Opposition to the widespread introduction of GM maize by international companies in Mexico is growing ahead of a crucial decision on the subject by Enrique Peña Nieto’s government.
A moratorium on the planting of GM maize throughout Mexico was in force until 2009, when previous president Emilio Calderón permitted some experimental trials on a reduced scale, covering some 2,660 hectares.
As a result of these trials, President Calderón was due to announce a decision on whether or not to permit transnational companies such as Monsanto, Pioneer or Dow Agrosciences to introduce their GM brands of maize on a commercial scale, but passed the thorny question on to his successor from the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).
Many scientists and environmental groups within Mexico have expressed their concerns at the possible introduction of GM maize on a massive scale.
The Unión de Científicos Comprometidos con la Sociedad (UCCS-Union of Scientists Committed to Society) have stressed the health dangers of any such move. They point to studies made by Gilles-Eric Séralini (quoted in www.slowfood.com) on the harmful effects on laboratory rats fed on genetically modified maize foodstuffs.
The UCCS also points to the negative effects any such move would have on local maize producers:
‘There is a fear that the government will grant permits soon, or within a few months (according to declarations to the press by the sub-secretary for agriculture Mariano Ruíz). This would open the way for an unprecedented invasion of GM crops in Mexico, in our fields and on our tables. The local varieties would be threatened by contamination, and the food sovereignty of our communities would be seriously compromised’.
It is this question of food sovereignty which most disturbs opponents of the scheme. As Evangelina Robles of the Red en Defensa del Maíz (Maize Defence Network) told the Inter Press news service: ‘They are going to serve up transgenic maize on every table, in spite of the fact that food sovereignty depends on growing native corn.’
Mexicans are particularly sensitive to any changes to maize production. It is a staple in their diet (recent statistics suggest each Mexican consumes more than 120kg per year, compared to a world average of less than 17kg).
It is also part of Mexican history: maize has been cultivated in the country for almost 5,000 years, and there are now more than 200 native varieties. These, the protestors argue, could be contaminated by the introduction of transgenic maize on a massive scale, and eventually be replaced entirely, thus depriving the world of an important source of biodiversity in a crucial foodstuff.
According to Camila Montecinos, who campaigns with GRAIN, an organization that promotes small-scale community farming worldwide, transnational companies ‘chose maize, soya and canola because of their enormous potential for contamination (by wind-pollination). When contamination spreads, the companies claim that the presence of transgenic crops must be recognised and legalised.’ This then opens the way for the sale of GM seeds, to which they own the patents, she argues.
Currently in Mexico, some three million farmers (two thirds of them small farmers) work on eight million hectares of land to produce some 22 million tonnes of maize each year. This means that a further 10 million tonnes has to be imported to satisfy local demand.
Transnational companies such as Monsanto claim that their modified seeds can greatly increase yields (a claim hotly disputed by many researchers in the United States and elsewhere). Monsanto, Pioneer and Dow Agrosciences have applied for permits to grow their transgenic maize on more than two million hectares in the northern states of Sinaloa and Michoacan.
The transgenic seeds they hope to introduce include Roundup Ready and BT (from the bacillus thuringiensis pest-resistant gene they carry), which are banned in China, Russia and most European Union countries.
This ban has led scientists from the UCCS to warn that the widespread introduction of transgenic maize and other crops could have damaging consequences for Mexican honey exports, which are chiefly sold to Europe.
Members of Greenpeace Mexico recently scaled the Estela de Luz in Mexico City to unfurl a huge banner proclaiming NO TO GM CROPS. According to their campaign organiser Aleira Lara: ‘To approve the sowing of transgenic maize would be yet another blow to the producers of this crop, to the environment, to biodiversity and to the food and cultural heritage of millions of Mexicans and their future generations. It’s irresponsible and a major risk to permit this kind of crop in Mexico.’
The Mexican government has said that it will take into account all the results from the trials before coming to any decision on issuing permits for the commercial use of transgenic maize and other crops.
Traditionally, the PRI has been a strong backer of local farmers, who make up a key part of the party’s support, but President Peña Nieto seems keen to bring in reforms in many areas that will radically alter Mexican society. Allowing the transnationals to gain a strong foothold in the countryside could well be part of this strategy.
‘This is the first time in history that one of the most important harvests in the world is threatened in its centre of diversity,’ concludes Pat Mooney, head of the international NGO Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration. ‘If we let the companies win, there will be no chance to defend them in other parts. What is happening here [in Mexico] is of key importance to the rest of the world.