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MEXICO
The plot against maize
John Ross
3/7/2007
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Big biotechnology firms take advantage of corn crisis to force farmers to purchase genetically-modified seeds.

World corn prices are currently at an all-time high due to burgeoning interest in ethanol production as a petroleum substitute. In Mexico the price of corn has been pushed upwards by the cost of diesel and petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides despite the fact that Mexico is a major oil producer.

Crop failures due to drought, flooding, and even ice storms have contributed to the price surge. But whatever the immediate causes, the dismantlement of government agricultural programs and the brutal impacts of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) have deepened the Mexican corn production crisis.

Competing with highly subsidized US farmers is driving Mexican farmers into bankruptcy. Guaranteed prices for farmers’ crops is a thing of the past in Mexico, while corporate corn growers in the United States can receive up to US$21,000 an acre in subsidies from their government, enabling them to dump their corn over the border. The impact of this inundation has been to force 6 million farmers and their families to abandon their plots and leap into the migration stream, according to a 2004 Carnegie Endowment for International Peace study.

Problem will only worsen
This assault on poor farmers down at the bottom of the food chain will be exacerbated at the end of this year when all tariffs on US corn are abolished.

President Felipe Calderón seeks to tame tortilla price hikes, such as one early this year, by importing up to 2 million duty free tons to augment what Mexican farmers can or cannot produce. Such a solution is guaranteed to drive more farmers off the land. Even worse is that much of the new influx of NAFTA corn will be transgenic.

The environmental group Greenpeace estimates that of the 36 million tons of corn Mexico has imported from the US over the past six years, 40 to 60 percent is genetically-modified. The group reasons that US producers, barred from dealing genetically-modified corn in Europe and Japan are using Mexico as a dumping ground for the grain.

Transgenic corn began pouring into Mexico in 1998. By 2001 it was being detected in the remote sierras of the Oaxaca and Puebla states, where maize was first domesticated 7,000 years ago. Both BT and Starlink strains (Monsanto and Novartis brands) were found in Oaxaca’s Sierra de Juarez in 2001 and 2002.

Although Mexico imports millions of tons of transgenic corn, it remains a crime here to plant genetically modified seed.

In 1998, the National Biosecurity Commission, an interdisciplinary body that involves the health and agricultural secretariats, declared a moratorium on planting genetically modified corn until its impacts could be determined, and the ban remains in place although under heavy attack from big biotechnology and agricultural firms.

To keep the industry at bay, the Biosecurity commission now grants permits for “experimental” stations where the grain can be grown under government supervision — the Monsanto corporation is now testing its “YieldGuard” brand corn on hundreds of hectares in Sinaloa state, the most prolific corn-producing state in Mexico.

A spillover of YieldGuard in Sinaloa could contaminate a big chunk of the existing corn supply.

Although more and more licenses are issued every year for experimental planting, producers groups are now threatening to plant genetically-modified corn without government permission. “If the moratorium is not relaxed, we will start planting the transgenic corn in the spring cycle” warns Perfecto Solís, director of the US-Mexican agricultural giant Corn Products Systems.

But big corn growers have been sewing transgenic maize without government permission for years. Roberto González Barrera, “El Rey de la Tortilla,” or “The Tortilla King,” whose Maseca-Gruma company, rules the corn flour and tortilla market, once boasted that he had thousands of hectares under transgenic corn.

During the administration of the now-reviled Carlos Salinas (1988-94), González Barrera González began marketing an instant corn flour mix milled from both genetically modified and natural corn.

Large agricultural companies are already petitioning the Biosecurity Commission to permit widespread planting in 2007.

“Bio-tech is the only solution to growing more corn and keeping the tortilla affordable,” advises Jaime Yesaki, director of the National Agriculture and Livestock Council or CNA the principal agro-business federation in the country.

The CNA was joined in its petition to the agriculture secretary to vacate the ban on growing genetically-modified corn by the National Association of Supermarkets and Retail Stores which is controlled by the US transnational Wal-Mart, which is now Mexico’s number one retailer of tortillas and other foodstuffs and, with 700 mega-stores, the nation’s largest employer.

The seed market
The subtext of the corn conflict is control of the seed market. “We have been patiently waiting to end the moratorium for ten years now” complained Eduardo Pérez Pico, director of Monsanto-Mexico, the St. Louis-based conglomerate that dominates world seed markets.

“Meanwhile Mexico is falling behind the rest of the world in applying new seed technologies that can better feed its people” the magnate recently told La Jornada newspaper.

Corn is not just nutrition and livelihood in Mexico but also culture and religion. The transnational attack on corn stirs passions and paranoia among the descendants of Mexico’s first peoples. Mexican nongovernmental organizations allege that transgenic corn was a threat to the nation’s 57 distinct indigenous peoples.

The Mexican geography produces hundreds of varieties of corn that have adapted to the country’s myriad bioregions over millennia. The introduction of transgenic seed will work to homogenize these strains, reasons Dr. Ignacio Chapela, the University of California-Berkeley biologist who was the first to locate transgenic contamination here while doing fieldwork in the tiny Oaxaca sierra town of Calpulapan in 2001.

“Millions of years of biological history will be lost if transgenic seeds are allowed to be planted in the Mexican milpa,” or “corn patch,” Chapela affirms.


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Tortillas are an integral part of the Mexican diet.
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