Biodiversity in Danger: The Genetic Contamination of Mexican Maize
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Scientists from Mexico, Canada and the United States met on March 11, at the Victoria Hotel in the Mexican city of Oaxaca for a symposium on the effects and possible risks of the presence of genetically modified maize in Mexico. The furtive presence of this maize growing in peasants’ fields has been documented since 2001, first in rural Oaxaca and more recently all over the country. This finding could have serious implications for agricultural biodiversity because Mexico is the center of origin and variety of maize, which is the world’s third most important agricultural crop (after wheat and rice).
According to Alejandro de Avila, director of the Oaxaca Ethno-Botanical Garden, the latest archaeological findings establish that maize was first discovered and domesticated in Oaxaca 10,000 years ago, not 6,000 or 8,000 years ago as was believed until recently. Maize is considered the greatest agronomic achievement of the human race, and the greatest treasure that Christopher Columbus took from the Americas to Europe. Today it is cultivated on the Mediterranean Coast, in Africa and even in China. But its center of diversity is still Mexico, home of the lion’s share of the thousands of varieties and strains that are the result of millennia of patient work and experimentation by peasants. These varieties have been developed to express favorable traits like nutritional value, tolerance to acid or saline soils, resistance to droughts, freezes or strong winds, immunity from disease, and others. There’s even a variety that fixes its own nitrogen. It is not unusual at all for an indigenous village in Sierra Juarez to have more maize varieties than all of the United States.
This wondrous diversity is what motivates agronomists from all over the world to travel to Mexico to acquire specimens to improve their maize varieties and also the reason why the International Center for Research and Improvement on Maize and Wheat (CIMMYT) is based there. For them, the corn fields of small Mexican farmers are an irreplaceable agricultural biodiversity resource, indispensable for human nutrition. A social or ecological disturbance in this zone could compromise the viability of maize as a food and endanger the world food supply. The CIMMYT, with all its laboratories and seed deposits, can never replace the dense and complex rural web of social and ecological relations that support and nurture countless varieties of maize.
The inter-governmental Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC), formed to address the environmental issues raised by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), sponsored the symposium. But that morning of March 11, while invitees were arriving at the hotel and registering for it, the organizers and the private guards hired to provide security looked uneasy. They knew a protest was coming and that the demonstrators would arrive any moment.
The previous day, indigenous and environmental groups, and progressive intellectuals hosted an alternative forum titled “Defending our Maize, Protecting Life.” They feared that experts generally favorable to the biotechnology industry and its transgenic products might declare that the genetic contamination of maize is a consummate, irreversible fact of life and that from now on Mexicans will just have to get used to it. The participants decided to attend the next day’s symposium to present their viewpoints and concerns to the scientists and officials. Their admission to the symposium had not yet been confirmed, but they would go anyway.
Enter Genetically Modified Corn
In 1996, genetically modified corn began to be planted in the United States, becoming 30 percent of the national harvest within five years. Mexican scientists and environmentalists expressed concern that this corn was entering Mexico in imports, with uncertain consequences for agricultural biodiversity. The government responded the following year by imposing a moratorium on the planting of transgenic crops. But the measure was never enforced and corn imports continued with no control. The citizenry was never informed that the grain was not to be used as seed.
Already in 1999 the Mexican chapter of Greenpeace had samples of U.S. corn that was entering Mexico analyzed, and it had tested positive for transgenic content. The government then formed an interagency committee called the Inter-Secretarial Commission on Bio-Security and Genetically Modified Organisms (CIBIOGEM) to look into the matter. To this day this body has done nothing, according to civil society groups. Its web page has not been updated since August 2003.
In 2001 it was discovered that the genetically modified corn had been used as seed and planted by peasants who had no idea of what it was. “This is no small thing. It’s pollution in the very center of origin of a crop of major importance to the world food supply, which implies greater impacts than in other zones, since the contamination can extend itself not only to native maize, but also to its wild relatives,” warned Silvia Ribeiro of the Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC Group).
This genetic flow “is polluting and degrades one of Mexico’s major treasures. As opposed to the dispersion and genetic flow between native maize varieties and conventional hybrid varieties, it does not transfer maize genes only, but also gene fragments from bacteria and viruses (that have nothing to do with maize), whose environmental and health effects have not been seriously evaluated,” Ribeiro stressed.
“The pollution of our maize attacks the fundamental autonomy of our indigenous and farming communities because we are not merely talking about our source of food; maize is a vital part of our cultural heritage,” denounced indigenous leader Aldo Gonz