The GE Debate Heats Up in Mexico
Fiancial Times (UK), October 12, 1999

GM FOOD: Mexico's farming habits under pressure

Genetically modified seeds may threaten the country's biodiversity
write Henry Tricks and Andrea Mandel-Campbell

In Mexico, corn is the stuff of legend. According to Mayan
lore, the gods made man out of grain after mud and wood proved
unsatisfactory. These "men of maize" first began domesticating corn 9,000
years ago.

While there are an estimated 24,000 genetic strains of corn in
Mexico, teosinte, its ancestor, still grows as a stubby wild grass and its
varieties are staples in the foods Mexicans fondly refer to as vitamin T:
tortillas, tamales, tacos.

But in the cradle of corn, such rich diversity may be under threat. Since
January, Greenpeace, the environmental pressure group, has been waging a
campaign against the importation of genetically modified corn from the
US, seizing samples from ships harboured in the Gulf of
Mexico in a bid to show that transgenic crops are sneaking
in with lax supervision.

Its activists, denouncing "genetic imperialism", say pest-resistant corn
modified by Novartis, the Swiss biotech company, has been blown from
railway carriages into the Mexican countryside, with the risk that it
could contaminate native species through pollination. It is, says Liza
Covantes, a Greenpeace biologist, also turning up in animal feed and
processed foods for human consumption with barely any official control.

"It's a time-bomb," she says, estimating that about 25 per cent of
Mexico's corn imports this year are genetically modified.
"The biggest risk is to biodiversity."

One of Greenpeace's main focuses of attack is the lack of regulation in
Mexico. For years, industry experts say, the government has
only loosely supervised consumption of genetically modified organisms
(GMOs) in Mexico, falling back on US safeguards that have
traditionally been more supportive of the industry than their European

However, as the issue becomes more politically charged, even agronomists
and biotechnology companies in Mexico have begun lobbying
for better supervision.

In June, after a panel of experts demanded greater surveillance of the
bioengineering industry, President Ernesto Zedillo launched a two-pronged

He created an inter-ministerial commission headed by the agriculture
ministry that will establish protocols on imports and domestic
consumption. He also set up a scientific council to act as a consultant
on genetic engineering. Three months later, the commissions are not yet
up and running, officials say, but they are likely to be broadly pro

"Mexico is a rich source of biodiversity and it
is particularly important for us to introduce regulations so there is no
damage done," said Romarico Arroyo, the agriculture minister. "But if we
don't put genetic engineering to use, it will be difficult for us to

Mexico has already been at the forefront among developing
countries in developing transgenic crops. According to a study last year,
Mexico, Cuba and China were the first Third World countries
to field test a genetically modified virus-resistant potato developed by
their own scientists.

All told, Mexico is commercialising 50,000 hectares of
genetically modified cotton and is producing 6,000 hectares of transgenic
soya, the seeds of which will be sold abroad.

But officials are wary of the potential monopolies of multinational
companies that one day hope to sell GM seeds to farmers under
international patents. Some 20m Mexicans live off the land, and the
peasant custom of saving the best seeds for the following season has
ensured the richness of Mexico's biodiversity
in corn and other plants. In a country that claims to have 10 per cent of
the world's biodiversi, it is feared that commercialised
transgenic seeds will force farmers to change habits that have endured
for centuries.