Contamination of Mexican Corn
is Worse than Expected

Mexico's vital gene reservoir polluted by modified maize

Paul Brown, environment correspondent
Friday April 19, 2002
The Guardian,2763,686955,00.html

The Mexican government has confirmed that despite its ban on genetically
modified maize, there is massive contamination of crops in areas that
act as the gene bank for one of the world's staple crops.

The announcement of the worst ever contamination of crops by GM
varieties was made yesterday at the biodiversity convention meeting in
the Hague.

It fuels the controversy stirred by the discovery of mutant strains of
maize, which was originally reported in November in the journal Nature
and then embarrassingly disowned by the journal earlier this month.

But speaking at the Hague, Jorge Soberon, a senior civil servant and the
executive secretary of Mexico's national commission on biodiversity,
said government tests had now shown the level of contamination was far
worse than initially reported.

Mexico is the home of hundreds of varieties of maize which are allowed
to crossbreed to produce the best crops for extreme conditions.

To preserve this gene bank, the government banned planting of GM crops
in 1998.

At first, Mexico rejected the claims of contamination which were
published in Nature by Ignacio Chapela and David Quist, of the
University of California at Berkeley.

But the government went on to take samples from sites in two states,
Oaxaca and Puebla, said Ezequiel Ezcurra, the director of the institute
of ecology at the ministry of the environment in Mexico. The states are
the genetic home of maize.

A total of 1,876 seedlings was taken, and evidence of contamination was
found at 95% of the sites. One field had 35% contamination of plants.

Mr Soberon confirmed this infiltration of supposedly pure strains was
the worst recorded anywhere.

"There is no doubt about it," he said. "We found it in 8% of seeds
kernel by kernel."

It appeared that maize imported into Mexico from the US for the
production of tortillas may have been used as seed by farmers who were
unaware that it contained grain derived from GM crops.

The worst contamination was found near main roads, along which maize is
sold to villagers. In remote areas, contamination was down to between 1
and 2%.

The revealing factor was the presence of the cauliflower mosaic virus,
which is used widely in GM crops to "switch on" insecticides which have
been inserted into them.

Mr Soberon said the GM developers Monsanto, Syngenta and Aventis all
used the same technology.

The government could not find out which of the three varieties of GM
maize was responsible for the contamination because the companies
refused to disclose which protein they used in such a commercially
sensitive project.

"I find that extremely difficult to accept," he said. "How can you
monitor what is going on if they do not allow you the information to do

The research is continuing and, after the dispute that followed the
publication of the original paper, the Mexican government is having it
carefully reviewed by peers before offering it for publication in a
scientific journal.

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