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Mexican Farmers Alarmed at U.S. Dumping Millions of Tons of Frankencorn on Them

The International Herald Tribune March 28, 2005

Discovering transgenic corn, Mexicans suspicious of U.S.

BY: Elisabeth Malkin

From: The New York Times


This ancient Zapotec Indian town of whitewashed adobe houses and tiled roofs perched on a verdant slope of the western Sierra Madre could not be farther from the American laboratories where white-coated scientists create strains of genetically altered corn.

This is the birthplace of maize, where people took thousands of years to domesticate its wild ancestor, where pre-Hispanic myths describe it as a gift from the gods, and where cooks prepare it in dozens of ways to be served at every meal.

So the discovery of genetically modified corn in the tiny plots of this town set off a national furor over what many here see as an assault by American agribusiness on the crop that is at the core of Mexico's identity.

"For us, maize is in everything: tamales, tacos, tortillas, pozole," said Miguel Ramirez, a local teacher and activist. "For us it's sacred."

Then, radiating distrust of government assurances after a decade of free trade that has all but depopulated the Mexican countryside, he asked a familiar question here: "What is the government doing to make us self-sufficient?"

The answer was a controversial biosecurity law passed by Mexico's congress in February, a step that has divided Mexico's scientists. The issue has also put Washington on alert, making it wary of any threat to the 5.5 million tons of corn that American farmers export here each year, more than to any other country except Japan.

After several years of study, a panel of international experts found that the risks to health, the environment and biodiversity from genetically modified corn were so far very limited. But after a public forum with local groups here in Oaxaca State, the panel recommended restrictions on imports anyway, giving special weight to social and cultural arguments about protecting corn.

The panel recommended that Mexico reduce corn imports, clearly label transgenic corn and mill any genetically modified corn as soon as it enters the country, to prevent local farmers from planting it.

In the end, the Mexican government set aside the milling recommendation as too expensive, but required provisions for labeling that remain unclear. Overall imports of American corn, mostly for animal feed, have stayed the same.

The United States' response was in any case immediate and blistering. It called the report "fundamentally flawed" and argued that the recommendations did not flow from the panel's own scientific conclusions and undercut provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

"If implemented, these recommendations would unnecessarily limit Nafta farmers' access to high-quality U.S. corn exports, as well as the environmental benefits that biotech corn provides," a statement read.

The argument has exposed deeper chords that have been resonating here for two decades. At its center is a dispute over whether Mexico's embrace of free trade and globalization can co-exist with age-old farming practices that form the fabric of rural life.

Like everyone here, Ramirez farms a small plot to put corn on his family's table. Following tradition, each household sows grain selected and saved from the previous year's crop. The practice has created a diversity of corn varieties, reflected in a palette of kernels from nearly white to wine red to blue-black, making Mexico a corn seed bank for the world.

One argument against the introduction of genetically altered corn crops here is that some fear that cross-pollination with nearby native varieties could someday alter the purity of those crops.

To many in Oaxaca, the transgenic corn that seeped in from the United States was not only alien, but also the final insult from successive governments that have dismantled supports for uncompetitive peasant farming and embraced free trade.

The impact has been enormous over the past generation, driving hundreds of thousands of Mexicans from rural areas, many of them to the United States for work, and sowing deep resentment. "There is a systematic strategy to finish off the countryside," said Aldo Gonzalez, an activist from the neighboring town of Guelatao.

Scientists have echoed those concerns, saying the threat to the crop and to the rural population cannot be separated.

"The most important cause of the loss of genetic diversity to the maize varieties is the loss of people, their departure from the countryside for California, New York and Texas," said Jose Sarukhan, a professor of ecology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, who led the panel that studied the effects of transgenic corn.

As Congress debated the biosecurity law, opposing sides marshaled their own evidence to support contradictory conclusions. The potential danger to corn and its special place in Mexican society remain a centerpiece of opposition to the law.

"The biotechnology has not been developed for an agricultural system as diverse and complex as the Mexican," said Antonio Serratos, a researcher at Mexico's government agricultural institute, known as Inifap, who argued that the new law still promoted industrialized agriculture. The law's supporters say that genetically modified strains could increase yields and strengthen Mexico's flagging corn production. They argue that no risks have yet been found to health or the environment and that the law sets up safeguards to introduce genetically modified crops cautiously and monitor their effect.

But such promises carry little weight in Oaxaca. After scientists found transgenic corn in the fields of these mountains in 2001, despite a 1998 ban on commercial planting, Ramirez, the local activist, and others here asked for a study of the issue. That led to the formation of the study panel, made up of experts from Mexico, the United States, Canada and Britain.

The study also concluded that the alien corn found here probably came from American food imports distributed in government stores for the poor and planted by curious local farmers.

One such farmer, Olga Toro Maldonado, said the new corn produced well the first year. But the grain she saved and planted the following year produced "tiny, ugly little things." That is in part because the corn she planted was not specially treated, and because it was not necessarily designed for Mexican conditions.

After she learned she had planted transgenic corn, she said, "we realized that it is better to have our own maize."

The new law promises special rules to protect corn, gives the environmental ministry new power over whether to approve any transgenic crops and allows communities to set up zones that are free of transgenics.

"Borders do not exist for corn," said Francisco Bolivar, a scientist who has worked to pass the law. "We cannot regulate the movement of living organisms. So we need to control and monitor it."

Environmental groups and many scientists are skeptical that a law that is designed to promote biotechnology can also protect against any damage it could cause.

They doubt the government has the resources to carry out sufficient monitoring and argue that the requirements for setting up transgene-free zones are too complex and open to interpretation.

The language recognizing corn as a special case is still vague.

That leaves many in Oaxaca unsure about the future and what they might discover next.