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The Eco-Politics of Genetically Engineered Corn

January 2005

Biotechnology and the eco-politics of corn in Mexico

Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero

Genetically engineered corn has invaded Mexico. There
is no denying it. It came from the United States
(where else?) and is now proliferating agressively,
contaminating local varieties. This is no mere
academic matter or scientific curiosity. The
consequences of the genetic contamination of corn in
its place of origin for the ecology, agricultural
biodiversity and food security not only of Mexico but
the whole world, remain unknown although potentially

Equally worrisome are the effects it might have on the
livelihoods of the native peoples of Mesoamerica and
their ability to resist forceful integration into the
corporate-controlled global economy. It is but the
latest chapter in a 500 year-old saga of invasion and
resistance. As we'll see, the GE corn debacle in
Mexico is inseparable from the broader drama of the
North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the
proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), the
ambitious designs of life sciences corporations that
aim to colonize th food chain, and the whole
globalization project.

The latest archaeological evidence shows that corn was
first discovered and domesticated in the Mexican state
of Oaxaca around 10,000 years ago. Corn, or maize as
it is also known, is regarded as the greatest
agronomic achievement of the human race. Little did
the Spanish conquerors know that the corn samples they
brought to Europe were a bigger treasure than all the
silver and gold bullion from the Americas. Those veins
and mountains of gold and silver were sacked and
looted and are no more. But corn today feeds people
all over the world and is grown in places as far away
as Africa and China.

The most impressive part of the plant, the cob, is
actually a monstruous deformity which sets it apart
from its wild relatives and prevents it from
reproducing on its own. The cobs of corn's wild
ancestors were no more than two centimeters long and
thus provided a meager diet at best. But after
millenia of careful and patient breeding and
experimentation by pre-Columbian peoples in
Mesoamerica, the cobs became as large and generous as
they are today.

As a result of this transformation, corn can no longer
reproduce without human help. The leafy husk has to be
removed from the cob, then the cob must be sun-dried,
its grains scraped off and planted. No bee, bird or
butterfly will do this. Only the toil and patience of
human beings makes the existence and viability of corn
possible. If there are no people, there is no corn.
And the native peoples of Mexico believe that the
inverse is also true.

Corn is at the heart of native cultures in the
Americas. It provides wholesome nutrition, represents
economic self-reliance, and is the backbone of
indigenous resistance against oppression. Most
importantly, it occupies a central place in native
spirituality and interaction with the non-physicial

Southern Mexico is one of the Earth's eight Vavilov
centers. Named in honor of a courageous globe-trotting
seed collector, these centers are geographical
locations that are gifted in agricultural
biodiversity. In the course of his expeditions Soviet
geographer Nikolai Vavilov observed that this
diversity is not evenly distributed but rather
concentrated in eight discernible centers of
megadiversity one of which is southern Mexico, cradle
of corn.

Vavilov centers are crucial for world food security
since they contain the reserves of biodiversity needed
to maintain a viable agriculture. In order to develop
new varieties of corn or to revitalize existing ones
or to deal with new pests, it is absolutely necessary
to have access to the thousands of Mexican varieties.
This is why CIMMYT, the world's leading research
center for corn, is based in Mexico. Mexican corn
exists and thrives in a delicate web of extremely
complex human and natural relationships in the rural
highlands- a web that no scientific laboratory,
government bureaucracy or agribusiness corporation
could ever come close to emulating. Any social or
ecological disruption in southern Mexico can thus have
momentous consequences for the viability of corn and
the future of agriculture worldwide. And social and
ecological disruption is precisely what is happening
there today.

The NAFTA connection

In the NAFTA negotiations in the early 1990's the US
forced two concessions from Mexico which were to have
nefarious consequences for native and rural peoples
there. First, Mexico changed its constitution to end
the inalienable character of the ejidos, communally
owned lands that could not be bought, sold or parceled
out. The 28,000 ejidos, which covered 95 million
hectares, have not disappeared altogether, but one by
one they are being subdivided or sold out thanks to
the "liberties" of the free market. They are being
increasingly replaced by cattle ranches, massive
logging operations, agribusiness monocultures, tree
plantations that will provide paper pulp of serve as
carbon sinks, tourist resorts, hydroelectric dams,
highways and industrial corridors for the Plan Puebla
Panama, and elite nature reserves for ecotourism and

Second, Mexico was forced to practically eliminate
tariffs, import quotas and direct payments to its
farmers. As a result, Mexico became a net importer of
corn, absorbing the US's massive surplus. Mexico's
corn imports from the USA ballooned between 1994 and
2002 from 2.2 million tons annually to 6 million.
Mexico is now the US's second corn market, buying 11%
of its exports in 2000. Now this country lives the
ignominy of seeing its children eating tortillas made
from imported corn.

American corn sells cheaper because of dumping, term
that describes the act of selling a product below its
cost of production. The United States, contradicting
its discourse of free trade and free competition,
subsidizes its agricultural exports to the tune of
hundreds of millions of dollars A DAY.

The effect on Mexico's agriculture and countryside has
been devastating. Millers, processors, retailers and
restaurants prefer to buy American corn, which
although of lesser quality is cheaper than local
maize. Mexican peasants, with their traditional and
criollo maize, although of superior quality, simply
cannot compete. As maize cultivation becomes an
economically impractical proposition, the peasants
abandon the land to migrate to Mexico City or to the
United States, or to work in the maquiladoras.
Countless strains and varieties of maize head then to
extinction. Consumers don't win either. Between 1994
and 2003 the price of tortillas quadrupled.

Genetic contamination

That's the social disruption. Now comes the ecological
disruption in the form of genetically engineered corn.
GE crops have been grown commercially in the US since
1996, and are mostly corn and soy. The American GE
corn, which now constitutes over 30% of the national
crop, has been genetically engineered to kill insects
and is known as Bt.

(Here is a previous article of mine on this particular
matter in Corporate Watch:

Are Bt corn and other biotech foods even safe to eat?
The US government and the life sciences industry
assure us that they are proven to be safe. But that's
not what some scientists and environmentalists are

"The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not
regulate GE foods", stated the environmental group
Friends of the Earth USA (FoE USA) in a report issued
in 2003. Instead, says the report, the FDA has a
'voluntary consultation' process that allows
biotechnology companies to decide which, if any,
safety tests to conduct and how they will be
performed. "The company determines which data, if any,
are shared with regulators. In fact, the company even
determines whether it will consult with the FDA at

Other groups, like the UK-based Institute of Science
in Society and the US-based Critical Genetics Project,
claim that the scientific assumptions behind genetic
engineering are plain wrong and obsolete and therefore
the technology is inherently dangerous and

Is GE corn environmentally safe? Studies from Cornell
and Iowa State universities in the late 1990's
demonstrate that pollen from insecticidal Bt corn can
be deadly to monarch butterfly larvae. Such findings
really should not have surprised anyone, since the Bt
toxin was meant precisely to kill insects, but
nonetheless the biotech industry deployed considerable
resources in trying to discredit the studies. However,
the Cornell and Iowa State U. studies' central
finding, that Bt corn is bad for monarch butterflies,
was never in dispute. Why were the studies done after
millions of hectares had been planted with GE crops,
and not before, as prudency would have required? And,
does Bt corn harm other pollinators or affect soil
biochemistry? We don't know. We are all, human and
non-human alike, guinea pigs in one big planetary

One of the main concerns of opponents of GE crops is
genetic contamination, uncontrolled proliferation
through pollination, inventory errors or other means.
Such fears are well founded. In 2000, over 300 US
supermarket products were found to be tainted with
Starlink, a variety of Bt corn that the FDA had deemed
unfit for human consumption. Some 140 million bushels
were contaminated, food processors and grain traders
spent around $1 billion in a six month period trying
to locate it and get rid of it, and even today traces
of Starlink keep showing up occasionally in American
corn exports.

In the late 1990's Mexican scientists and groups like
Greenpeace Mexico expressed concern that GE corn,
including Starlink, could be arriving from the US and
that inevitably someone would use it as seed, setting
off a process of genetic contamination. The government
responded in 1998 by imposing a moratorium on the
planting of GE crops. But the measure was never
enforced and corn imports countinued with no control.
The citizenry was never informed that the grain was
not to be used as seed. In 1999 the government formed
an interagency committee called CIBIOGEM to look into
the matter of GE corn imports. To this day this body
has done nothing, according to civil society groups.

Then in 2001 University of California researchers
Ignacio Chapela and David Quist made a startling yet
entirely predictable announcement in Nature magazine:
they discovered Bt corn in rural Oaxaca. It had indeed
been used as seed by peasants who had no idea what it

"The pollution was no chance act, but a well
thought-out and conscious strategy which simply took a
little while to play itself out", accused Genetic
Resources Action International (GRAIN), a
Barcelona-based organization that opposes GE crops.

"None could deny that the natural course of any seed
is inevitably to spread. That is what makes a seed a
seed. Nor could anyone deny that maize is naturally an
open pollinator. Any farmer knows that. Put a
genetically-modified maize variety into a highly
diverse, maize-intensive small-farmer area and it will
be just a matter of time for the new variety to join
the pool and for contamination to occur."

The contamination of maize in Mexico affects us all,
according to GRAIN. "It hits first of all the Mexican
and Meso-American peoples for whom maize is a staple
food, a key factor in their economies and an essential
part of their spirituality. It affects all the Latin
American peoples who have adopted, cared for and given
form to their own varieties of maize, many of whom
have also incorporated maize into their spiritual
lives. It affects all those who still grow crops with
care and affection, because if maize was polluted on
purpose, this will certainly happen to other crops as
well. And finally, it affects us all as witnesses of a
process whose consequences we can barely imagine. As
humanity, we see how a small group of people moved by
arrogance and driven by profit, with the support of
various forms of power, are shamelessly playing God."

Compounding the possible dangers from the uncontrolled
spread of Bt corn is the advent of biopharmaceutical
(or pharm) crops, GE plants designed not to provide
food but to make pharmaceutical and industrial
chemicals in their tissues.

(Check out my article on pharm crops in Corporate

Mistakes with pharm crops have happened already. In
the Fall of 2002, 500,000 bushels of soybeans in the
Aurora Farm Co-op in Nebraska were contaminated with
biopharmaceutical corn. One of the co-op's members had
planted an experimental test crop of biopharmaceutical
corn the previous year, and in the following year
planted soybeans for human consumption in the same

During a routine on-site inspection, USDA personnel
found the pharm crop from the previous year growing
among the soy plants. By the time the discovery was
made, the farmer's contaminated soy was already in the
co-op, mixed with other farmers' soy. Fortunately, the
tainted product was stopped before ending up on our
dinner tables.

Silvia Ribeiro, of the non-governmental ETC Group, has
noted with concern that the California-based Epicyte
corporation boasts a spermicidal corn for use as a
contraceptive. "The potential of spermicidal corn as a
biological weapon is very high", she warned in a
column in the Mexican daily La Jornada, and reminisced
about the use of forced sterilizations against
indigenous peoples.

Instead of being praised, Chapela and Quist were
hounded, ridiculed and slandered by the biotech
industry, with the full support and collaboration of
prominent members of the scientific community. First
came the hair-splitting methodological critiques which
distracted attention from the actual findings. Then
came the slanderous anonymous e-mails, which started
in the pro-biotech AgBioWorld list server. The
messages, signed by Mary Murphy and Andura Smetacek,
smeared Chapela and Quist, questioning their
credibility, motivations and ethics and alleging that
they have an eco-extremist anti-science agenda. Murphy
and Smetacek turned out not to exist at all. Their
messages were found to originate in the computers of
biotech corporate giant Monsanto and the Bivings
Group, a public relations firm that works for the life
sciences industry.

The smear worked. Reporters and editors began to
believe that Chapela and Quist had been "discredited"
and even voiced doubt as to whether there was any GE
corn growing in Mexico at all. Nature magazine came
under withering and prolonged attack by pro-biotech
sectors and finally gave in, issuing a retraction of
the Chapela-Quist report. In its 100+ year history it
had never retracted a paper without the approval of
its authors. The biotech industry was euphoric. It
made thousands of copies of the Nature retraction and
rubbed them in the faces of all reporters and
government officials worldwide who expressed concern
about GE crops.

Sabotaging biosafety

Meanwhile, Mexico's government, led now by neoliberal
president Vicente Fox, was up to mischief. Late in
2003 Víctor Villalobos, CIBIOGEM's executive secretary
and the Agriculture Ministry's coordinator of
international affairs, signed behind the backs of the
Senate and the citizenry an international agreement
within the framework of NAFTA that grants GE grain
legal entry to Mexico.

What purpose could such an agreement possibly serve,
given that millions of tons of GE corn were already
entering Mexico every year, unlabeled and unsegregated
from the conventional corn? In fact, these
uncontrolled imports were already making the 1998 GE
moratorium completely useless. The agreement signed by
Villalobos is oriented toward the future, not the
present. It effectively preempts and second-guesses
any future attempt to make Mexico into a GE-free zone.
Should a future Mexican government try to ban the
import of GE grain it will find itself impeded from
doing so by Villalobos' prior agreement with the USA.

In February 2004 the seventh meeting of the
Biodiversity Convention took place in Malaysia,
followed immediately by the first Cartagena Protocol
meeting, also in Malaysia. The Protocol, which came
into effect in September of 2003, is an international
agreement that aims to address the possible risks of
GE crops. In the Cartagena Protocol meeting the
delegations of signatory countries, after great
difficulties and intense negotiations, overcame the
pressures of biotech corporations and reached an
agreement which would have required the labeling of
all internationally traded GE products. But the
agreement came to nothing, thanks to the Mexican

Just before the agreement's signing the chief of the
Mexican delegation, none other than Victor Villalobos,
said he found the text unacceptable. Even the members
of the Mexican delegation looked at him dumbfounded
and open-mouthed. Since the Protocol works by
consensus, Villalobos was able to tear down the
hard-won progress that had been achieved, and thus the
delegations had to return to their home countries with
a diluted and emasculated agreement, which leaves the
matter of labeling in the hands of the Protocol's
signatory governments. If each country is going to do
whatever it pleases, then what's an international
agreement for?, some observers asked themselves.

A most interesting confrontation

During a research trip to Mexico on March 2004, I
attended a forum in Oaxaca City titled "Defending our
Maize, Protecting Life", organized by indigenous and
environmental groups and progressive intellectuals
from all over Mexico. Participants discussed not only
the threat of GE seeds, but also the evils of
industrialized agriculture and the neoliberal free
trade regime.

(Read my Oaxaca travelogue in Grist Magazine:

The activity served also as an alternative
counter-forum to a scientific sumposium on GE corn
that was taking place the following day right in the
city, in the posh and luxurious Hotel Victoria. The
organizers felt that the symposium would be generally
favorable to the biotechnology industry and its
genetically modified organisms (GMO's). They feared
that the experts might declare that the genetic
contamination of maize is a consumate and irreversible
fact and that from now on Mexicans will just have to
get used to "livin' la vida GMO".

At the forum there was a general consensus in the
speakers' presentations, educational literature handed
out and in informal conversations among attendees that
the GM corn invasion is a continuation of the
industrialized, centralized monoculture model of
agriculture of the so-called "green revolution",
imposed by the Mexican and US governments in the cold
war. Nobody in the forum disputed the assertion that
the "green revolution" brought nothing to the Mexican
contryside but economic desolation, new forms of
dependency, poisoning of the environment and people by
toxic agrochemicals, and an erosion of diversity, both
cultural and biological.

Participants were particularly outraged at Villalobos'
actions in Malaysia the previous month. They
subscribed a declaration against him, demanding his
resignation. "We are ashamed to learn that Mexico is
currently being accused in international fora of doing
the dirty work of transnational corporations to the
detriment of other countries", read the declaration.
"Villalobos does not represent the feelings or
interests of Mexicans."

They also repudiated the "unendurable corruption" of
government officials that promote GE crops and foods
in a forceful manner. "We are not interested in
knowing if they receive money from transnational
corporations or not, if they do it out of a mercenary
interest or out of ignorance or irresponsibility. We
are not policemen. But we do not need any further
inquiry to state with no reservations that they do not
represent us and that they're not capable of
understanding our realities and aspirations, much less
defend them."

The forum issued a statement on GE corn. "The great
liars of the market or the state sometimes appear
among us disguised as researchers of new technologies
or specialists in crop improvement. We do not reject
experimentation. We have practiced it for thousands of
years. We are interested in change, but not of the
kind that leads to forms of cultivation that destroy
instead of conserving."

"We have listened patiently to to scientists who
defend (GE crops). But we have gotten tired (of
listening). The gravest risks of using GE crops are in
the long term. Not enough time has passed. Therefore
there are no long term studies. Everything they say
now is pure speculation. Besides, they manipulate
information and have used arguments that are false or

The participants went the next day to the scientific
symposium to present their viewpoints and concerns to
the scientists and bureaucrats. It was a colorful
encounter, to say the least. Peasants, Greenpeace
militants, leaders of indigenous peoples'
organizations, progressive academicians and
intellectuals, facing a mostly white, male-dominated
group of panelists and experts. The conference room
became a Tower Babel. The scientists, bureaucrats and
journalists, who spoke English, Spanish or French,
were now joined by indigenous people speaking Mixtec,
Zapotec, Chinantec or any of the dozens of
pre-Columbian languages that are spoken in the region.

The differences between both parts went far beyond the
linguistic barrier. It was a clash between totally
distinct and incompatible modes of thinking and
worldviews. The panel members spoke in highly
technical language and each one confined to a
particular specialty. They pretended to discuss
separately the ethical, technical, environmental and
economic aspects. Far from openly advocating GE crops
and raging against those who would oppose their use,
they were at pains to appear neutral and objective. It
was as if they did not want to appear to be taking
sides or to have a personal opinion either in favor or
against GMO's.

But for the indigenous people and their allies, all
the objectivity, neutrality and highly technical talk
was nothing but a façade. When the microphones were
opened to comments from the audience they spoke of the
millenial indigenous view of the cosmos, spirituality,
culture, inalienable moral principles and duties,
colonialism, neoliberalism, sovereignty and struggle.
They put forth questions about the risks of GMO's and
about industrialized agriculture and the power of
agribusiness transnational corporations.

There were moments of tension and confrontation, like
when an intervention by a spokesman of the Popular
Indigenous Council of Oaxaca was cut short by the
moderator, citing time constraints. A woman from the
organization spoke up defiantly, "Excuse you, because
I am in my country. Excuse you, because we do not have
money and you people have enough of it to be here in
the most expensive hotel in Oaxaca. You cannot tell us
how much time we have."

"If the other companions need to speak then let them
take their time, because we are here to say that we do
not agree with GMO's. None of you can tell us when to
speak and when to be quiet. Such is the mandate that
my people gave me." Her intervention was followed by
thunderous applause.

Indigenous peoples and civil society organizations in
Mexico, with the support of NGO allies from all over
the world, are undertaking to track the genetic
contamination of their corn and devise some kind of
mechanism to effectively identify and isolate the
contaminated plants. However, the effort is not simply
technical and scientific. It isn't just about
eliminating GE corn. It aims to work with the broader
movement against neoliberalism to address and fight
the economic forces and vested interests that are
attacking not just corn but the livelihoods of native
peoples and the social fabric of rural life in Mexico.
It stands in opposition to NAFTA and to corporate
control over life.

"We solicit the solidarity and support of those who
carry out struggles similar to ours in other parts of
Mexico and the world, so that GE-free territories are
expanded", said the declaration.

Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero
Director, Proyecto de Bioseguridad
Research Associate, Institute for Social Ecology
Senior Fellow, Environmental Leadership Program