imposed upon Mexican society for more than a quarter century have primarily benefited the transnational companies and a minority of large producers, at the expense of the majority of the population. The senselessness of the model that dismantled the mechanisms and institutions responsible for regulating the domestic market, only to present it on a silver platter to the transnational companies, highlights an absurd situation: while hunger is pervasive and the United States has announced a decrease in its corn harvests, Mexico is faced with the problem of marketing more than 1,200,000 tons of grain in Sinaloa and Jalisco due to the fact that the distributors have refused to pay the international price, breaking NAFTA rules that do not work in their favor. The transnational companies not only control marketing, but also most of the branches of agro-industry, including the production, storage, and distribution of the seeds.

The Transgenic Corn Front

Monsanto and the companies that control the global transgenic seed market have made Mexican corn their preferred target because once they have conquered it, the transnationals could become the sole owners of this treasure worldwide.

Even before the Mexican government broke the moratorium on experimentation with transgenic corn in 2009, the corn had already been genetically contaminated in its place of origin. The study that presented this evidence was done by scientist Ignacio Chapela and published in the November 2001 issue of Nature. Chapela documented the presence of transgenic corn in Oaxaca, an area with one of the largest diversities of the grain. This fact was confirmed months later by Mexican researchers. Currently, almost half of the states in the country have reported the presence of transgenic contamination, and there is a widespread conviction that the contamination was caused intentionally. Whatever the case may be, it is a historic crime.

Transgenic corn does not increase yields,[xi] does not provide any consumer advantages, and does not carry any benefit for producers regarding input costs. However, if the commercial sowing of Monsanto corn is approved, the company could make a profit of close to 400 million dollars per year, according to Victor Suarez, president of the National Association of Commercial Field-Producer Companies.[xii]

This is why lobbyists for the United States-based company spare no efforts when it comes to investing some 5 million dollars per year in order to influence politicians, journalists, scientists, and community leaders. The company is also investing in its beachheads in the Center for Research and Advanced Studies at Irapuato and the Master Project of Mexican Corn, which is supported in part by the National Farm Worker Confederation.[xiii]

The clandestine contamination – a vehicle of destruction of the Mexican rural economy – is a direct consequence of NAFTA. Unlabeled corn that continues to flow into the country from the United States is largely transgenic, and is introduced with the knowledge and consent of companies and officials without the least concern. These same entities and people confront public opinion, as well as those who reject the cultivation of transgenic corn, using a fait accompli strategy.

Mexican legislators approved the Monsanto Law (the Law on Biosafety and Genetically Modified Organisms) in 2004. As its nickname suggests, the law primarily favors transnational interests. This law opened the door for the cultivation of transgenic materials while failing to guarantee biosafety or protect native Mexican plants and their producers.

In the same vein, the Federal Seed Production, Certification, and Trade Law was approved in 2007, while the Federal Law on Plant Varieties has been in existence since 1996.[xiv] The new legal framework was designed for the purpose of plundering, while laws that protect the rights of producers, farm workers, and indigenous people – no matter how precariously – are being abolished or reformed.

In 2009 the federal government, betraying rural society yet again, broke the moratorium de facto that had stood for 11 years. The government subsequently began to grant permits for experimental sowing and transgenic corn pilots, and has brought the country to within one step of the commercial sowing of Monsanto corn.

The use of transgenic seeds has been added to agro-industrial production as a means of augmenting producers’ dependency, but at the same time it has sharpened those contradictions that indicate the deterioration of this model.[xv] The proven damages to the ecosystem and human health, the harmful effects on the climate caused by the use of petroleum in agricultural processes, and the emergence of super-plagues able to resist the poisons associated with transgenic seeds have sparked protests, embargoes, and prohibitions. Monsanto corn MON16 has been expelled from 8 different countries in the European Union, and around the world there has been a resurgence of organic production.

As has been shown by the Maize Defense Network, which is composed of more than one thousand communities and dozens of organizations in 22 Mexican states, “the cultivation of transgenic materials is an instrument of corporate abuse against the right to have access to healthy food and against small-scale, independent food production controlled by rural farm workers in countless corners of the globe (who provide the largest percentage of the world’s food supply). [The use of transgenic seeds] is a frontal attack on food sovereignty.”

The People’s Fight for the Corn

The Network, in line with movements such as “Without Corn there is no Country” and organizations like the National Union of Autonomous Regional Peasant Organizations (representative of La Via Campesina in North America), has organized campaigns to throw Monsanto and its Frankenstein seeds out of the country. The Maize Defense Network, however, has distinguished itself by declaring an emphatic moratorium over ten years against the invasion of transgenic corn. Rural farm workers know that the best defense of native corn is to plant it and care for the seeds by selecting them and interchanging them. They know that food sovereignty starts from below and that social and communal production of their own food is the best way to guarantee their right to eat.

They know or sense that the corporations and the governments of the dominant countries have used food as a geostrategic weapon, impeding the agricultural development of the subordinate countries by means of “free” trade agreements and agricultural mechanization controlled by companies like Monsanto. This serves the double purpose of maximizing profits while indefinitely maintaining the subjugation, in this case, of Mexican agriculture to the agricultural interests of the United States.

Before the commercial opening, corn had been protected by national agricultural policies and the corn used for human consumption was supplied in sufficient quantities for local production, particularly in communal or seasonal smallholder farms. Following the signing of NAFTA, the Mexican government removed support little by little for the majority of the field producers until it had finally abandoned them.

In a scenario that is just as complex as it is unfavorable, the Maize Defense Network and various other Mexican civil society organizations convinced the Permanent People’s Tribunal to conduct sessions in Mexico. The prosecution held the Mexican state responsible for the violence committed against the corn, food sovereignty, and the rights of the people.

Supported by the moral standing of the Permanent People’s Tribunal, the rural inhabitants stand against NAFTA and its signatories because:

a) They have surrendered food production to transnational companies, making Mexico a dependent country.

b) The commercial opening to grains led to the loss of more than 10 million hectares of cultivated corn and the rural exodus of 15 million people.[xvi]

c) They have endangered the way of life surrounding corn – the heart of Mesoamerican civilization.

d) They are responsible for a crime against humanity: the destruction of the genetic fortitude of one of the four pillars of the world’s diet.

At the same time, the most conscientious and organized rural farm workers have implemented resistance strategies, such as the establishment of transgenic-free zones, democratic unions and councils in defense of corn, networks of organic tianguis, corn festivals, communal germoplasm banks, communal food reserves, seed exchange fairs, and other measures in defense of the rural lifestyle.

These are the people who have recreated biodiversity over many generations, and continue to be responsible for its preservation today. They are the direct heirs of the cultures that domesticated and developed corn. They are the people of the corn of the 21st century, and they are convinced that the voracity of transnational companies must not be allowed to usurp this thousand-year-old legacy.

Alfredo Acedo is Director of Social Communication and adviser to the National Union of Regional Organizations of Autonomous Small Farmers of Mexico and a contributor to the Americas Program http://www.cipamericas.org.

Translation: Mac Layne


[i] Florescano, Enrique. Precios del maíz y crisis agrícolas en México, 1708-1810. El Colegio de México, 1969.

[ii] San Vicente Tello, Adelita; Carreón, Areli. El robo de las semillas de maíz en su centro de origen y de diversidad genética. December 16, 2008 http://vecam.org/article1080.html

[iii] In August, the United States Department of Agriculture showed an 18 percent decrease in its projections of corn production for this year, or some 56 million tons. http://www.fas.usda.gov/psdonline/psdreport.aspx?hidReportRetrievalName=BVS&hidReportRetrievalID=884&hidReportRetrievalTemplateID=1

[iv] Corn prices shot up to a historic maximum of 8.49 dollars per bushel on August 10th (in the United States, a bushel is equivalent to 25.4 kilograms).

http://www.cnnexpansion.com/economia/2012/08/16/precio-de-maiz-en-eu-por-los-cielos

[v] UN agencies “stressed the vulnerability to a food problem, given that even in a good year, global cereal production is barely sufficient to satisfy the increasing demand for food and fuel.” http://www.jornada.unam.mx/2012/09/05/economia/037n2eco

[vi] The purchase exceeded corn imports of the first six months of 2007 by 159 percent, totaling 744,857,000 dollars. http://www.jornada.unam.mx/2012/08/27/economia/027n1eco

[vii] Mexico is now the primary importer of corn in the world. http://www.jornada.unam.mx/2012/04/14/sociedad/035n1soc

[viii] Between 2008 and 2010, the number of people without access to food rose by 4.2 million, bringing the total to around 28 million Mexican citizens. http://www.jornada.unam.mx/2012/02/09/politica/016n2pol

[ix] La Tarahumara: hambruna al estilo Somalia. http://www.proceso.com.mx/?p=294045

[x] The food alert in the Tarahumara remains in effect due to low harvests. Furthermore, the government defaulted on its delivery of 100 thousand tons of corn and beans promised as humanitarian aid. http://www.jornada.unam.mx/2012/08/27/sociedad/045n1soc

[xi] Failure to Yield. 2009. Report in the Union of Concerned Scientists that shows zero increase in the yields of transgenic corn in the United States, after more than 20 years of research and 13 years of commercial sowing. http://www.ucsusa.org/assets/documents/food_and_agriculture/failure-to-yield.pdf

[xiii] San Vicente Tello, Adelita ¿Los niños al cuidado de Herodes? Convenio CNC Monsanto. La Jornada del Campo. 9 de octubre de 2007 http://www.jornada.unam.mx/2007/10/10/amenaza.htm

[xiv] Una raya más al tigre de la Ley Monsanto. http://www.cipamericas.org/es/archives/66

[xv] Stedile, João Pedro. Las tendencias del capital sobre la agricultura. América Latina en movimiento 459. ALAI, October 2010 http://www.alainet.org/images/alai459.pdf

[xvi] Permanent People’s Tribunal. Mexico. Work document, February 20, 2012

Hearing 5: Violence against corn, food sovereignty and the rights of the people.

Genetic Roulette Movie

Food as a Commodity.

Food is one of the most basic of human needs. Routine access to a balanced diet is essential for both growth and development of the young, as well as for general health throughout one’s life. Although food is mostly plentiful, malnutrition is still common. The contradiction between plentiful global food supplies and widespread malnutrition and hunger arises primarily from food being considered a commodity, just like any other.

For many millennia following the origin of our species, humans were hunters and gatherers—an existence that one might think of as tenuous. However, judging from archeological evidence as well as recent examples, hunters and gatherers generally ate a diverse diet that supplied adequate nutrition. For example, studies in the 1960s and ‘70s of the !Kung of southern Africa, foragers for literally thousands of years, indicate that although they ate meat that they hunted, about two-thirds of their food was plant-based—nuts (supplying more than one-third of caloric intake), fruits, roots, and berries—and their diet provided approximately 2,400 calories a day. The groups of hunter-gatherers were egalitarian, with everyone participating in the provisioning of food.

Agriculture, which developed some seven to ten thousand years ago, provided surplus food that allowed the development of cities and the hierarchies and civilizations that went along with them—farmers, artisans, priests, kings, warriors, scribes, and other functionaries. But just because there was a surplus did not mean that people were better nourished than hunter-gatherers. In fact, the narrowing of available foods used from the wide variety in the hunter-gatherers’ diets, along with the reliance primarily on grains to provide calories, is thought to have caused a decrease in the health of early agriculturalists—as indicated by their decreased height compared that of hunter-gatherers. In these agricultural societies surplus food production was mainly appropriated for the use of the non-food producing classes. Most pre-capitalist agricultural societies had many producers relative to non-productive classes.

In some ancient empires imperial tribute took the form of food shipped long distances from the place of production. North Africa, for example, was the granary for Rome. Much of Chinese history involved constructing infrastructure to store and provide food far from its place of production. Nevertheless, in much of the world (including feudal Europe) food was produced either by peasant farmers and consumed by their families or else appropriated by landed aristocracies on a fairly local basis. What markets existed were often on a barter basis and trade in food was in kind, without becoming a commodity.

This changed with capitalism or generalized commodity production. The endless accumulation of profits, the motive force of the capitalist system, occurs through the production of commodities or services to sell at a price in excess of the production costs. Production for the purpose of sale and profit, instead of production for use, is a defining characteristic of capitalism and essentially all commodity exchanges take place in markets. During the early stages of capitalism, when most people still lived and worked on the land, a large portion of food was produced to be consumed locally in the rural areas and did not exist as a commodity. However, farmers near growing cities and/or near water transport shipped food to the industrializing urban centers.

The commodity nature of food became much more pronounced as capitalism grew and conquered most of the world’s societies. Imperial powers brought the peasants of their colonies into the money economy by extracting monetary rather than in-kind taxes. The need to obtain money to pay taxes began a process that converted a portion of the food produced into commodities.

The industrial phase of capitalism caused rural populations to decline in Europe, North America, and Japan. People were forced off the land and looked for work in the cities, moving to the growing industrial centers. (Many also migrated from Europe to North America, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and elsewhere.) The development of canals, railroads, and road systems allowed for long-distance transport of food within large landmasses. Advances in shipping by sea also greatly decreased the cost of global trade in food.

Almost all of the crops and animals raised using the scale and approach of industrial farming are sold as undifferentiated commodities. Farmers sell their crops to buyers who resell the raw commodities to be processed—or themselves process the raw commodity—with the semi-processed commodities then sold to final processors/packagers who sell to wholesalers who then sell to retailers who finally sell food to the public. Thus, the farmers producing the bulk of food in the wealthy countries have become greatly separated from the public that finally purchases their products—not just physically, but also by the long chain of intermediaries between farms and people’s tables. Farm mechanization has increased labor productivity, leading to fewer farmers and larger farms. As industrial methods were applied to raising crops and animals, the agriculture-input sector grew dramatically and became highly concentrated—with relatively few companies now producing and selling farm machinery, fertilizers, pesticides, and seeds. Industrialized food systems also saw concentration and centralization of production and growing monopoly power. For example, large integrated “protein” (meat) firms now contract with farmers to produce poultry and hogs in large facilities under crowded and inhumane conditions. Because corporations mandate that their contractors be located near where they decide to build slaughtering facilities, this frequently means long distance transport of feed. Beef cows are increasingly raised in large feedlots.

Indeed farming, the actual raising of crops and animals, is only one part of the whole food system. The commodity nature of all parts of the agricultural/food system—farm inputs, actual farming, purchasing and processing raw agricultural goods, and wholesaling and retailing—means that many different types of commodities are produced and sold. Farming itself has been reduced to a component in a larger system of agribusiness, with many of the remaining small farmers in the United States increasingly becoming subcontractors to large corporations. The input side of agriculture was one of the last sectors of the economy to go through concentration of ownership, leading to fewer machinery companies, fewer “agrichemical” (fertilizer and pesticide) companies, and fewer seed companies. A few input and purchasing/processing corporations are able to exert near monopoly power. One of the most recent developments in the inputs sector has been the creation of transgenic (genetically modified, or GM) varieties of crops. Industry consolidation was stimulated by the greater control exerted on prices (and farmers), and today about 40 percent of the entire global seed market is controlled by three firms—Monsanto, DuPont, and Syngenta.

Globally there is still a significant portion of food produced on small landholdings for personal consumption or very local markets—in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. However, in the United States, Western Europe, and Australia (and now in Brazil, and even more recently, Argentina, Paraguay, and Bolivia) crops are increasingly produced on large, highly mechanized farms for either national or international sale. Most of these countries actively promote large-scale production for export, to either obtain foreign exchange or to help their international balance of payments situation.

Implications

There are a number of important implications of the commodity nature of food production, processing, and consumption. In capitalist economies, as noted, nearly all enterprise is for the sake of producing commodities for sale—whether the “product” is an absolute necessity such as food and health care, or a luxury such as a private jet plane or a huge house. More and more of the natural world, including water supplies and the very genes of life, are being brought under private control with the aim of making profits, rather than to supply the needs of people.

However, there is a critical contradiction when any basic human need is produced and sold as a commodity, whether we are considering food, health care, drinking water, or shelter. Capitalism naturally produces a stratification of wealth that includes the unemployed, the working poor, a better-off working class, a middle class, and a relatively small group of very rich individuals. The bottom strata of society—encompassing the members of what Marx called the reserve army of labor—are absolutely essential to the smooth working of the system. It allows easy access to labor when the economy expands and helps keep wages down, as workers are aware that they can easily be replaced.1 Even in a wealthy country such as the United States the numerous unemployed and those in low-paying jobs cannot afford all of their basic living costs—rent, electricity, transportation (irrational patterns of development plus inadequate public transportation means that cars are frequently needed to get to work), clothes, medical care, food, etc.

Given that poverty in the United States is not absolute destitution, the poor sometimes have options: they may purchase more or less food of higher or lower nutritional value, skip meals, get food stamps (now called SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition and Assistance Program), or receive food assistance from charities. The poor commonly have little money left for food after rent and utilities are paid. In the summer of 2011, approximately 46 million people were receiving food assistance through Federal programs, inadequate as it is. Still, despite the abundance of food, a high average per capita income, and various forms of assistance available, some 50 million people in the United States are considered to be “food insecure.” Of these, over 12 million adults and 5 million children have “very low” food security, with one or more members of their households lowering their food intake.

In some parts of the global South, of course, conditions are far worse. The commodity nature of food results in food price levels far above many people’s meager means, producing a lack of adequate nutrition. The United Nations estimates that there are close to one billion people worldwide who suffer from malnutrition. This leads to severe health problems and death for millions. Food deprivation, though falling short of severe malnutrition, is still a very serious condition. Hence, a sense of injustice associated with rising food prices and unequal access to food was a major factor spurring revolts in the Arab world over the last year.

Because food products are commodities, and the whole point of the food/agriculture system is to sell more and make more profits, there is massive advertising surrounding food, especially the most profitable sector—processed foods. High caloric but low nutritional-value foods, such as sugary breakfast cereals, are pushed on children. And because these processed foods are relatively inexpensive and available at local convenience stores that often do not carry higher quality food like fruits and vegetables, the commodity nature of food is part of the explanation for the surge in obesity, especially among the poor.

Food crops have many different uses other than direct human consumption. They can be processed into a variety of forms—breads (pitas, tortillas), potato chips, frozen dinners, pasta, ice cream, etc. Corn is commonly processed to obtain industrial starch and sugars (high in fructose). A relatively high percent of the corn and soybeans grown in the United States are used to feed poultry and hogs as well as beef and dairy cows (that, from an environmental point of view, should be eating grass and legume forages that the bacteria in their rumens convert into usable energy and protein for the animals). And with the push to lessen dependence on imported oil and to have a supposedly more “green” source of liquid fuels—corn, soy, rape, sugar cane, palm oil, and jatropha (a non-food crop raised only to make biofuel) are being grown to produce either ethanol or biodiesel.

In the United States and Europe, there are governmental mandates and subsidies encouraging production of both food and non-food crops, which are then used for biofuel feedstocks. This is an important part of the explanation for the tight markets and high prices for corn and oil crops. A UN Food and Agriculture Organization report says: “By generating a new demand for food commodities that can outbid poor countries and food-insecure populations, industrial biofuels highlight the tension between a potentially unlimited demand (in this case for energy) and the constraints of a world with finite resources.”2 It was the search for another market for corn that induced Dwayne Andreas, CEO of the grain purchaser/processor and feed grain conglomerate Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), to gain influence over politicians and spend lavishly on both Democrats and Republicans. ADM was the main backer for the corn-to-ethanol industry and might be considered the grandfather of the current mandate to mix a certain percent of ethanol with gasoline (in the process of increasing from 10 to 15 percent).

The commodity nature of food by itself limits access by the poor. Market pressures and incentives contribute to the interchangeability of key food crops that can also be used for animals or fuel production; the possibility to grow crops for strictly industrial use instead of food, if the price is right; and huge amounts of hoarding and speculation on agricultural commodities (see below). Land can be used to grow crops for a number of purposes: food for people, food crops that are also potentially feeds for animals, and industrial feedstocks (cotton, jatrohpa, corn to make sugar or other products, and crops like hay which are strictly for animals). Market prices guide farmers’ production. When ethanol prices increase, more land goes into corn for ethanol. If cotton prices increase, a portion of the land that would have gone to grow corn and soybeans will be planted with cotton. Market prices also guide the ultimate utilization of crops that have multiple uses. For example, should soybeans be used to make vegetable oil for human use, be feed to animals, or be converted into biodiesel fuel? The need to feed hungry people does not enter the calculation.

When a poor (so-called “developing”) country attempts to solve its food problem primarily by encouraging farmers to produce more, bumper crops tend to depress prices, thus helping the poor gain greater food access. However, depressed prices may be problematic for farmers, many of whom themselves are poor. This has happened recently in Zambia, where “massive production can send prices tumbling. The smallest farmers, who are the least productive, suffer doubly by producing little and getting paid a pittance for the crop.”3 Thus, bumper crops in capitalist agricultural tend to favor the larger farmers, especially those using inputs such as irrigation and fertilizers that help produce high yields. However, the resulting low prices may force large numbers of small farmers, many unable to protect their crops from the vagaries of nature and lacking the financial resources to weather hard times, into deeper poverty.

A new dimension has been added to the phenomena of food as a commodity—a new land grab, with private capital and sovereign wealth funds purchasing or leasing land in Africa, Asia, and Latin America to produce food and biofuels for markets for the home countries of the investors.4 As with food, the most basic input for its production, soil, becomes a commodity ripe for either speculation or to go to the highest bidder. In many countries of the global South, traditional land tenure systems are thrown aside as land is purchased or rented under long-term agreement by private capital or national sovereign wealth funds. The purpose is either to make money, or to produce food or fuel (jatropha or other fuel crops) for the “home” markets. This creates even more rapid “depeasantization” as more farmers are pushed off the land and into city slums that have no jobs for them. It is estimated that some 20 million hectares (50 million acres) have either been sold or are under long-term lease to foreign countries or foreign capital. “In Africa they are calling it the land grab, or the new colonialism. Countries hungry to secure their food supplies—including Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, South Korea (the world’s third largest importer of corn), China, India, Libya, and Egypt—are at the forefront of a frantic rush to gobble up farmland all around the world, but mainly in cash-starved Africa.”5

The “highest and best use” of any commodity is where it can get the best price, regardless of the social, ecological, or humanitarian consequences. One small example of the contradictions that arise from this is a result of the growing market in the North for quinoa, a grain grown in the Andes that is especially nutritious because of its balance of amino acids. This benefits farmers by increasing crop prices, but at the same time it means that this traditional and nutritious food is becoming too expensive for local people.6

Another implication of the commodity nature of food is that it is increasingly subject to speculative price movements. Raw commodities such as metals and food crops have become a prime target of speculators who want to bet on the price changes of tangible products, rather than completely relying on the complex bets embodied in many “financial instruments.” The Chicago Board of Trade (CBOT, owned by the Chicago Mercantile Exchange), opening in 1848, is the oldest organized foodstuffs futures and options trading exchange. Throughout most of its history the CBOT and the other commodity exchanges were used primarily by those interested in hedging prices because they bought, sold, or used the physical products—farmers, buyers, and food processors. It was a sound way to protect your business against the vagaries of weather and competition. But with the financialization of the economy everything has become fair game for speculation, so food and other agricultural products (as well as other raw commodities) have become just more bets that can be made. With the so-called “Commodity Futures Modernization Act,” commodity markets were deregulated in 2000 and “structured” financial products were developed to allow various types of speculation. In addition to straight bets on individual commodities, commodity index funds (pioneered by Goldman Sachs) begun to track prices of commodities. The amount of money in these funds increased from $13 billion in 2003 to $317 billion in 2008. As U.S. hedge fund manager Mike Masters explained: “Speculators today have about 70 percent of the open interest in commodity markets. Ten years ago, they controlled roughly 30 percent of the market.”7 With so much money flowing into the food commodity markets, prices are driven up in a speculative upswing. This, of course, does not mean that commodity prices will only keep going up—they fluctuate based on economic conditions, world food stock levels, crop yields, rumors, and fads. But speculation drives prices up and down further and faster, and as a result contributes to hunger for many—sometimes millions—when prices peak, and to the ruin of small producers when prices crash.

When food—a basic necessity for human health and survival that is currently produced in sufficient quantity to feed everyone in the world a basic nutritious diet—is a commodity, the results are routine hunger, malnutrition, premature deaths, and famines when tight supplies result in exceptionally high prices. There are examples of farmers and the public organizing alternative ways to grow food for people instead of the market—such as Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms in which people purchase (frequently on a sliding scale according to ability to pay) a share of the produce during grown during the season. These types of arrangements between farmers and the public are encouraging because they demonstrate an alternate approach to food. However, the only way to guarantee that food reaches all people in sufficient quantity and quality is to develop a new system that considers food a human right and no longer considers it a commodity. Only then will we be able to fulfill the slogan, “Food for People, Not for Profit.”

NOTES

↩ For a discussion of the reserve army see Fred Magdoff and Harry Magdoff, “Disposable Workers: Today’s Reserve Army of Labor,” Monthly Review 55, no. 11 (2004): 18–35.
↩ High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition, “Price volatility and food security,” Committee on World Food Security, Rome, July 2011, http://fao.org.
↩ Samuel Fromartz, “The Production Conundrum,” The Nation, October 3, 2011, 20–22.
↩ GRAIN, “The New Farm Owners: Corporate Investors and the Control of Overseas Farmland,” in Fred Magdoff and Brian Tokar, eds., Agriculture and Food in Crisis: Conflict, Resistance, and Renewal (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010).
↩ Margareta Pagano, “Land Grab: The Race for the World’s Farmland,” The Independent, May 3, 2009, http://independent.co.uk.
↩ Simon Romero and Sarah Shahriari, “Quinoa’s Global Success Creates a Quandary at Home,” The New York Times, March 19, 2011, http://nytimes.com.
↩ Deborah Doane, “As food speculators make money, the world’s poorest suffer,” CNN Opinion, June 22, 2011, http://cnn.com.

http://monthlyreview.org/2012/01/01/food-as-a-commodity

Maya Food Threatened: Statement vs. GMO Corn In Belize.

It comes as no surprise to us that today the Maya of southern Belize are faced with yet another threat to their existence and way of life. The government of Belize is poised to approve testing of GMO corn seeds developed by Monsanto in our country. For the Maya, GMO corn reminds us of what happened after the arrival of Europeans, who promised us progress and salvation, but whose mere presence introduced diseases that decimated our people and enabled them to overcome us by force, settle on our lands and harvest our untold wealth.

The Maya people refer to ourselves as the people of the corn. Corn has been our staple food and a unique resource that grounds our existence, since the Maya people and our ancestors created it through millennia of selective breeding of the tiny teosinte grain. We have planted the corn, season after season, within the rainforest of southern Belize. In the past, we have been criticized for our slash and burn system of agriculture, when in fact, our rotational system of farming corn and intercropping is one of the only sustainable forms of agriculture in the climate and terrain conditions of southern Belize, and is based on a system of respect and value for Mother Nature; so we forgive the critics.

Now, companies like Monstanto have taken corn, the intellectual property of millennia of Central America’s indigenous people freely shared with the world, and inserted into it genes from other organisms, and tell us that their new, genetically modified corn is superior and good for us. Despite being blamed by newcomers for deforestation and the imminent demise of the rainforest for over a century, the Maya of Toledo continue to live in the most forested region of Belize. The number of schemes that have been foisted upon us by agricultural “experts” over the decades is legion; they have failed and caused our people hardship while our traditional methods continue to sustain us. We have reason to be skeptical of claims by people from other parts of the world that they know better than us about farming in our forests, that they have a better way, that following their science will make life better for us. GMO corn is another such scheme. We are told that to resist GMO crops is to be backward, against progress, against science. They do not tell us that many countries have banned or severely restricted GMO foods. They do not allow them to be grown; they do not allow them to be imported into their countries. These countries include some Caribbean countries, the European Union, Brazil, Peru, Paraguay, Japan, Egypt, the Phillipines, and China – some of the fastest growing economies in the world. In 2007, France withdrew authorization to plant Monsanto GMO corn there after initially allowing it. Resistance to GMO crops is not backward, it is forward thinking.

We are told that GMO seeds are resistant to pests, and so they will provide us with better harvests. In the United States, the same GMO corn strain that Monsanto wants to introduce in Belize was widely adopted by farmers in Iowa and Illinois. It is supposed to resist corn beetles (rootworm). Just this summer, many of those farmers suffered massive losses as fields of corn toppled over from rootworm invasions. The GMO seeds are not only losing effectiveness, but have contributed to the evolution of a pesticide-resistant “superbug”. In Maya traditional farming, pests are kept low naturally, without pesticides, by burning the field when clearing, by planting combinations of crops, and by moving our milpas periodically.

We are told that GMO seeds are more reliable and will provide better harvests. They do not tell us that in South Africa – one of the first countries to adopt GMO corn –the Monsanto GMO corn failed massively in South Africa in 2009 – in 82,000 hectares, the plants grew beautifully, but the cobs were seedless because of “underfertilization processes” in Monsantos’ laboratory”. Those farmers got some compensation, but for Maya farmers, compensation for crop failure later isn’t enough; our families face starvation if the corn harvest doesn’t come in. They do not tell us that in India, farmers who adopted Monsanto GMO cotton on promises of better yields and lower pesticide costs got 35% less crop, and it cost them more to produce. An estimated 125,000 farmers committed suicide due to the crop failure.

We are told that GMO corn is more efficient, and cheaper. They do not tell us that in order to survive, GMO crops need chemical fertilizers and pesticides. As pests gain resistance, more and more chemicals will be required to sustain Monsanto corn. They do not tell us that we will have to buy more and more chemicals, and pay for seeds every year. As Maya, we plant seeds that we save from our previous harvest; they are a gift from the Earth that cost us only our labour. Introducing GMO corn steals that birthright from us.

We are told that if Maya farmers do not want GMO corn, we do not have to use it, but that we should not deny commercial farmers in other parts of the country that right. But once they are being grown in the country, there will be nothing to prevent them from contaminating our local corn, whether we want their Frankenstein genes or not. And once our crops are contaminated, whether we like it or not, Monsanto could be able to make us pay. In Canada, a farmer whose crops were contaminated by GMO plants and who then used seeds from those plants the next year was held to have violated Monsanto’s patent on the plant. He had to destroy the seeds, which also meant destroying the unique variety of the crop he had developed over decades of farming. We are told that BELIPO has the power to deny patent protection to Monsanto, which would protect farmers from this kind of control and dependency to some extent – although Monsanto could still enforce dependency by selling only sterile seeds. But the government hasn’t committed to this action – and another thing that they don’t tell us is that Monsanto has been accused and even convicted of bribing government officials in other countries, including Indonesia and Canada, to allow policies that benefit them. Monsanto cannot be trusted, and a government that allows its devastating products into our country cannot be trusted.

Through our long struggle to defend our lives and our lands, corn has fed us, sustained us, and given us strength. We have always been cash poor but we have food, and can build our homes for shelter without having to buy from hardware stores. So we are not surprised now that our corn itself is under attack. This threatens our independent, self sustained lifestyle and livelihood. We make no apology to state for the record that the introduction of GMO corn is an assault on the food security and independence of the Maya people, to weaken our strength and resistance.

Governments and commercial interests have invaded our forests, appropriated our lands and continue to illegally extract the rich resources that we have long protected us as a people. They stole our culture to sell it for tourism for their own benefit. They challenge our identity and our nationality by spreading the myth that we are recent migrants from Guatemala and not indigenous to Belize. None of this has discouraged the Maya from standing strong and defending the land and her children. On the contrary, we have gained more strength and enjoyed consistent success in the hearts of the Belizean people, the courts, and the international community. Now the government has a new tactic: they seek to starve us, by introducing laboratory-made corn to destroy our Native corn, throw us into dependence on agribusiness corporations and eventually, as farmers sink under the expense of GMO crops, dispossess us of our lands.

Remember, People in Toledo do not grow their corn to sell they grow it to feed their family and animals. If there is some left, then they bring it to the local market in town to sell. People do not make enough money to keep on buying these seeds and all that comes with it. The result is that people not be able to maintain their farms, and be forced to the towns and cities and cayes in search of jobs.

The push for GMO corn in Belize is about corporate greed, not the needs of Belizeans. Let us defend our corn and the integrity of our natural ecosystems . For over 500 years we have managed to survive; we are a resilient people. We do not need, and we will not accept your corn!

http://indigenouspeoplesissues.com

Mexican trial of genetically modified maize stirs debate.

Mexico has authorised a field trial of genetically modified (GM) maize that could lead to commercialisation of the crop, sparking debate about the effects on the country’s unique maize biodiversity.

Although Mexico already commercially grows some GM crops, such as cotton, GM maize is controversial because the country is home to thousands of the world’s maize varieties that originated there.

The multinational corporation Monsanto will test a variety of maize resistant to the herbicide glyphosate on less than a hectare of land in north Mexico before it can commercialise the GM crop. Unlike experimental trials, such pilot projects do not require containment measures to prevent the spread of the GM crop.

Mexico’s agriculture ministry said the project, approved last month (8 March), will occur “under the strictest biosecurity measures to guarantee the prevention of involuntary dispersion of the GM maize’s pollen”.

But Elena Álvarez-Buylla, head of the Union of Scientists Committed to Society (UCCS), said: “This opens up the door to contamination of native species in the most important centre of origin [of maize] in the entire world.”

The UCCS stated last month (25 March) that the coexistence of GM and non-GM varieties in fields — which may happen if commercial approval is given — could contaminate the unique non-GM varieties.

“There are alternative technologies to address the non-GM maize shortage and loss of crops due to climate events. GM [crops] are not more resistant to droughts and plagues, and they threaten our food sovereignty,” its statement says, referring to multinational companies owning GM technologies.

Transgenic crops were banned in Mexico until 2005, but the government has since granted 67 permits for GM maize to be grown experimentally on over 70 hectares. This would be the first trial that could lead to commercialisation if it is successful.

At the third Mexican Congress of Ecology this month (3–7 April) in Veracruz, scientists were cautious about growing GM maize.

Andrew Stephenson, an ecology professor at Pennsylvania University, United States, said the indirect effects of mixing GM and non-GM varieties are largely unknown, especially under Mexico’s complex environmental conditions.

And Mauricio Quesada of the National Autonomous University’s Centre for Ecosystems Research said Mexico should prioritise research on the natural diversity of local crops instead of “jumping” into GM.

But Luis Herrera-Estrella, chief of the National Laboratory of Genomics for Biodiversity at the Research and Advanced Studies Center of the National Polytechnic Institute of Mexico, said the country’s legal biosafety framework should be trusted.

Cecilia Rosen

http://www.scidev.net

Monsanto, food crisis and transgenic corn in Mexico.

Monsanto has turned the drop in international corn reserves and the havoc wreaked on Mexican corn production by an unexpected cold snap into an argument for speeding up commercial planting of its genetically modified (GM) corn in Mexico. The transnational is claiming that its modified seeds are the only solution to scarcity and rising grain prices.

At a press conference, the transnational’s Latin American President José Manuel Maduro went even further by blaming restrictions on GM corn production in the country for the high level of post-NAFTA imports of the staple. “Mexico’s decisión to not move forward [on transgenics] has led to the importation of 10 million tons of corn, a situation that demands a swift response.”

That Monsanto would use the boogeyman of food dependency to scare Mexico into accepting GM corn shows the company’s immense cynicism. Now according to Monsanto, the reasons that Mexico lost corn self-sufficiency and start importing millions of tons annually had nothing to do with agricultural policies that support transnationals, or an unjust free trade model that favors imports and has abandoned the majority of national producers. Instead, it’s because the country has not embraced the commercial use of transgenic corn.

As the food crisis looms, the real danger – for the nourishment, health and culture of the country – is in choosing the Monsanto agenda over strengthening national agriculture. The cultivation of transgenics will accelerate the loss of Mexico’s food sovereignty and contaminate vital native strains of corn.

Pressure Campaign

Monsanto’s diligent PR hard work is paying off. After originally denying authorization for a pilot program to cultivate its GM corn in Sinaloa last year, the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Development, Fisheries and Food (SAGARPA) just gave the company the green light to plant genetically modified yellow corn resistant to the herbicide glyphosate as a part of a pilot program in Tamaulipas’ current agricultural cycle.

According to the National Commission for the Use and Understanding of Biodiversity (CONABIO), Tamaulipas is home to 16 of the 59 remaining strains of native corn. A recent study by the CONABIO concluded that releases of transgenic corn should be handled “only by public institutions adequately trained in security, and carried out in low-risk areas.”  The study was financed by SAGARPA and was announced at the same time as the permit for the Tamaulipas pilot project, going against its own recommendations. Tamaulipas, like the rest of the northern region and all of Mexico, is a center of origin for corn.

There is an intense PR campaign to open the door to transgenics in Mexico: industrial farmers in the north are pushing the government to ease the establishment of commercial transgenic corn operations and the national press is not short on people willing to echo Monsanto’s sound bites.

This year’s International Book Fair in Mexico City was invaded by the campaign’s propaganda, cloaked in scientific jargon. The fair, sponsored by the National Autonomous University of Mexico, included a series of conferences designed to convince the public about the benefits of GMOs, led by all-star biotech cheerleader, Luis Herrera-Estrella. The Mexican scientist, hailed as a co-inventor of transgenics, has become a defender of Monsanto’s efforts in spite of the fact that, as he tells it, the company commandeered his patent for the technology.

Herrera-Estrella has been accused of doing Monsanto’s dirty work. The relationship between CINVESTAV, where the researcher works, and the transnational is public knowledge. After Berkeley Professor Ignacio Chapela revealed GM contamination in corn crops in Calpulapan, Oaxaca in the fall of 2001, Monsanto launched a smear campaign against him. After years of persecution and when two international Berkeley reviewers had recommended tenure, Chapela’s contract was suspended after the university received a letter against him from an expert. The author was Luis Herrera-Estrella.

The conferences at the book fair only presented a favorable view of transgenics, leading to complaints from some members of the public. The president of the Union of Socially Concerned Scientists Elena Álvarez-Buylla presented a brief critical perspective on transgenic biotechnology, including information about a French scientist recognized for his independent research into the risks of GMOs, who recently won a suit against biotech groups that carried out a smear campaign to discredit him. Álvarez-Buylla was cut off by Herrera-Estrella, who was clearly annoyed by the criticisms and insisted that as the conference organizer he should be the sole presenter. Another attendee challenged the failure to mention the proven health risks posed by glyphosate, a Monsanto herbicide associated with one of its transgenic corn strains.

The aggressive PR operation to promote the introduction of GM corn in Mexico comes after the company reported declining profits last year and a drop in its share price due to shrinking sales of Roundup and GM soy and corn seeds in South America and Europe.

The Mexican market represents potential earnings of $400 million annually for Monsanto and for some government officials that’s enough to turn a blind eye toward any risk to native corn species, the economy or Mexican health.

Meanwhile in the European Union, according to a report from Friends of the Earth International released several weeks ago, transgenic crops are plummeting at the same time that more and more countries are prohibiting them.

Seven EU member states prohibit the planting of Monsanto’s transgenic corn due to mounting evidence about environmental and economic impacts, and to apply the precautionary principle that stipulates that when impact on human health is unknown precaution is warranted. Polls show that public opposition to transgenics is as high as 61 percent.

Unexpectedly, and not without contradictions, the Mexican federal government denied Monsanto’s permit for a pilot project of 100 acres of GM corn in the northeastern state of Sinaloa. Pilot projects are the second regulatory phase, following the experimental phase and preceding commercial production, of the three phases established by the Law of Genetically Modified Organism Biosecurity.

Beginning in October of 2009, a few months after a meeting between Felipe Calderón and Monsanto President Hugh Grant, the federal government approved 29 applications for experimental transgenic corn plots, breaking a decade-long moratorium. Most of the licenses were issued to Monsanto and Dow Agro Science to test corn strains resistant to herbicides and blight on more than a dozen hectares.

Last year, after keeping the sites secret and without adequately disclosing the results of the experimental plantings in violation of the Biosecurity Law, the government accepted 20 more applications from the aforementioned transnationals, plus Syngenta. If all these permits are authorized, there would be more than 1,000 hectares planted with transgenic corn.

The contradictions and waffling in the government’s original position to at first deny permits for pilot projects in Sinaloa and then approve the quarter-hectare project in Tamaulipas are probably due to the fast-approaching electoral season – crucial for the ruling party, which will try to avoid the political costs of its decisions. The actions of peasant farmer organizations and the important work of expert groups like the UCCS have played an important role in holding back the mass cultivation of GMOs in Mexico.

Since the end of 2009, The National Union of Regional Autonomous Campesino Organizations (UNORCA) started a campaign with the slogan “No to transgenic corn! Monsanto out of Mexico!” that includes the use of forums, mass media and public spaces to inform debate on GMOs in Mexico. Public forums were held in Navojoa (a few miles from one of the centers of transgenic experimentation), Chilpancingo y Zacatecas. Last year in Guadalajara and Morelia, the forums condemned transgenic corn experimentation as a crime against humanity.

There are now many voices speaking out against the imposition of GMOs: from the UCCS to the city council of Tepoztlán in the southern state of Morelos, which filed a constitutional challenge against the planting of transgenic corn in the country.

Food Sovereignty or Food Dependency?

The national head of UNORCA, Olegario Carrillo, asserts that Mexico doesn’t need to embrace Monsanto to regain corn self-sufficiency. Giving in to the transnational’s pressure to gain control over Mexico’s agro-genetic wealth would mean deepening the debilitating food dependence brought on by NAFTA; food imports already constitute more than 40 percent of what Mexico consumes, according to data from the Chief Auditor of the Federation.

The fundamental problem is not technological, but that the Mexican government lacks policies to promote rural development or goals in domestic food production. The neoliberal regime has chosen to promote imports and support the transnationals that have been taking over the production process.

Monsanto is lying when it implies that its biotechnology can resolve Mexico’s food crisis: it is amply documented that transgenics don’t increase yields. Transgenic corn strains weren’t designed to increase yield. The vast majority of transgenic crops are designed to resist the application of herbicides also manufactured by Monsanto. They actually create more dependency due to the need to buy seed and the contamination of native varieties. They also damage the environment, the economy and human health.

On the other hand, annual corn harvests in Mexico could be doubled if agricultural policy were reformed to support small farmers and to encourage cultivation of more acres in the south and southeast where there is sufficient water. The genetic wealth of Mexican corn could raise production, with farmers saving seed and not required to pay royalties to Monsanto, because the 60 native species and thousands of varieties are adapted to local soils and climates.

Monsanto denies the risk of transgenic contamination of native species, despite evidence that the coexistence of transgenics and biodiversity is impossible. Hiding the truth has been an integral part of Monsanto’s corporate strategies throughout its history, as the company seeks to protect profits at the expense of human health, the environment and general well-being.

The UCCS, based on FAO and UNESCO reports, affirms that transgenics not only do not increase yields, they have the negative impacts of raising agrochemical levels and destroying the soil. These studies also show few or no benefits to poor farmers or consumers. Additionally, GM crops contribute to the climate crisis because they reinforce an oil-dependent agricultural model. Peasant farmer organizations and committed scientists propose an alternative sustainable model, based on conservation of biodiversity, nutrient recycling, crop synergy, conservation of soil and strategic resources (such as water), and incorporating new biotechnologies compatible with sustainable systems.

Scientists have concluded that the Mexican countryside has the resources necessary to guarantee food sovereignty without adopting transgenic technology. According to researcher Antonio Turrent Fernández, small-scale producers, ejido members and communal landowners can play a key role in the production of basic foods and the management of Mexico’s diverse genetic resources. But this requires public investment in infrastructure, research, technology transfer and services – that is to say a radical change in the dominant model and budget priorities. It also requires the reinstatement of the moratorium on transgenic corn.

Alfredo Acedo is communications director and advisor to the National Union of Regional Autonomous Campesino Organizations (Unión Nacional de Organizaciones Regionales Campesinas Autónomas, UNORCA) Mexico.

Editor: Laura Carlsen                          Translator: Murphy Woodhouse

http://www.cipamericas.org


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