Posts Tagged 'maize'

No scientific consensus on GMO safety.

As scientists, physicians, academics, and experts from disciplines relevant to the scientific, legal, social and safety assessment aspects of genetically modified organisms (GMOs),[1] we strongly reject claims by GM seed developers and some scientists, commentators, and journalists that there is a “scientific consensus” on GMO safety[2] [3] [4] and that the debate on this topic is “over”.[5]

We feel compelled to issue this statement because the claimed consensus on GMO safety does not exist. The claim that it does exist is misleading and misrepresents the currently available scientific evidence and the broad diversity of opinion among scientists on this issue. Moreover, the claim encourages a climate of complacency that could lead to a lack of regulatory and scientific rigour and appropriate caution, potentially endangering the health of humans, animals, and the environment.

Science and society do not proceed on the basis of a constructed consensus, as current knowledge is always open to well-founded challenge and disagreement. We endorse the need for further independent scientific inquiry and informed public discussion on GM product safety and urge GM proponents to do the same.

Some of our objections to the claim of scientific consensus are listed below.

1. There is no consensus on GM food safety

Regarding the safety of GM crops and foods for human and animal health, a comprehensive review of animal feeding studies of GM crops found “An equilibrium in the number [of] research groups suggesting, on the basis of their studies, that a number of varieties of GM products (mainly maize and soybeans) are as safe and nutritious as the respective conventional non-GM plant, and those raising still serious concerns”. The review also found that most studies concluding that GM foods were as safe and nutritious as those obtained by conventional breeding were “performed by biotechnology companies or associates, which are also responsible [for] commercializing these GM plants”.[6]

A separate review of animal feeding studies that is often cited as showing that GM foods are safe included studies that found significant differences in the GM-fed animals. While the review authors dismissed these findings as not biologically significant,[7] the interpretation of these differences is the subject of continuing scientific debate[8] [9] [10] [11] and no consensus exists on the topic.

Rigorous studies investigating the safety of GM crops and foods would normally involve animal feeding studies in which one group of animals is fed GM food and another group is fed an equivalent non-GM diet. Independent studies of this type are rare, but when such studies have been performed, some have revealed toxic effects or signs of toxicity in the GM-fed animals.[12][13] [14] [15] [16] [17] The concerns raised by these studies have not been followed up by targeted research that could confirm or refute the initial findings.

The lack of scientific consensus on the safety of GM foods and crops is underlined by the recent research calls of the European Union and the French government to investigate the long-term health impacts of GM food consumption in the light of uncertainties raised by animal feeding studies.[18][19] These official calls imply recognition of the inadequacy of the relevant existing scientific research protocols. They call into question the claim that existing research can be deemed conclusive and the scientific debate on biosafety closed.

2. There are no epidemiological studies investigating potential effects of GM food consumption on human health

It is often claimed that “trillions of GM meals” have been eaten in the US with no ill effects. However, no epidemiological studies in human populations have been carried out to establish whether there are any health effects associated with GM food consumption. As GM foods are not labelled in North America, a major producer and consumer of GM crops, it is scientifically impossible to trace, let alone study, patterns of consumption and their impacts. Therefore, claims that GM foods are safe for human health based on the experience of North American populations have no scientific basis.

3. Claims that scientific and governmental bodies endorse GMO safety are exaggerated or inaccurate

 Claims that there is a consensus among scientific and governmental bodies that GM foods are safe, or that they are no more risky than non-GM foods,[20][21] are false.

For instance, an expert panel of the Royal Society of Canada issued a report that was highly critical of the regulatory system for GM foods and crops in that country. The report declared that it is “scientifically unjustifiable” to presume that GM foods are safe without rigorous scientific testing and that the “default prediction” for every GM food should be that the introduction of a new gene will cause “unanticipated changes” in the expression of other genes, the pattern of proteins produced, and/or metabolic activities. Possible outcomes of these changes identified in the report included the presence of new or unexpected allergens.[22]

A report by the British Medical Association concluded that with regard to the long-term effects of GM foods on human health and the environment, “many unanswered questions remain” and that “safety concerns cannot, as yet, be dismissed completely on the basis of information currently available”. The report called for more research, especially on potential impacts on human health and the environment.[23]

Moreover, the positions taken by other organizations have frequently been highly qualified, acknowledging data gaps and potential risks, as well as potential benefits, of GM technology. For example, a statement by the American Medical Association’s Council on Science and Public Health acknowledged “a small potential for adverse events … due mainly to horizontal gene transfer, allergenicity, and toxicity” and recommended that the current voluntary notification procedure practised in the US prior to market release of GM crops be made mandatory.[24] It should be noted that even a “small potential for adverse events” may turn out to be significant, given the widespread exposure of human and animal populations to GM crops.

A statement by the board of directors of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) affirming the safety of GM crops and opposing labelling [25] cannot be assumed to represent the view of AAAS members as a whole and was challenged in an open letter by a group of 21 scientists, including many long-standing members of the AAAS.[26] This episode underlined the lack of consensus among scientists about GMO safety.

4. EU research project does not provide reliable evidence of GM food safety

An EU research project[27] has been cited internationally as providing evidence for GM crop and food safety. However, the report based on this project, “A Decade of EU-Funded GMO Research”, presents no data that could provide such evidence, from long-term feeding studies in animals.

Indeed, the project was not designed to test the safety of any single GM food, but to focus on “the development of safety assessment approaches”.[28] Only five published animal feeding studies are referenced in the SAFOTEST section of the report, which is dedicated to GM food safety.[29] None of these studies tested a commercialised GM food; none tested the GM food for long-term effects beyond the subchronic period of 90 days; all found differences in the GM-fed animals, which in some cases were statistically significant; and none concluded on the safety of the GM food tested, let alone on the safety of GM foods in general. Therefore the EU research project provides no evidence for sweeping claims about the safety of any single GM food or of GM crops in general.

5. List of several hundred studies does not show GM food safety

A frequently cited claim published on an Internet website that several hundred studies “document the general safety and nutritional wholesomeness of GM foods and feeds”[30] is misleading. Examination of the studies listed reveals that many do not provide evidence of GM food safety and, in fact, some provide evidence of a lack of safety. For example:

  • Many of the studies are not toxicological animal feeding studies of the type that can provide useful information about health effects of GM food consumption. The list includes animal production studies that examine parameters of interest to the food and agriculture industry, such as milk yield and weight gain;[31] [32] studies on environmental effects of GM crops; and analytical studies of the composition or genetic makeup of the crop.
  • Among the animal feeding studies and reviews of such studies in the list, a substantial number found toxic effects and signs of toxicity in GM-fed animals compared with controls.[33] [34] [35] [36] [37] [38] Concerns raised by these studies have not been satisfactorily addressed and the claim that the body of research shows a consensus over the safety of GM crops and foods is false and irresponsible.
  • Many of the studies were conducted over short periods compared with the animal’s total lifespan and cannot detect long-term health effects.[39] [40]

We conclude that these studies, taken as a whole, are misrepresented on the Internet website as they do not “document the general safety and nutritional wholesomeness of GM foods and feeds”. Rather, some of the studies give serious cause for concern and should be followed up by more detailed investigations over an extended period of time.

6. There is no consensus on the environmental risks of GM crops

Environmental risks posed by GM crops include the effects of Bt insecticidal crops on non-target organisms and effects of the herbicides used in tandem with herbicide-tolerant GM crops.

As with GM food safety, no scientific consensus exists regarding the environmental risks of GM crops. A review of environmental risk assessment approaches for GM crops identified shortcomings in the procedures used and found “no consensus” globally on the methodologies that should be applied, let alone on standardized testing procedures.[41]

Some reviews of the published data on Bt crops have found that they can have adverse effects on non-target and beneficial organisms[42] [43] [44] [45] – effects that are widely neglected in regulatory assessments and by some scientific commentators. Resistance to Bt toxins has emerged in target pests,[46] and problems with secondary (non-target) pests have been noted, for example, in Bt cotton in China.[47] [48]

Herbicide-tolerant GM crops have proved equally controversial. Some reviews and individual studies have associated them with increased herbicide use,[49][50] the rapid spread of herbicide-resistant weeds,[51] and adverse health effects in human and animal populations exposed to Roundup, the herbicide used on the majority of GM crops.[52] [53] [54]

As with GM food safety, disagreement among scientists on the environmental risks of GM crops may be correlated with funding sources. A peer-reviewed survey of the views of 62 life scientists on the environmental risks of GM crops found that funding and disciplinary training had a significant effect on attitudes. Scientists with industry funding and/or those trained in molecular biology were very likely to have a positive attitude to GM crops and to hold that they do not represent any unique risks, while publicly-funded scientists working independently of GM crop developer companies and/or those trained in ecology were more likely to hold a “moderately negative” attitude to GM crop safety and to emphasize the uncertainty and ignorance involved. The review authors concluded, “The strong effects of training and funding might justify certain institutional changes concerning how we organize science and how we make public decisions when new technologies are to be evaluated.”[55]

7. International agreements show widespread recognition of risks posed by GM foods and crops

The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety was negotiated over many years and implemented in 2003. The Cartagena Protocol is an international agreement ratified by 166 governments worldwide that seeks to protect biological diversity from the risks posed by GM technology. It embodies the Precautionary Principle in that it allows signatory states to take precautionary measures to protect themselves against threats of damage from GM crops and foods, even in case of a lack of scientific certainty.[56]

Another international body, the UN’s Codex Alimentarius, worked with scientific experts for seven years to develop international guidelines for the assessment of GM foods and crops, because of concerns about the risks they pose. These guidelines were adopted by the Codex Alimentarius Commission, of which over 160 nations are members, including major GM crop producers such as the United States.[57]

The Cartagena Protocol and Codex share a precautionary approach to GM crops and foods, in that they agree that genetic engineering differs from conventional breeding and that safety assessments should be required before GM organisms are used in food or released into the environment.

These agreements would never have been negotiated, and the implementation processes elaborating how such safety assessments should be conducted would not currently be happening, without widespread international recognition of the risks posed by GM crops and foods and the unresolved state of existing scientific understanding.

Concerns about risks are well-founded, as has been demonstrated by studies on some GM crops and foods that have shown adverse effects on animal health and non-target organisms, indicated above. Many of these studies have, in fact, fed into the negotiation and/or implementation processes of the Cartagena Protocol and Codex. We support the application of the Precautionary Principle with regard to the release and transboundary movement of GM crops and foods.

Conclusion

In the scope of this document, we can only highlight a few examples to illustrate that the totality of scientific research outcomes in the field of GM crop safety is nuanced, complex, often contradictory or inconclusive, confounded by researchers’ choices, assumptions, and funding sources, and in general, has raised more questions than it has currently answered.

Whether to continue and expand the introduction of GM crops and foods into the human food and animal feed supply, and whether the identified risks are acceptable or not, are decisions that involve socioeconomic considerations beyond the scope of a narrow scientific debate and the currently unresolved biosafety research agendas. These decisions must therefore involve the broader society. They should, however, be supported by strong scientific evidence on the long-term safety of GM crops and foods for human and animal health and the environment, obtained in a manner that is honest, ethical, rigorous, independent, transparent, and sufficiently diversified to compensate for bias.

Decisions on the future of our food and agriculture should not be based on misleading and misrepresentative claims that a “scientific consensus” exists on GMO safety.


[1] In the US, the term “genetically engineered” is often used in place of “genetically modified”. We have used “genetically modified” because this is the terminology consistently used by many authorities internationally, including the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations; the World Health Organization; Codex Alimentarius; European and Indian legislation; peer-reviewed studies by industry and independent scientists; and the international media. It is also consistent with the Cartagena Protocol’s term “living modified organism”.

[2] Frewin, G. (2013). The new “is GM food safe?” meme. Axis Mundi, 18 July.  http://www.axismundionline.com/blog/the-new-is-gm-food-safe-meme/; Wikipedia (2013). Genetically modified food controversies.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genetically_modified_food_controversies

[3] Mark Lynas (2013). GMO pigs study – more junk science. Marklynas.org, 12 June. http://www.marklynas.org/2013/06/gmo-pigs-study-more-junk-science/

[4] Keith Kloor (2013). Greens on the run in debate over genetically modified food. Bloomberg, 7 January. www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-01-07/green-activist-reverses-stance-on-genetically-modified-food.html

[5] White, M. (2013). The scientific debate about GM foods is over: They’re safe. Pacific Standard magazine, 24 Sept. www.psmag.com/health/scientific-debate-gm-foods-theyre-safe-66711/

[6] Domingo, J. L. and J. G. Bordonaba (2011). A literature review on the safety assessment of genetically modified plants. Environ Int 37: 734–742.

[7] Snell, C., et al. (2012). Assessment of the health impact of GM plant diets in long-term and multigenerational animal feeding trials: A literature review. Food and Chemical Toxicology 50(3–4): 1134-1148.

[8] Séralini, G. E., et al. (2011). Genetically modified crops safety assessments: Present limits and possible improvements. Environmental Sciences Europe 23(10).

[9] Dona, A. and I. S. Arvanitoyannis (2009). Health risks of genetically modified foods. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr 49(2): 164–175.

[10] Domingo, J. L. and J. G. Bordonaba (2011). Ibid.

[11] Diels, J., et al. (2011). Association of financial or professional conflict of interest to research outcomes on health risks or nutritional assessment studies of genetically modified products. Food Policy 36: 197–203.

[12] Domingo, J. L. and J. G. Bordonaba (2011). Ibid..

[13] Diels, J., et al. (2011). Ibid.

[14] Dona, A. and I. S. Arvanitoyannis (2009). Ibid.

[15] Séralini, G. E., et al. (2012). Long term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize. Food and Chemical Toxicology 50(11): 4221-4231.

[16] Séralini, G. E., et al. (2013). Answers to critics: Why there is a long term toxicity due to NK603 Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize and to a Roundup herbicide. Food and Chemical Toxicology 53: 461-468.

[17] Carman, J. A., et al. (2013). A long-term toxicology study on pigs fed a combined genetically modified (GM) soy and GM maize diet. Journal of Organic Systems 8(1): 38–54.

[18] EU Food Policy (2012).  Commission and EFSA agree need for two-year GMO feeding studies. 17 December.

[19] French Ministry of Ecology, Sustainable Development and Energy (2013). Programme National de Recherche: Risques environnementaux et sanitaires liés aux OGM (Risk’OGM). 12 July. www.developpement-durable.gouv.fr/IMG/pdf/APR__Risk_OGM_rel_pbch_pbj_rs2.pdf

[20] Wikipedia (2013). Genetically modified food controversies.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genetically_modified_food_controversies

[21] G. Masip (2013). Opinion: Don’t fear GM crops, Europe! The Scientist, May 28. www.the-scientist.com

[22] Royal Society of Canada (2001). Elements of precaution: Recommendations for the regulation of Food Biotechnology in Canada; An Expert Panel Report on the Future of Food Biotechnology. January. www.rsc.ca//files/publications/expert_panels/foodbiotechnology/GMreportEN.pdf

[23] British Medical Association Board of Science and Education (2004). Genetically modified food and health: A second interim statement. March.bit.ly/19QAHSI

[24] American Medical Association House of Delegates (2012). Labeling of bioengineered foods. Council on Science and Public Health Report 2.http://www.ama-assn.org/resources/doc/csaph/a12-csaph2-bioengineeredfoods.pdf

[25] AAAS (2012). Statement by the AAAS Board of Directors on labeling of genetically modified foods. 20 October.www.aaas.org/news/releases/2012/media/AAAS_GM_statement.pdf

[26] Hunt, P., et al. (2012). Yes: Food labels would let consumers make informed choices. Environmental Health News.www.environmentalhealthnews.org/ehs/news/2012/yes-labels-on-gm-foods

[27] European Commission (2010). A decade of EU-funded GMO research (2001–2010).

[28] European Commission (2010): 128.

[29] European Commission (2010): 157.

[31] Brouk, M., et al. (2008). Performance of lactating dairy cows fed corn as whole plant silage and grain produced from a genetically modified event DAS-59122-7 or a nontransgenic, near isoline control. J Anim. Sci, (Sectional Meeting Abstracts) 86(e-Suppl. 3):89 Abstract 276.

[32] Calsamiglia, S., et al. (2007). Effects of corn silage derived from a genetically modified variety containing two transgenes on feed intake, milk production, and composition, and the absence of detectable transgenic deoxyribonucleic acid in milk in Holstein dairy cows. J Dairy Sci 90: 4718-4723.

[33] de Vendômois, J.S., et al. (2010). A comparison of the effects of three GM corn varieties on mammalian health. Int J Biol Sci. ;5(7):706-26.

[34] Ewen, S.W.B. and A. Pusztai (1999). Effect of diets containing genetically modified potatoes expressing Galanthus nivalis lectin on rat small intestine. Lancet 354:1353-1354.

[35] Fares, N.H., and A. K. El-Sayed (1998). Fine structural changes in the ileum of mice fed on delta-endotoxin-treated potatoes and transgenic potatoes. Nat Toxins. 6:219-33.

[36] Kilic, A. and M. T. Akay (2008). A three generation study with genetically modified Bt corn in rats: Biochemical and histopathological investigation. Food Chem Toxicol 46(3): 1164–1170.

[37] Malatesta, M., et al. (2002). Ultrastructural morphometrical and immunocytochemical analyses of hepatocyte nuclei from mice fed on genetically modified soybean. Cell Structure and Function 27:173-180.

[38] Malatesta, M., et al. (2003). Fine structural analyses of pancreatic acinar cell nuclei from mice fed on genetically modified soybean. European Journal of Histochemistry 47:385-388

[39] Hammond, B., et al. (2004). Results of a 13 week safety assurance study with rats fed grain from glyphosate tolerant corn. Food Chem Toxicol 42(6): 1003-1014.

[40] Hammond, B. G., et al. (2006). Results of a 90-day safety assurance study with rats fed grain from corn borer-protected corn. Food Chem Toxicol 44(7): 1092-1099.

[41] Hilbeck, A., et al. (2011). Environmental risk assessment of genetically modified plants – concepts and controversies. Environmental Sciences Europe 23(13).

[42] Hilbeck, A. and J. E. U. Schmidt (2006). Another view on Bt proteins – How specific are they and what else might they do? Biopesti Int 2(1): 1–50.

[43] Székács, A. and B. Darvas (2012). Comparative aspects of Cry toxin usage in insect control. Advanced Technologies for Managing Insect Pests. I. Ishaaya, S. R. Palli and A. R. Horowitz. Dordrecht, Netherlands, Springer: 195–230.

[44] Marvier, M., et al. (2007). A meta-analysis of effects of Bt cotton and maize on nontarget invertebrates. Science 316(5830): 1475-1477.

[45] Lang, A. and E. Vojtech (2006). The effects of pollen consumption of transgenic Bt maize on the common swallowtail, Papilio machaon L. (Lepidoptera, Papilionidae). Basic and Applied Ecology 7: 296–306.

[46] Gassmann, A. J., et al. (2011). Field-evolved resistance to Bt maize by Western corn rootworm. PLoS ONE 6(7): e22629.

[47] Zhao, J. H., et al. (2010). Benefits of Bt cotton counterbalanced by secondary pests? Perceptions of ecological change in China. Environ Monit Assess 173(1-4): 985-994.

[48] Lu, Y., et al. (2010). Mirid bug outbreaks in multiple crops correlated with wide-scale adoption of Bt cotton in China. Science 328(5982): 1151-1154.

[49] Benbrook, C. (2012). Impacts of genetically engineered crops on pesticide use in the US – The first sixteen years. Environmental Sciences Europe 24(24).

[50] Heinemann, J. A., et al. (2013). Sustainability and innovation in staple crop production in the US Midwest. International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability: 1–18.

[51] Powles, S. B. (2008). Evolved glyphosate-resistant weeds around the world: Lessons to be learnt. Pest Manag Sci 64: 360–365.

[52] Székács, A. and B. Darvas (2012). Forty years with glyphosate. Herbicides – Properties, Synthesis and Control of Weeds. M. N. Hasaneen, InTech.

[53] Benedetti, D., et al. (2013). Genetic damage in soybean workers exposed to pesticides: evaluation with the comet and buccal micronucleus cytome assays. Mutat Res 752(1-2): 28-33.

[54] Lopez, S. L., et al. (2012). Pesticides used in South American GMO-based agriculture: A review of their effects on humans and animal models. Advances in Molecular Toxicology. J. C. Fishbein and J. M. Heilman. New York, Elsevier. 6: 41–75.

[55] Kvakkestad, V., et al. (2007). Scientistsʼ perspectives on the deliberate release of GM crops. Environmental Values 16(1): 79–104.

[56] Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity (2000). Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to the Convention on Biological Diversity.bch.cbd.int/protocol/text/

[57] Codex Alimentarius (2009). Foods derived from modern biotechnology. 2d ed. World Health Organization/Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.ftp://ftp.fao.org/codex/Publications/Booklets/Biotech/Biotech_2009e.pdf

http://www.ensser.org/increasing-public-information/no-scientific-consensus-on-gmo-safety/

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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

Transgenes in Mexican maize, ten years on.

Ten years ago, the discovery of transgenes in Mexican maize sparked an international discussion on the use of GM crops in centers of origin and genetic diversity. Since then, the pertinent question is no longer if transgenes will contaminate Mexico’s maize landraces, but more importantly, what we might lose if this continues. Answering this requires addressing the right questions within Mexico’s context – not only the scientific concerns of environmental, health and biodiversity-level effects – but also their inter-related social mand economic impacts. Domestic society should therefore play a role in the assessment of whether genetically modifi ed (GM) maize is appropriate for Mexico as the center of origin and genetic diversity. Today, a more integrative decision making process on the appropriateness of GM maize for Mexican agriculture is needed, including consideration of whether alternative approaches to meeting maize production challenges may provide greater benefits with fewer risks.

Read the brief at:

http://www.genok.com/filarkiv/File/Biosafety_Brief_2011_5.pdf

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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