Monsanto Uses Latest Food Crisis to Push Transgenic Corn in Mexico
by Alfredo Acedo*
Monsanto has turned the drop in international corn reserves and the havoc wreaked on Mexican corn production by an unexpected cold snap into an argument for speeding up commercial planting of its genetically modified (GM) corn in Mexico. The transnational is claiming that its modified seeds are the only solution to scarcity and rising grain prices.
At a press conference, the transnational’s Latin American President José Manuel Maduro went even further by blaming restrictions on GM corn production in the country for the high level of post-NAFTA imports of the staple. “Mexico’s decisión to not move forward [on transgenics] has led to the importation of 10 million tons of corn, a situation that demands a swift response.”
That Monsanto would use the boogeyman of food dependency to scare Mexico into accepting GM corn shows the company’s immense cynicism. Now according to Monsanto, the reasons that Mexico lost corn self-sufficiency and start importing millions of tons annually had nothing to do with agricultural policies that support transnationals, or an unjust free trade model that favors imports and has abandoned the majority of national producers. Instead, it’s because the country has not embraced the commercial use of transgenic corn.
As the food crisis looms, the real danger – for the nourishment, health and culture of the country – is in choosing the Monsanto agenda over strengthening national agriculture. The cultivation of transgenics will accelerate the loss of Mexico’s food sovereignty and contaminate vital native strains of corn.
Monsanto’s diligent PR hard work is paying off. After originally denying authorization for a pilot program to cultivate its GM corn in Sinaloa last year, the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Development, Fisheries and Food (SAGARPA) just gave the company the green light to plant genetically modified yellow corn resistant to the herbicide glyphosate as a part of a pilot program in Tamaulipas’ current agricultural cycle.
According to the National Commission for the Use and Understanding of Biodiversity (CONABIO), Tamaulipas is home to 16 of the 59 remaining strains of native corn. A recent study by the CONABIO concluded that releases of transgenic corn should be handled “only by public institutions adequately trained in security, and carried out in low-risk areas.” The study was financed by SAGARPA and was announced at the same time as the permit for the Tamaulipas pilot project, going against its own recommendations. Tamaulipas, like the rest of the northern region and all of Mexico, is a center of origin for corn.
There is an intense PR campaign to open the door to transgenics in Mexico: industrial farmers in the north are pushing the government to ease the establishment of commercial transgenic corn operations and the national press is not short on people willing to echo Monsanto’s sound bites.
This year’s International Book Fair in Mexico City was invaded by the campaign’s propaganda, cloaked in scientific jargon. The fair, sponsored by the National Autonomous University of Mexico, included a series of conferences designed to convince the public about the benefits of GMOs, led by all-star biotech cheerleader, Luis Herrera-Estrella. The Mexican scientist, hailed as a co-inventor of transgenics, has become a defender of Monsanto’s efforts in spite of the fact that, as he tells it, the company commandeered his patent for the technology.
Herrera-Estrella has been accused of doing Monsanto’s dirty work. The relationship between CINVESTAV, where the researcher works, and the transnational is public knowledge. After Berkeley Professor Ignacio Chapela revealed GM contamination in corn crops in Calpulapan, Oaxaca in the fall of 2001, Monsanto launched a smear campaign against him. After years of persecution and when two international Berkeley reviewers had recommended tenure, Chapela’s contract was suspended after the university received a letter against him from an expert. The author was Luis Herrera-Estrella.
The conferences at the book fair only presented a favorable view of transgenics, leading to complaints from some members of the public. The president of the Union of Socially Concerned Scientists, Elena Álvarez-Buylla, presented a brief critical perspective on transgenic biotechnology, including information about a French scientist recognized for his independent research into the risks of GMOs, who recently won a suit against biotech groups that carried out a smear campaign to discredit him. Álvarez-Buylla was cut off by Herrera-Estrella, who was clearly annoyed by the criticisms and insisted that as the conference organizer he should be the sole presenter. Another attendee challenged the failure to mention the proven health risks posed by glyphosate, a Monsanto herbicide associated with one of its transgenic corn strains.
The aggressive PR operation to promote the introduction of GM corn in Mexico comes after the company reported declining profits last year and a drop in its share price due to shrinking sales of Roundup and GM soy and corn seeds in South America and Europe.
The Mexican market represents potential earnings of $400 million annually for Monsanto and for some government officials that’s enough to turn a blind eye toward any risk to native corn species, the economy or Mexican health.
Meanwhile in the European Union, according to a report from Friends of the Earth International released several weeks ago, transgenic crops are plummeting at the same time that more and more countries are prohibiting them.
Seven EU member states prohibit the planting of Monsanto’s transgenic corn due to mounting evidence about environmental and economic impacts, and to apply the precautionary principle that stipulates that when impact on human health is unknown precaution is warranted. Polls show that public opposition to transgenics is as high as 61 percent.
Unexpectedly, and not without contradictions, the Mexican federal government denied Monsanto’s permit for a pilot project of 100 acres of GM corn in the northeastern state of Sinaloa. Pilot projects are the second regulatory phase, following the experimental phase and preceding commercial production, of the three phases established by the Law of Genetically Modified Organism Biosecurity.
Beginning in October of 2009, a few months after a meeting between Felipe Calderón and Monsanto President Hugh Grant, the federal government approved 29 applications for experimental transgenic corn plots, breaking a decade-long moratorium. Most of the licenses were issued to Monsanto and Dow Agro Science to test corn strains resistant to herbicides and blight on more than a dozen hectares.
Last year, after keeping the sites secret and without adequately disclosing the results of the experimental plantings in violation of the Biosecurity Law, the government accepted 20 more applications from the aforementioned transnationals, plus Syngenta. If all these permits are authorized, there would be more than 1,000 hectares planted with transgenic corn.
The contradictions and waffling in the government’s original position to at first deny permits for pilot projects in Sinaloa and then approve the quarter-hectare project in Tamaulipas are probably due to the fast-approaching electoral season – crucial for the ruling party, which will try to avoid the political costs of its decisions. The actions of peasant farmer organizations and the important work of expert groups like the UCCS have played an important role in holding back the mass cultivation of GMOs in Mexico.
Since the end of 2009, The National Union of Regional Autonomous Campesino Organizations (UNORCA) started a campaign with the slogan “No to transgenic corn! Monsanto out of Mexico!” that includes the use of forums, mass media and public spaces to inform debate on GMOs in Mexico. Public forums were held in Navojoa (a few miles from one of the centers of transgenic experimentation), Chilpancingo y Zacatecas. Last year in Guadalajara and Morelia, the forums condemned transgenic corn experimentation as a crime against humanity.
There are now many voices speaking out against the imposition of GMOs: from the UCCS to the city council of Tepoztlán in the southern state of Morelos, which filed a constitutional challenge against the planting of transgenic corn in the country.
Food Sovereignty or Food Dependency?
The national head of UNORCA, Olegario Carrillo, asserts that Mexico doesn’t need to embrace Monsanto to regain corn self-sufficiency. Giving in to the transnational’s pressure to gain control over Mexico’s agro-genetic wealth would mean deepening the debilitating food dependence brought on by NAFTA; food imports already constitute more than 40 percent of what Mexico consumes, according to data from the Chief Auditor of the Federation.
The fundamental problem is not technological, but that the Mexican government lacks policies to promote rural development or goals in domestic food production. The neoliberal regime has chosen to promote imports and support the transnationals that have been taking over the production process.
Monsanto is lying when it implies that its biotechnology can resolve Mexico’s food crisis: it is amply documented that transgenics don’t increase yields. Transgenic corn strains weren’t designed to increase yield. The vast majority of transgenic crops are designed to resist the application of herbicides also manufactured by Monsanto. They actually create more dependency due to the need to buy seed and the contamination of native varieties. They also damage the environment, the economy and human health.
On the other hand, annual corn harvests in Mexico could be doubled if agricultural policy were reformed to support small farmers and to encourage cultivation of more acres in the south and southeast where there is sufficient water. The genetic wealth of Mexican corn could raise production, with farmers saving seed and not required to pay royalties to Monsanto, because the 60 native species and thousands of varieties are adapted to local soils and climates.
Monsanto denies the risk of transgenic contamination of native species, despite evidence that the coexistence of transgenics and biodiversity is impossible. Hiding the truth has been an integral part of Monsanto’s corporate strategies throughout its history, as the company seeks to protect profits at the expense of human health, the environment and general well-being.
The UCCS, based on FAO and UNESCO reports, affirms that transgenics not only do not increase yields, they have the negative impacts of raising agrochemical levels and destroying the soil. These studies also show few or no benefits to poor farmers or consumers. Additionally, GM crops contribute to the climate crisis because they reinforce an oil-dependent agricultural model. Peasant farmer organizations and committed scientists propose an alternative sustainable model, based on conservation of biodiversity, nutrient recycling, crop synergy, conservation of soil and strategic resources (such as water), and incorporating new biotechnologies compatible with sustainable systems.
Scientists have concluded that the Mexican countryside has the resources necessary to guarantee food sovereignty without adopting transgenic technology. According to researcher Antonio Turrent Fernández, small-scale producers, ejido members and communal landowners can play a key role in the production of basic foods and the management of Mexico’s diverse genetic resources. But this requires public investment in infrastructure, research, technology transfer and services – that is to say a radical change in the dominant model and budget priorities. It also requires the reinstatement of the moratorium on transgenic corn.
Alfredo Acedo is communications director and advisor to the National Union of Regional Autonomous Campesino Organizations (Unión Nacional de Organizaciones Regionales Campesinas Autónomas, UNORCA) Mexico.
Editor: Laura Carlsen Translator: Murphy Woodhouse
* Published by the Americas Program