The fight against genetically modified corn in Mexico began in the communities, leaped to the streets, spread to the printed page and now is being carried on in the courtroom. It is an uneven dispute in which the federal government has sided with the transnational corporation and against the majority of Mexican farmers and consumers. But in the latest battle the public good gained ground, under a strategy that combines effective mobilization with informational campaigns and legal cases.
The debate over GM corn isn’t an argument between fanatical followers and stubborn opponents, but rather a war of interests in which one side seeking maximum profits plays outside the rules. They hide information, smear researchers, activists and judges, take action to discredit serious studies and resort to misinformation. The other side, comprised of peasant farmers and consumers, has taken up the task of defending traditional knowledge, campesino autonomy, access to decent work and sustainable agriculture.
Recently, the Union of Concerned Scientists has been the most active in the defense of Mexican corn, although the GM invasion isn’t a scientific problem in essence. According to researcher Elena Álvarez-Buylla there is no longer a scientific debate given “the obsolescence of the gene paradigm” that posits that a gene behaves the same in a foreign organism as it does in its original organism. This has been promoted by genetic engineering at the service of the transnational corporations. It is a model that has failed to hold up although the corporations continue to use the label of “science” to justify it.
Álvarez-Buylla and Alma Piñeyro edited a recent book on the dangers to Mexican corn from genetically modified organisms. The book brings together nearly 50 specialists in more than 500 pages. It concludes that if Mexico authorizes the commercial cultivation of Monsanto’s GM corn genetic alterations will accumulate in native maize varieties, eroding the farm economy with negative effects on biodiversity and human health. In the preface, Jose Sarukhan, former dean of the national university (UNAM) and director of the National Commission for the Understanding and Use of Biodiversity, cites a landmark study by his commission in 2011 to state that “practically all national land” is a center of origin and genetic diversity of corn, with some 60 native landraces and thousands of varieties across the country.
The federal government has issued more than 169 permits issued since 2009 for experimental cultivation in northern Mexico that now threaten the genetic diversity of native corn and teocintle (corn’s ancestor). In 2011, the government authorized the first permits for GM corn cultivation in the pilot phase. The transnational corporations have increased lobbying pressure in support of commercial planting since 2012. If commercial planting is authorized it would be impossible to stop genetic contamination in Mexico. The new book discusses the consequences on the sub-cellular level and the impact on environmental, human and economic levels. It also presents ethical, cultural and political considerations.
The Union of Concerned Scientists offers free Internet distribution of a book entitled “GM Corn in Mexico” to publicize the agro-genetic, economic and cultural importance of Mexico’s basic grain and the disastrous consequences of its genetic contamination.
The book was printed jointly by the Institute of Graphic Arts in Oaxaca and a foundation for the defense of cultural heritage headed by the painter, Francisco Toledo. Toledo recently launched a campaign for 1 million signatures against GM corn to persuade the federal government to revoke permits to plant GM corn. Besides the environmental risks, the patents on the seed lead to monopolization of production of the staple crop.
In a letter to President Enrique Peña Nieto, Toledo refers to a previous letter sent by scientist David Schubert in October in which the renowned researcher argues that there is no need to expose the country to environmental risks whose consequences would be irreversible. Schubert also identifies health hazards, higher costs, and the social and political dependency that GM corn would bring.
On a recent visit to Mexico, award-winning scientist and activist Vandana Shiva encouraged citizens to keep fighting to ban genetically modified crops. She was accompanied by attorney René Sanchez Galindo, who filed a class action suit that won a suspension of permits for GM corn in October. The class action suit, already in effect and supported by 52 scientists and activists and 22 organizations, is still making its way through the courts after the Unified Tribunal threw out appeals from the Mexican ministries of the Environment and Agriculture and several private companies. There are 59 injunctions filed against the suspension, 10 by the government and the rest by Monsanto and other corporations in five different courts —two with federal judges, two in appeals court and one in a collegiate tribunal.
It will be a long process, Sanchez Galindo declared in an interview, but he remains optimistic because the corporations are losing the battle for public opinion. However, he has no illusions regarding the judiciary branch. Recently Mayan communities and organizations won a court battle to suspend cultivation of GM soybeans in the Yucatan Peninsula, a sign that Monsanto’s legal department is not invincible. But Monsanto has stooped to new lows, launching an offensive against Judge Jaime Manuel Marroquín who ruled to suspend the permits for GM corn cultivation by filing a motion to remove him from the bench for bias and ethics violations. The pressure tactics and attacks on judges are typical of the transnational giant’s legal strategy in these cases.
Sanchez Galindo revealed that opponents of GM corn in Mexico have also filed a complaint with the National Human Rights Commission, alleging that the permits violate constitutional guarantees to a healthy environment, health and food.
Meanwhile, in every region of the country indigenous and peasant communities continue to resist the GM corn invasion and sow their native seed.