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Biotech's Assault on Mexico

(OCA editor's note: a reader from Puerto Rico has provided a few corrections of misspellings, etc, which we have indicated with asterisks)

As the global food crisis escalates, Big Biotech (Monsanto, Novartis, Syngenta, Dupont-Pioneer, Dow et al) are capitalizing on the desperation of the hungry at runaway prices and rapidly diminishing reserves as a wedge to foist genetically modified (GMO) seeds on a reluctant Third World.

Latin America is a prime marketing target for Big Biotech's little darlings, often tagged "semillas asasinas"* or "killer seeds" for their devastating impacts on local food stocks. Now the killer GMOs are suspected of literally provoking murder most foul.

Last October, Armando Villareal, a farm leader in the Mexican border state of Chihuahua, was gunned down after a farmers' meeting in Nuevo Casas Grandes. Villareal had been denouncing the illegal planting of GMO corn in the Mennonite-dominated municipalities of Cuauhtemoc and Naniquipa.

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 Obregon. Over the decades, the Mennonites have successfully cultivated up to 60,000 hectares in the northeast of the state. Acutely insular with their signature dress (denim overalls for the men, prairie dresses and calico bonnets for the women) and speaking low-German as befits their European roots, the Mennonites have never integrated into the Mexican mainstream and their success as farmers - they have benefited from Mexican government irrigation projects - has created tensions in a region where aridity limits agricultural production for most farmers.

Hundreds of tractors lined up in a cortege at Villareal's October 15th funeral during which he was compared to another Chihuahua hero, Francisco Villa. Ironically, the slain farmers' leader who claimed to have evidence that the Mennonites' killer seeds had been smuggled in from Kansas, was not opposed to planting GMO corn which his "Aerodynamica" group hoped would save strapped farmers money on pesticides and power costs. His followers had even burnt tractors to demand that the Mexican government grant them permits to plant the transgenic corn.

Eight months later, Armando Villareal's murder remains unresolved.

The Chihuahua farm leader's assassination is not the only death of a militant Latin American campesino being linked to Big Biotech's encroachments. In Parana Brazil about the same time Villareal was gunned down in Chihuahua, Keno Mota, an activist of the Movement of Landless Farmers ("Movimento de Sem Terras" or MST), affiliated with the international poor farmers coalition Via Campesina, was drilled by security guards during an action 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 strictures as to where such "semillas asasinas"* can be planted.

Unlike Mexico, Brazil has few restrictions on GMO crops and indeed under social democrat president Lula da Silva, has become the second-largest GMO soybean producer on the continent. Neighboring Argentina is Numero Uno. Big Argentinean growers, who have been blocking that southern cone nation's highways in a dispute over tariffs on soy exports for weeks, have announced intentions to surpass the United States as the largest grower of genetically modified maize in coming years. Argentinean corn is grown exclusively as feed for the gaucho nation's cattle industry, a cornerstone of its agrarian economy.

Mexico, where maiz was first domesticated 8000 years ago and where corn is at the core of culture as well as nutrition, has been more circumspect in embracing GMO 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 GMO contamination of native species and the nation's Bio-Security**** Commission, initialed CYBOGEN**, an inter-secretarial government body, declared a moratorium on the cultivation of genetically modified corn in the late 1990s.

Nonetheless, millions of tons of GMO maize pour into Mexican tariff-free each year from the U.S. under provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA.)

Now, in the wake of the much-hyped global food crisis, Big Biotech is pressuring the Mexican government to permit experimental plantations of the semillas asasinas* as the only solution to predicted shortages, a ploy that Monsanto and its ilk have successfully sprung on the European Union.

Although GMO corn remains officially proscribed in Europe, seven EU members will grow the modified maize this year. Agribiz combines like the British National Beef Association, insist that "all resistance to GMO crops must be abandoned" in light of the growing international food psychosis.

One motive for the industry's big push, according to Sylvia Ribero who keeps tabs on Big Biotech for the left daily La Jornada: patents for some of the major GMO seed brands like Monsanto's BT corn are set to expire in the next five years.

Buckling under the Biotech barrage, Mexico's CYBOGEN 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 maiz by July.

Under ground rules issued by both the Agriculture and Environmental secretariats (SAGARPA and SAMARNAT), experimental patches of GMO 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 SAGARPA and the SAMARNAT*** turning a blind eye, the Mennonites have sewn GMO corn in at least two of their "camps" or agricultural stations (#102 and #305) in the municipality of Naniquipa where Villareal 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.
SAGARPA 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 maiz in neighboring Sinaloa state where Greenpeace activists found traces of genetically modified corn in 96% 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 GMO imports in 2001 when Indian campesinos in Oaxaca's Sierra of Juarez discovered that maiz from a lot introduced from Michigan and sold by a local government DICONSA grain distribution center had been inadvertently planted in the Zapotec-Chinanteco village of Calpulapan. Subsequent investigation by the National Ecology Institute, documented in a report suppressed by the Secretary of Agriculture, turned up traces of GMO contamination (some as high as 60%) in 11 out of 22 corn-growing regions in Oaxaca and Puebla. Maiz was first domesticated in the Puebla-Oaxaca altiplano eight millenniums ago.

Although the CYBOGEN has never until now licensed the production of genetically modified corn in Mexico, the semillas asasinas* have almost certainly been cultivated here since the late 1990s. The International Commission for the Betterment of Corn and Wheat (CIMMYT), financed by the Rockefeller Foundation, with experimental fields in Texcoco just outside Mexico City is thought to be one source of windblown contamination. Roberto Gonzalez Barrera, the King of the Tortilla, the owner of MASECA, the world's biggest corn flour miller now a third owned by Archer Daniels Midlands, once boasted that he had thousands of hectares under GMO corn. NAFTA imports fall off DICONSA trucks on rural highways and the pollens are blown into roadside "milpas" (cornfields.)

Now GMO infestation is about to get much more acute. In a move to offset soaring prices and shrinking reserves that invariably generate social discontent, Mexican president Felipe Calderon has announced the tariff-free importation of millions of tons of basic grains (corn, wheat, soy, sorghum.) Because the Cargill Corporation, which has dominated grain distribution in Mexico ever since the government's CONASUPO system was privatized in 1999, claims it cannot separate out GMO from uncontaminated imports, the impacts on native corn and other grains will be greatly magnified - Greenpeace estimates that 60 to 70% of all corn imports are contaminated by genetically modified organisms.

John Ross is in Mexico City pounding away on "El Monstruo - Tales of Dread & Redemption In the World's Most Terrifying Urban Monster" (working title) to be published in 2009 by Nation Books. Ross himself is available at johnross@igc.org.

Corrections:
*"semillas asasinas" should read "semillas asesinas"
**CIBIOGEM, not CYBOGEN (http://www.cibiogem.gob.mx/)
***SEMARNAT, not SAMARNAT (http://www.semarnat.gob.mx/Pages/inicio.aspx)
****the article translates "bioseguridad" as "biosecurity". WRONG, the correct translation is BIOSAFETY. This is not a trivial point, as biosecurity has to do with biological warfare and almost nothing to do with agriculture or GMO's. Biosafety, on the other hand, refers inequivocally to GMO's and nothing else. This is a very common translation mistake made by English speakers.

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