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LATIN AMERICA
Killer seeds
John Ross
7/10/2008
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Biotech giants eye region as a market for devastating product.

Latin America is a prime marketing target for large biotech companies’ often tagged “semillas asesinas” or “killer seeds” for their devastating impacts on local food stocks. Now the genetically-modified seeds are suspected of literally provoking murder most foul.

In March, Armando Villarreal, a farm leader in the Mexican border state of Chihuahua, was gunned down after a farmers’ meeting in Nueva Casas Grandes. Villarreal had been denouncing the illegal planting of genetically-modified corn in the Mennonite-dominated municipalities of Cuauhtémoc and Namiquipa.

Chihuahua Mennonite communities originally migrated from Canada after a dispute with the Canadian government over education in the 1920s and were granted land by post-revolutionary President Alvaro Obregón (1920-24).

The Mennonites have never integrated into the Mexican mainstream and their success as farmers has created tensions in a region where aridity limits agricultural production for most farmers. Four months later, Armando Villareal’s murder remains unresolved.

More violence
The Chihuahua farm leader’s assassination is not the only death of Latin American campesino activists linked to big biotech companies’ encroachments.  In Parana, Brazil, about the same time Villareal was gunned down in Chihuahua, Keno Mota, an activist of the Movement of Landless Workers (“Movimento Sem Terra” or MST), affiliated with the international poor farmers coalition Via Campesina, was killed by security guards during a demonstration on an illegal experimental station under cultivation by the biotech giant Syngenta. The Syngenta plot, adjacent to Iguazu National Park, a protected nature reserve, violated Brazilian norms as to where such “semillas asasinas” can be planted.

Unlike Mexico, Brazil has few restrictions on genetically-modified crops and indeed under President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil has become the second-largest genetically-modified soybean producer on the continent, after neighboring Argentina.

Big Argentine growers, who have been blocking that southern cone nation’s highways in a dispute over tariffs on soy exports, have announced intentions to surpass the United States as the largest grower of genetically-modified maize in coming years. Argentine corn is grown exclusively as feed for the gaucho nation’s cattle industry, a cornerstone of its agrarian economy.

Mexico, where maize was first domesticated 8,000 years ago and where corn is at the core of culture as well as diet, has been more circumspect in embracing genetically-modified seed. Under the banner of the “No Hay Pais Sin Maiz” (“We Have No Country without Corn”) campaign, farmers and environmentalists have joined hands to prevent genetically-modified contamination of native species and the state-run Bio-Security Commission, initialed CIBIOGEM, declared a moratorium on the cultivation of genetically-modified corn in the late 1990s. 

Nonetheless, millions of tons of genetically-modified maize pour into Mexico tariff-free each year from the United States under provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Now, in the wake of the much-hyped global food crisis, the biotech industry is pressuring the Mexican government to permit experimental plantations of the seeds as the only solution to predicted shortages, a ploy that biotech giant Monsanto and similar companies have successfully sprung on the European Union. 


Patents to expire
One motive for the industry’s big push, according to Sylvia Ribero who keeps tabs on big biotech companies for the left-leaning daily La Jornada: patents for some of the major genetically-modified seed brands like Monsanto’s BT corn are set to expire in the next five years.

Buckling under the biotech barrage, Mexico’s CIBIOGEM posted regulations this March for applicants who contemplate cultivation of “experimental” GMO corn. Now, with a 60-day countdown ticking, Mexican farmers could be legally planting genetically-modified maize by this month.

Under ground rules issued by both the Agriculture and Environmental Secretariats, experimental patches of genetically-modified corn must be limited to regions where native corn stocks will not be contaminated by windblown pollens from such fields.

But the Mennonite farmers who occupy huge tracts in Chihuahua apparently jumped the gun. Under the tutelage of Monsanto and Syngenta-Golden Harvest with the government turning a blind eye, the Mennonites have sewn genetically-modified corn in at least two of their “camps” or agricultural stations in the municipality of Namiquipa where Villarreal spotted the illegal patches last year. Decrying insufficient safeguards against windblown pollens, Chihuahua campesinos led by Victor Quintana of the “No Hay Pais” campaign, also affiliated with Via Campesina, and a deputy in the Mexican Congress for the left-center Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), have threatened to tear out the Mennonite fields before they flower in mid-summer. 

Quintana’s group worries that the Mennonite “experiment” will germinate five to 25 million “granos” or kernels, each of which is a potential threat to native corn. The Agriculture Secretariat regards the Mennonite experiment as a field test to see just how far the pollens can be spread by winds and other weather conditions.

Windblown GMO pollens are held responsible for the contamination of maize in the neighboring Sinaloa state where Greenpeace activists found traces of genetically-modified corn in 96 percent of samples taken in nine municipalities in 2007. Sinaloa is Mexico’s top corn producing state. Aleira Lara, Greenpeace anti-GMO campaign coordinator, considers that trying to confine experimental plots to one geographical region is merely cosmetic.  Last year, the Greenpeacers listed 39 instances of windblown GMO contamination in 23 countries.

Native Mexican corn was first found to have been infected by NAFTA genetically-modified imports in 2001 when indigenous campesinos in Oaxaca’s Sierra of Juarez discovered that maize from a lot introduced from Michigan and sold by a local government grain distribution center had been inadvertently planted in the Zapotec-Chinanteco village of Calpulalpan.

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A large number of native maize varieties are threatened by genetically-modified crops in Mexico. (Photo: © Greenpeace /Teresa Osorio)
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