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MEXICO
Native corn endangered
Karen Trejo
11/20/2008
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Imported transgenic corn varieties threaten Mexico’s diverse maize species.

The potential effects of transgenic corn on the native species of this key crop have been a long-running debate in Mexico.

Here in Mexico, there are almost 60 species of corn, and the crop has cultural and spiritual meaning for residents, as well being the country´s most important food staple. So the risks that transgenic corn poses are many: ranging from Mexican farmers to the country’s biodiversity.

“This issue was considered of great potential environmental importance, given that Mexico is a center of origin and diversity for maize and that maize is so intrinsically linked to Mexican culture, especially that of Mexican indigenous groups,” says a study by the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) of North America, entitled “The Effects of Transgenic Maize in Mexico.” The CEC was set up under the 1994 North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between Canada, United States and Mexico.

The Mexican government has sponsored research on the issue, but the results have only been sparsely released. Other, independent studies, however, indicate that transgenic varieties of corn have made their way into some of Mexico´s nearly five dozen native varieties.

Experimental planting
The first documented cases were published in the November 2001 issue of Nature in a story on transgenic contamination found in native corn species in the state of Oaxaca.

It was the first information about the existence of experimental transgenic planting that had infiltrated the native corn crops without any regulation. There is a ban of transgenic corn in place in Mexico under the 2005 biosecurity law of genetically-modified organisms.

According to Greenpeace Mexico, transgenic corn can be found on the rural community farms of Michoacan, Sinaloa, the Federal District, Tamaulipas and Chihuahua.

En Michoacan, Mexico´s farming center, it is widely held that the seeds were sent there by emigrant families currently living in the United States, and that they were planted without the farmers even knowing that they were genetically-modified, says Roberto Duarte, a member of the Rural Farmers Society of Lerma.

But Alejandro Espinoza, coordinator of the Scientific Consulting Council at the Inter-Secretarial Commission on Biosecurity and Genetically Modified Organisms, or CIBIOGEM, says that companies such as Pioneer, DuPont y Monsanto, and others that sell transgenic corn, have distributed their products in northern Mexico, such as in Sinaloa, a major farming export center.

“Based on the proportion of transgenic maize grown currently in the United States, maize imports to Mexico from the United States are likely to be approximately 25 to 30 percent transgenic,” the CEC study said.

Grave warning
Four years ago, when the CEC study was written, it said that there was no evidence that these varieties posed health or environmental risks in Canada, Mexico or the United States. But it added that there hadn´t yet been a study in the context of Mexican ecosystems.

“This contamination cannot be considered merely a national problem. Impacts on the genetic diversity of Mexican maize could have direct repercussions on the diversity of maize and ecosystems in all of North America and the rest of the world,” the CEC warned in its report. “Moreover, the contaminating genes will certainly have broader impacts on biological diversity in Mexico. One of the potential contaminating genes produces a pesticide—the Bt toxin—that is known to have effects on organisms other than the target pests found in the United States.”

Up until February 2007, data from Greenpeace Mexico shows the existence of nptII and Cry1Ab genes in fields in Sinaloa, as well as EPSPS, Cry1Ab and Cry9C in the Federal District, but there is no information on potential harmful qualities.

The debate
The 2005 biosecurity law on genetically-modified organisms regulates and monitors research-based experimentation of transgenics, as well as their sale and importation.

Three years after it was approved, in March the implementing regulations of the law were also approved, but without the endorsement of CIBIOGEM´s Scientific Consulting Council, Espinoza denounced.

In response, environmental groups such as Greenpeace and the Environmental Studies Group planned on filing a suit to declare the implementing regulations unconstitutional. They argued that these do not take biosecurity measures for the planting of transgenic corn in Mexico into account, and that there is only inconclusive data about its impacts, said Aleida Lara, the head of Greenpeace Mexico’s Sustainable Agriculture and Transgenics Campaign.

In a joint statement, the organizations said that the “federal government is trying to approve the sowing of transgenics by going over the law, since a precaution principle to protect the native corn has not been established,” as provided for by the 2005 biosecurity law.

This norm states the need to define national biosecurity policies regarding the genetically-modified organisms, as well as a detailed manner to enforce them.

For its part, the organization Semillas de la Vida, or “Seeds of Life” in English, warned in a campaign of open letters that “the health of Mexican families, the right of peoples to conserve autonomy on the free use of their crops´ seeds and 5,000 years of development in Mexico based on corn, are sufficient reasons to act prudently.”

Semillas de la Vida urges a ban on experimental corn growing in Mexico that was established in 2001 by the CEC, as well as the complete observance of the transgenics biosecurity law.

Mexico´s inclusion in the NAFTA in 1994 is another factor that feeds transgenic corn production in the country, says Greenpeace in a 2007 report on genetically-modified corn production here.

The alternative
Based on its environmental protection norms, the CEC recommended in its 2004 report that the three countries maintain and expand the ban on unregulated transgenic corn planting in Mexico, as well as reduce and monitor imports of this product, until research on its health and environmental impacts are determined.

The same report has proposed that companies label their products if they are transgenic so consumers can decide for themselves whether to purchase it, as well as educational programs directed at campesinos so they do not plant seeds that could contain transgenics as well as not to plant seeds from the United states or other countries were genetically-modified seeds are sown.

Unfortunately, these recommendations, four years later, are far from a reality in Mexico.
—Latinamerica Press.


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There are almost 60 species of corn in Mexico. (Photo: Puerto Rico Biosecurity Project)
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