Mexico: Transgenic Maize Knocking at the Door

(IPS) Mexico’s first experimental trials of genetically modified maize will take place next year, a government official has announced. The news has put environmental and campesino (small farmer) organisations, still hoping that this will not happen, on the alert.

The country will be dealt a severe cultural, environmental and economic blow if synthetic species of maize are allowed in, opponents of genetically modified (GM) crops warn.

On the other hand, companies selling transgenic seeds and some scientists claim that the field trials are nothing to be afraid of, and are confident that they will demonstrate the benefits of the technology.

The Agriculture Ministry’s coordinator of International Affairs, Víctor Villalobos, informed local journalists that the permits are ready to be granted.

IPS also learned that the corporations that promote the use of GM crops are certain that their applications for experimental trials, rejected three times in the last two years, will at last be accepted.

Silvia Ribeiro, Latin America spokeswoman for the non-governmental Canadian-based Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC Group), told IPS that if permission to sow GM maize is enacted in practice, the authorities will face "enormous social resistance."

She added that opponents of GM crops still hope that the authorisation will not be granted.

Villalobos, who does not hide his support for the use of transgenics in agricultural production, had already reported in the past that GM maize would be sown in Mexico soon, but subsequently nothing happened, the activist said.

"The government has not called for any dialogue on the issue," said Ribeiro. "However, GM crops may finally be imposed on the country, because we know that the authorities are in favour of them. That would be a terrible thing for Mexico."

The possibility that transgenic maize will be sown in Mexico, albeit experimentally, raises hackles among opponents of GM crops. Maize is the staple food for the majority of the country’s 109 million people, and in addition has enormous cultural significance, as it was first domesticated here 9,000 years ago.

Mexico produces 19 million tonnes of maize annually, on 8.5 million hectares of land. More than three million local campesinos, most of whom are living below the poverty line, grow maize from wild strains or native seeds improved by breeding methods very different from the direct genetic manipulation techniques involved in producing transgenic seeds.

In the United States, both transgenic and traditional maize is grown on 32 million hectares that yield 300 million tonnes a year.

Mexico has been buying increasing amounts of maize from the U.S. to cover its growing deficit. Environmental groups claim that transgenic maize is entering the country as part of those imports, and that the authorities are doing nothing to prevent it.

In 2001, transgenic maize contamination was discovered in cornfields in several Mexican states, in spite of GM crops being expressly banned by law. Scientists believe that campesinos obtained the seeds from U.S. imports and sowed them without knowing they were transgenic.

The finding generated a fierce debate between activists and scientists, because there are no conclusive studies or evidence to indicate the potential impact of GM crops on an environment as rich in biodiversity as Mexico’s.

Furthermore, activists complain that transnational corporations force farmers to sign agreements to cultivate only the original company seeds, and forbid them to save the patented seeds from the harvest for sowing the next season.

This is completely alien to most Mexican campesinos, who customarily take their next seed from the harvest, and also exchange seeds with neighbours.

The U.S. biotech giant Monsanto, the world market leader in transgenic seeds, has been pressuring for years for permission to grow its synthetic maize in Mexico, at least on an experimental basis.

As scientific results become available, it will be possible to demonstrate that transgenic maize is more productive than traditional varieties, and poses no danger to the environment, says the company, which has sold fertilisers and traditional seeds in Mexico for several years.

But Ribeiro said the trials proposed in Mexico would not yield useful results. The GM maize "will be grown in conditions of isolation, so the experiments will produce no results to indicate its impact on the real environment," she said.

"What powerful biotech companies like Monsanto want is to justify their claims and impose transgenic maize on Mexico at all costs," she said.

Campesinos and social activists argue that transgenic crops are a danger to health and an instrument of domination by transnational corporations. The companies retort that their seeds are being grown on millions of hectares worldwide without causing any problems, and that they have no interest in controlling farmers.

Mexican scientist Luis Herrera, regarded as one of the "fathers" of biogenetics, maintains that in spite of the fierce debate, introduction of transgenic crops is irreversible, globally as well as in Mexico.

Rural organisations in northern Mexico, representing the country’s wealthiest farmers, want the government of President Felipe Calderón to approve the use of transgenic seeds as soon as possible, because in their view the GM varieties will help them produce more and better maize.

Transgenic maize has had genetic material from other species added to its own, which can make it resistant to certain pests or herbicides, increase its yield or make it more adaptable to a variety of climatic and soil conditions.

In pre-Columbian traditions, the gods made the first human beings out of maize. Now a related species made by human beings in laboratories is about to win official approval in Mexico, the birthplace of maize.