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NAFTA is Underlying Cause of GE Corn Contamination in Mexico

Posted 9/7/04


Transgenic contamination of Mexican corn adds insult to NAFTA injury

In his second of two stories on Mexican corn, Don Lotter traces the history
of carelessness - and cover-up - that threatens the heart of the world's
corn biodiversity.

By Don Lotter

Native varieties of corn near Guelatao de Juarez, Oaxaca, where genes from
genetically engineered US corn have been found contaminating the native

Posted August 31, 2004: Small-scale Mexican corn farmers were expected by
experts to abandon fields all over Mexico, due to the near-complete loss of
farm subsidies combined with the opening of the Mexican market to heavily
subsidized US corn. Subsidies for Mexican farmers have dropped, at the
behest of US "free market" proselytizers, from 33% of farm income to less
than 13%, while during the same period subsidies for US farmers have grown
and now make up 40% of US farm income. Cheap corn from the US is flooding
the Mexican market and competing with the locally grown corn.

But against all predictions, corn acreage is up in Mexico, despite the
economic disincentives. Different theories are tossed about as to the
reasons. Remittances (money sent from Mexicans in the US), a $13 billion
industry, larger than Mexico¹s agricultural economy, are believed by some to
currently subsidize small-scale corn production. Some farmers must keep
cultivating land in order to maintain rights to it, so they plant what they
are accustomed to growing: corn.

These small-scale corn farmers, now almost completely abandoned by their
government, as well as by the market system, are also the guardians of most
of the world's corn biodiversity -- the approximately 60 major land races,
as Mexico is the major center of origin and diversity of corn. The fact that
the Mexican government, along with the NAFTA administration, willfully
designed an economic policy to drastically reduce the number of small
farmers who are the keepers and original developers of such a valuable
resource, is unconscionable.

On top of the loss of corn as the economic base of rural Mexican communities
is the problem of contamination of indigenous corn by transgenes, genes from
genetically modified US corn.

Mexico's shift to the "free market" directly underpins the contamination of
the native varieties corn by transgenes: Mexico imports about five million
tons of corn a year from the US. On the average, 30% of the US corn is
transgenic, which has been mixed with non-transgenic corn. While the
cultivation of transgenic crops is not yet permitted in Mexico, their import
as food and feed is. It is now believed that the transgene contamination
came from Mexican peasant farmers buying corn from local stores and, as is
common here, planting it as part of their corn crop.

According to Aldo Gonzales of the Uníon de Organizaciones de la Sierra
Juarez Oaxaca, a group dedicated to the welfare of indigenous farmers, the
most likely channel of entry of transgenic corn was via the local government
stores which sell grain in rural areas all over Mexico. Transgenic corn that
was imported from the US was mixed with corn for sale via the government
stores, named DICONSA. Farmers often plant the seed sold at DICONSA stores.
The distinction between corn as feed or food and corn as seed for planting
has never traditionally existed in rural Mexico.

Guelatao de Juarez, the town where Gonzales' group is based, is one of the
communities where transgenes were found in the corn crops of indigenous
farmers. Samples from the local DICONSA stores were transgene positive as

The controversy first broke when Ignacio Chapela and David Quist of UC
Berkeley published a paper in the journal Nature in December 2001 showing
that transgenes from Bt and RoundUp Ready corn contaminated the local corn
in Oaxaca. The evidence showed that the transgenes had "introgressed" into
the local corn, meaning that, mostly likely via pollen transfer from
transgenic corn plants, the genes had been transferred to the local corn.
The next year, Mexican government scientists showed the same result,
concluding that 3% to 60% of corn samples were contaminated with transgenes.
Furthermore, it was stated in the Chapela article that the promoter gene,
known as the 35S promoter, originally from cauliflower mosaic virus, was
probably one of the polluting genes. The function of the promoter gene is to
turn on the target transgene. Much is unknown about what the promoter gene
would do in the native corn plants.

Transgenes in corn are independent entities so that when they introgress
into populations they can be more or less hidden. In other words, if pollen
from transgenic yellow corn (all commercial transgene corn is yellow)
fertilizes white corn, the kernels that were pollinated will develop into
yellow grains where the transgenic pollen fertilized, but not necessarily in
subsequent generations. Subsequent generations of corn can be yellow with
transgenes, white with transgenes, yellow without transgenes, or white
without transgenes.

Different transgenes can end up mixed in one plant. No testing has ever been
done on such mixes, and no one knows what effect this kind of mixture may
have on human or animal health.

A storm of controversy, created by the biotech industry PR machine, followed
the findings of Quest and Chapela. For the first time in its 133 year
history, Nature, considered the top science journal in the world, published
an "apology" (short of a retraction) stating that they should not have
published the paper, even though it had been reviewed by scientific peers.
It turns out that they were under intense pressure from the biotechnology
community, reportedly facilitated by a PR firm hired by Monsanto, to retract
the paper.

When scientists from the Mexican government submitted to the results of
their study, which verified the Quist and Chapela results that there is
transgenic contamination in Mexican corn, the two peer reviewers for Nature
turned it down ­ one stating that the results were already common knowledge
(!) and the other rejecting it saying that the percentage contamination was
too high to be believable.

The possible reasons behind the Nature editors' questionable decisions came
out via some aggressive investigative journalism by a writer for The
Guardian (UK), George Monbiot, who uncovered a surreptitious, neo-viral type
PR campaign whose goal was to attack and undermine the work of Chapela and
the Mexican scientists. The PR firm, the Bivings Group, was reported by
Monbiot to be a client of Monsanto and other biotech firms. The attacks were
carried out, using the names of individuals who were supposedly scientists,
via postings on the main pro-biotech Internet discussion group, AgBioWorld.

The Guardian quoted the following from the Bivings Group's website about
their "viral marketing" strategy:

"There are some campaigns where it would be undesirable or even disastrous
to let the audience know that your organization is directly involved ... it
is possible to make postings to these outlets that present your position as
an uninvolved third party ... Perhaps the greatest advantage of viral
marketing is that your message is placed into a context where it is more
likely to be considered seriously."

Incredible is the fact that, despite world concern and huge gaps in
knowledge, no new analyses have been done for the 2003 Mexican corn crop, or
at least, no results have been released. Just at the time that the whole
issue needs clarifying, there is no information whatsoever. I received the
following response from the David Poland of the International Center for the
Improvement of Maize and Wheat (CIMMYT), near Mexico City, the world center
for the monitoring of corn genetics, when I asked about follow-up analyses
of Mexican corn:

"I don¹t know of any analysis of field samples done by CIMMYT for 2003S
Nobody has stepped forward with funds to conduct such studies. Our core
budget is under extreme pressure from S. cutbacks S. We have sought, without
success, to get the (latest analysis) data from INE/CONABIO (the Mexican
government), including methodology, but they will not release it nor publish
it in a peer reviewed journal."

There may be legitimate questions about the methodology and accuracy of the
analyses that have been done for transgenes. At least one corn geneticist
maintains that transgene contamination levels of over a few tenths of a
percent would indicate faulty methodology. False positives can also be a
problem, especially when the levels of the target compounds are low, such as
1% to 3%.

If this is the case, then why have there not been any new analyses which
attempt to remedy these methodological problems and clarify the situation?

The whole thing smacks of cover-up, not necessarily by CIMMYT, but by the
entities involved in funding further studies, making policy, and developing
transgene products.

Strengthening the case for cover-up is the recent decision by the North
American Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC), under pressure from
the US to delay the release of a report on transgene contamination of
Mexican corn, which had been scheduled to be released June 7. The report
ostensibly contains the most recent analyses of Mexican corn for transgenes.

The CEC, a Montreal-based body set up as part of the environmental aspects
of NAFTA, is currently the main international organization that appears to
be "in charge" of monitoring and recommending policy on the issue of
trans-border transgene contamination in North America, as the contamination
came about as a result of trade.

The CEC report comes as part of a legal process initiated by
non-governmental organizations in Mexico, led by Greenpeace Mexico, filed
under Article 13 of the North American Agreement on Environmental
Cooperation, which challenges the legitimacy and safety of US corn exports
to Mexico.

As part of this process, the CEC created the Maize and Biodiversity Advisory
Group and in March 2004 hosted a conference in Oaxaca "Maize and
Biodiversity: The Effects of Transgenic Maize in Mexico". Some of the
world¹s top corn scientists presented papers on the issue. The conclusions
were not earthshaking, but they were significant:

The fact that transgenes have indeed polluted Mexican indigenous corn crops
is irrefutable. This backs up the Chapela study and throws the entire
incident of its retroactive disavowal by Nature, and the attacks by the
biotech community, into sharp relief: it was and continues to be
politically-based manipulation of science and the suppression of scientific

The dynamics of gene flow in corn are extraordinarily complex and scientists
know little about how the genetics of transgenes will develop in the Mexican
corn populations. Nor does anyone know what the ecological and human health
effects will be.

Transgene contamination is currently continuing and will spread, if no
action is taken.
The final report and recommendations of the Advisory Group were to have been
released this month (June 2004) at a conference in Puebla, Mexico. However,
the commission, made up of representatives from the US, Canada, and Mexico,
has postponed the release of the report. According to a June 22 article in
the Mexican newspaper La Jornada, the commission is under pressure from the
US and multinational biotech companies to delay the report, whose release
would support the case of an EU ban on transgenic crops from the US. The US
is currently challenging, via the WTO, the EU ban.

The pressure from the US to delay the release of the Maize and Biodiversity
Advisory Group's report comes despite the fact that the group is heavily
skewed toward the biotech industry, despite Article 13's proviso that
advisory groups be made up of "independent experts". At least five of its 16
members are directly involved in or benefit economically from the biotech
industry. The original group had no one whatsoever from groups representing
indigenous farmers or environmental groups, nor did it have any scientists
specializing in corn. After pressure from the original groups who brought on
the investigation, one woman from a Oaxaca farmers group was admitted.

Mexico is under intense pressure from the US to back the US's pro-transgenic
crops policies. Many groups here in Mexico are accusing the Mexican
government of caving in to pressure from the US and multinationals in not
moving swiftly to develop a strong policy against transgenics. The incipient
weak Mexican government policy on transgenics is consistent with its policy
toward small farmers, that of catering more to the interests of large-scale
agriculture and industry.

Similar scenarios are being played out in other countries like India and

The next year or two will continue to be watershed years in the history of
the genetic makeup of the human food system, and the story unfolding in
Mexico may play a critical role in determining which direction the issue

COMING NEXT: An overview of organics in Mexico

IMAGE CAPTIONS accompanying this article:

*Aldo Gonzales of the Uníon de Organizaciones de la Sierra Juarez Oaxaca
(UNOSJO), a group dedicated to the welfare of indigenous farmers. Gonzales
and UNOSJO have been very active in the campaign to bring transgene
contamination of native corn to the public's attention, and to raise
awareness of the problem among campesinos in Oaxaca.

*Despite falling prices corn acreage in Mexico is up. Some farmers must keep
cultivating the land in order to maintain rights to it - others just don't
know what else to do. Above, Fidel Lopez weeds his father's corn crop near
the town of Guelatao de Juarez, Oaxaca.

*Benito Lopez examines last year's corn, a local variety, from which he
selected seed for this year's crop, now about a month in the ground. Even
though cultivation of transgenic corn is banned in Mexico farmers here face
a serious contamination problem with transgenes.

This GMO news service is underwritten by a generous grant from the Newman's
Own Foundation and is a production of the Ecological Farming Association <>