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MEXICO
Contaminated corn
John Ross
4/2/2002
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Mexico’s many maize varieties are threatened by transgenic mutation.

As indigenous farmers in Oaxaca’s remote northern mountains prepare the earth for the spring corn planting, they regard the seasonal mountain breezes with suspicion, afraid that pollen from US-grown genetically modified corn may travel on the wind and poison their fields.

Rogelio Morales, a Zapotec farmer and leader of the Union of Organizations of the Sierra de Juárez (UNOSJO), which groups together farmers in the Guelatao region, worries about the safety of the milpa, the traditional planting of corn, beans and squash on which the indigenous diet is based throughout southern Mexico.

"Without the milpa, our communities cannot survive," Morales said.

The recent confirmation of contamination of native corn has long been in the wind. Transgenic corn began flooding Mexico five years ago, the result of massive imports inspired by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Last year alone, Mexico imported 13 million tons of basic grains from the United States and Canada. Half of it was corn, and between 30 and 60 percent of the corn is believed to have been genetically modified.

With 25 million acres under cultivation in the United States with genetically modified commercial corns such as StarLink and BT-YieldGard (designed to combat caterpillars) and Roundup Ready (resistant to the herbicide Roundup), it was just a matter of time before the modified corn slipped across the border into the Mexican milpa.

Exactly how much of the manipulated corn is piling into the Mexican marketplace is unknown. Greenpeace-Mexico calculates that major corporations such as Cargill Inc., Archer Daniels Midland and Grupo Maseca, which are barred from selling transgenic grains to the European Union and Japan, are unloading their genetically modified corn in Mexico.

Mexican corn imports are supposedly destined for animal consumption, although critics claim that some of the 6 million tons (a total that far exceeds NAFTA quotas) is diverted for human consumption or is planted in Mexican fields.

Transnational grain merchants are not required to separate transgenic from natural corn.

The first cases of contamination were recorded inadvertently in the autumn of 2000 in Calpulapan, Oaxaca, when biologist Ignacio Chapela, a Mexican biologist from the University of California at Berkeley and long-time adviser to the Union of Zapotecos and Chinantecos (UZACHI), a local indigenous organization, noted alien DNA in local corn samples during a laboratory training session.

"It was like when an AIDS test comes up positive," Chapela said, "We had the bad news but we couldn’t determine the vector."

What Chapela and indigenous activists were able to determine was alarming: in four samples taken from local milpas, 27 percent of the corn was contaminated.

More disturbing was a sample taken from a government store in nearby Ixtlan de Juárez, which was entirely contaminated. That sample was tracked to a campesino who had mixed his seed corn with a lot bought at the store.

Some investigators, including Oaxaca agrarian analyst Gustavo Esteva, say the contamination can be traced to a lot of genetically modified corn grown in Michigan, in the United States. The corn was imported and sold at low cost by the National Campesino Confederation (CNC), the farmers’ wing of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in an effort to persuade Oaxaca campesinos to vote for the PRI in the July 2000 presidential elections.

Others claim that migrant workers have returned from the United States with transgenic corn.

For many months, the mutant corn of Calpulapan remained a closely guarded secret.

"We didn’t want the town’s name to be publicized, because we worried that SAGARPA [the Secretariat of Agriculture] and SEMARNAT [the Secretariat of the Environment and Natural Resources] would come and burn our fields to get rid of the problem," said Lilia Pérez, who heads the UZACHI investigation team.

Confirmation of the Calpulapan contamination was announced in mid-September by the National Commission on Bio-security, and the government launched its own investigation.

Preliminary results were discouraging. In a survey of 20 corn-growing regions in Oaxaca and two in neighboring Puebla, only six were uncontaminated. In 11 areas, contamination ranged from 3 percent to 13 percent.

Among the regions testing positive was Puebla’s Tehuacán valley, where legend has it that Mexico’s first corn was domesticated. Even more alarming were 20- to 60-percent contamination readings in samples taken by the National Ecology Institute (INE) in six other widely scattered regions from Oaxaca’s Mixteca mountains to the state’s central valleys.

The velocity of the spread of the transgenic contamination has made experts jumpy.

"The speed at which the genetically modified corn is spreading out exceeds worst-case calculations by far," Peter Rossett, director of the Chiapas-based Food First Institute, said during a Mexico City conference on the defense of native corn.

"This is a tragic discovery. It literally alters the course of biological history," Chapela said.

The US-based biologist who, along with David Quist, broke the story in November in the prestigious British journal Nature, believes the worst is yet to come.

Calpulapan, he says, is a wake-up call. Next will come the second-generation transgenics, such as those with the so-called "terminator" gene, which produce plants that bear sterile seeds, forcing campesinos to buy new seed every year (LP, March 1, 1999).

Then, he says, it will become a question of control: Mexican farmers will become dependent on Monsanto, Dupont and Novartis to grow a crop that has been cultivated here for thousands of years.

The biologist is particularly concerned with how transgenic contamination can lead to the homogenization of Mexico’s rich diversity of traditional varieties. Critics of transgenic seed say that such a reduction of the variety of crops threatens food security in Latin America (LP, Aug. 20, 2001).

"Genetic memory is being threatened," he said, because transgenic mutation could even alter the genetic structure of the wild corn, Teocintle, which is the common ancestor of Mexico’s abundant varieties. "The transnationals are trying to make Mexican corn the same as Iowa’s. We cannot let that happen."

Chapela added, "Corn is the connection between culture and agriculture in Mexico."

The threat to Mexico’s corn is primarily an indigenous issue, and indigenous organizations have taken the lead in sounding the alarm.

UNOSJO and UZACHI, both militant Oaxaca indigenous groups, were the first to detect the threat and take the battle to the National Indigenous Congress (CNI), an alliance of most of Mexico’s indigenous peoples.

Calling for "the defense of maize," more than 400 representatives of non-governmental organizations, environmentalists, social activists, academics and indigenous authorities gathered in Mexico City in late January to formulate a common defense and national strategy in the battle against transgenic contamination.

"This is an attack on my communities and my people," Pérez said. "The transnationals are selling hunger. Their transgenic products bring cultural genocide."

 


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