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December 29, 2001
By MARK STEVENSON, Associated Press Writer
In a cautionary tale about the difficulty of controlling genetically modified plants, corn researchers in Mexico went ever higher into remote mountain villages looking for natural varieties of the 4,000-year-old crop.
Time after time, they couldn't find them.
Samples revealed that just a few years of unlabeled U.S. imports had transferred modified genes to local corn in the southern state of Oaxaca - even though planting genetically modified crops is banned in this country, the birthplace of corn.
The discovery, confirmed in the science magazine Nature this month, caused outrage among Mexicans, whose ancestors believed the gods created Man from an ear of corn. "It's a worse attack on our culture than if they had torn down the cathedral of Oaxaca and built a McDonald's over it," said Hector Magallone, an activist with environmental group Greenpeace.
There is no evidence that genetically modified grains harm those who eat them.
But some scientists worry that genetically modified strains could displace or contaminate Mexico's genetic warehouse of over 60 corn varieties - a wealth that enriches staple crops worldwide and includes wild varieties that have yet to be cataloged.
The accidental spread of laboratory-inserted genes, scientists fear, could allow aggressive plants to crowd out other varieties, reducing biological diversity.
Diversity is prized as a hedge against disease, pests and climate change. While some plant strains may be vulnerable to one disease, others may have natural immunity that enables them to survive.
The case has drawn international attention. In an open letter, 80 scientists from a dozen countries have asked the Mexican government to stop the genetic contamination.
But supporters of genetic modification say such crops may actually benefit the environment by allowing farmers to use less pesticide or soil tilling, cutting down on erosion.
Mexico is a net importer of corn - about 6.2 million tons annually, almost all from the United States. Perhaps one-fourth of it is genetically modified.
U.S. grain growers aren't worried by the contamination - and even want to charge Mexican farmers for it.
"If a locally occurring variety receives some improvement from genetically engineered crops, it's up to the courts to decide whether farmers should be made to pay for that," said Ricardo Celma, head of the U.S. Grain Council's Mexico office. "But we want the patent rights of the owners of that genetic modification to be honored."
Such demands could set the stage for confrontation. "The prospect of some multinational corporation bringing lawsuits against Mexicans farmers would be intolerable," the head of the Mexican government's Council on Biodiversity, Jorge Soberon, said Saturday.
"Their patents may be valid in their country, but not in ours," Soberon told the government news agency Notimex. He also proposed that Mexico pay its farmers subsidies to grow native corn.
That, like the patent issue, could run afoul of the rules of the North American Free Trade Agreement between Mexico, the United States and Canada, which provides for patent protections and discourages subsidies.
Greenpeace, meanwhile, has called for a ban on imports of genetically modified corn. Corn is Mexico's staple crop, is imported mostly for human and animal consumption - not as seed.
Yet several modified strains were found, including one that makes the plant produce a toxin to ward off corn borers.
It is unclear how far the genetically modified crops have spread. A study by the Mexican Environment Ministry earlier this year found them in 15 locations in Oaxaca, but in low concentrations of 3 percent to 10 percent of plants in most fields.
"It's likely that these gene sequences may disappear by themselves, or remain at low levels for a long period of time," the Ministry said in a report.
Researchers from Oaxaca's Uzachi agricultural research center weren't looking for genetically modified corn when they went to the Zapotec Indian village of Calpulalpan in late November 2000.
They went to the area high in the Sierra Norte mountains to find pure, locally occurring varieties that would serve as a 'control sample' for a project to produce natural, organic corn.
But researcher Francisco Chapela - whose brother, Ignacio, published the results in Nature - recalls that, when they analyzed the sample, it contained a genetic marker commonly used in engineered plants.
"At first we thought our equipment was malfunctioning," Chapela said. "Then, we thought, 'OK, maybe this field had some problems, we'll go to another one farther back in the mountains."'
But even in the hamlet of Trinidad, about three hours from the state capital of Oaxaca, they found genetic alterations. After six tests, they found two fields that did not contain traces of modification.
Planting genetically modified crops has been banned in Mexico since 1998. Officials of Mexico's Agriculture Department said there were no plans to halt imports, or demand labeling of genetically modified corn.
Australia is imposing labeling requirements and has a partial ban on crops. Japan already has such limits in place.
Ironically, the Oaxaca research center that is now fighting for biological purity was set up for an opposite purpose.
It was created in the mid-1990s by the Swiss pharmaceutical giant Sandoz - which later became Novartis in a merger - to look for medicinally valuable plant species, a practice decried by some activists as "bio-piracy."
Local farmers later assumed control of the lab.
Chapela speculated that the genetically modified corn found in Oaxaca was planted by local farmers who obtained kernels intended for consumption.
"It could have been accidental," Chapela said. "Or somebody may have seen it in a rural store
and said, 'That's a pretty kernel, I