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Don’t Mess With the Corn: Lessons From Mexico’s Struggle Against GMOs

Soledad Barruti investigates what can be learnt from Mexico in its struggle against genetically-modified corn, and tells of the daily violence experienced by those on the frontline. This article was originally published in Revista MU. Translation by Elke Wakefield.

In Latin America, the cultivation of genetically modified corn increases without limits. Its frontiers now advance over forests, mountains, communities and other food, making the idea of its containment almost inconceivable. However, in Mexico, an ambitious battle is underway to change this – to stop the introduction of new genetically modified crops and eradicate those already planted.

The Corn Defence Alliance is a group of 53 persons and 20 NGOs. In 2013, they filed a lawsuit against Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow Chemical, Pioneer, Du Pont and the Mexican Government, demanding they comply with the precautionary principle. That is: before planting, the producers of genetically modified crops demonstrate they will not affect traditional crops, or the dynamics of traditional farming practices and diet. Moreover, the Alliance demands there is consultation of those affected – campesinos, indigenous communities, small and medium-sized producers – to determine whether they understand what is being proposed, and whether they agree. The surprising thing is that, until now, it has worked quite well: court after court has upheld their position, and the planting of genetically modified crops has been more or less suspended. It’s a triumph underpinned by a thousand year old conviction you’ll find echoed all over Mexico: the loss of corn means the loss of the world, and not just the world: the whole universe.

“It’s impossible to talk about corn as if it were split off from reality,” says Adelita San Vicente. “We’re living in a time in which many people don’t value anything – not even life itself or that which sustains life, like food. Nothing. We must defend ourselves from that.”

Adelata: sharp-eyed woman with heavy, black hair and a big grin; country teacher with flashes of the agronomist; custodian of seeds and mother of the alliance that will not rest. Before discussing corn, she talks with pain about the tortured and murdered bodies as though they were a daily thing: there’s the photojournalist, Ruben Espinoza, murdered by hitmen along with his three friends in the middle of Mexico City; and the 43 students devoured by the monster in Ayotzinapa. She talks about poverty, wealth, mega-mining, and the impunity with which evil is descending on Mexico. “The only hope is in the people,” she says. She has seen it before: the power of people who just can’t take anymore. “There are so many people protesting on the streets. And that’s because we’re fighting for is who we are – not who they want us to be.”

Why Mexico?

Mexico aches: for its dead and disappeared; for its shattered mountains; for its wetlands plugged by shopping malls; for the earth that no longer provides food and the people forced from the country into the city. What’s happening here is the same thing that’s happened everywhere else: paradise is being carved up and auctioned off for peanuts. However, it’s not quite the same: Mexico refuses to become a metaphor. Every corner is a faithful representation of the tragedy sweeping mankind. Here, there’s no battle that’s not a battle of life against death and death against life in a way that is both incredibly intense and hopeful.

Why Mexico?

Well, as they say here, we’re the navel of the world.

This is the birthplace of the over 300 indigenous nations – with descendants of over 15 million today – who have decided to take a stand. Which is really as it should be, given they were the ones who discovered the perfect way to read the sky and understand the earth, who developed hundreds of languages to narrate her, as well as ingenious cultivation systems, modern even by today’s standards. Combining calendars, planets and gods that still work, they domesticated one hundred plants that today are the sustenance and culinary glory of a large part of the planet.

Perhaps that’s why.

In this alchemical process of earth, seed and food, a plant was born, which, according to legend, created men and women, and not the other way round. A sacred food that, when it was to be conquered, conquered the world instead. And which today, when everything seems broken, has managed to go head-to-head with its damned nemesis: a fire-yellow corn, genetically modified and always the same – just like the morass of a system that wants to create a single monoculture.

“That’s what we’re fighting against, with corn on our banner,” says Jesusa Rodriguez. She – famous dramaturge, singer, feminist, vegan, social activist, interpreter of a symbolic world she expresses with fury and increasing directness with every day that passes in Mexico – joined the cause without a moment’s doubt. From her trench she speaks about the end: “The end of human relations, of understanding, of empathy. That’s what’s at stake. The world that we want: just look.”

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