|AP. 29 December 2001.
Mexicans Angered by Spread of Genetically Modified Corn.
MEXICO CITY -- In a cautionary tale about the difficulty of controlling
genetically modified plants, corn researchers in Mexico went ever higher
into remote mountain villages looking for natural varieties of the
Time after time, they couldn't find them.
Samples revealed that just a few years of unlabeled U.S. imports had
transferred modified genes to local corn in the southern state of Oaxaca
- even though planting genetically modified crops is banned in this
country, the birthplace of corn.
The discovery, confirmed in the science magazine Nature this month,
caused outrage among Mexicans, whose ancestors believed the gods
Man from an ear of corn.
"It's a worse attack on our culture than if they had torn down the
cathedral of Oaxaca and built a McDonald's over it," said Hector
Magallone, an activist with environmental group Greenpeace.
Some scientists worry that genetically modified strains could displace
or contaminate Mexico's genetic warehouse of over 60 corn varieties - a
wealth that enriches staple crops worldwide and includes wild varieties
that have yet to be cataloged.
The accidental spread of laboratory-inserted genes, scientists fear,
could allow aggressive plants to crowd out other varieties, reducing
Diversity is prized as a hedge against disease, pests and climate
change. While some plant strains may be vulnerable to one disease,
others may have natural immunity that enables them to survive.
The case has drawn international attention. In an open letter, 80
scientists from a dozen countries have asked the Mexican government to
stop the genetic contamination.
But supporters of genetic modification say such crops may actually
benefit the environment by allowing farmers to use less pesticide or
soil tilling, cutting down on erosion.
Mexico is a net importer of corn - about 6.2 million tons annually,
almost all from the United States. Perhaps one-fourth of it is
U.S. grain growers aren't worried by the contamination - and even want
to charge Mexican farmers for it.
"If a locally occurring variety receives some improvement from
genetically engineered crops, it's up to the courts to decide whether
farmers should be made to pay for that," said Ricardo Celma, head of the
U.S. Grain Council's Mexico office. "But we want the patent rights of
the owners of that genetic modification to be honored."
Such demands could set the stage for confrontation.
"The prospect of some multinational corporation bringing lawsuits
against Mexicans farmers would be intolerable," the head of the Mexican
government's Council on Biodiversity, Jorge Soberon, said Saturday.
"Their patents may be valid in their country, but not in ours," Soberon
told the government news agency Notimex. He also proposed that Mexico
pay its farmers subsidies to grow native corn.
That, like the patent issue, could run afoul of the rules of the North
American Free Trade Agreement between Mexico, the United States and
Canada, which provides for patent protections and discourages subsidies.
Greenpeace, meanwhile, has called for a ban on imports of genetically
modified corn. Corn is Mexico's staple crop, is imported mostly for
human and animal consumption - not as seed.
Yet several modified strains were found.
It is unclear how far the genetically modified crops have spread. A
study by the Mexican Environment Ministry earlier this year found them
in 15 locations in Oaxaca, but in low concentrations of 3 percent to 10
percent of plants in most fields.
"It's likely that these gene sequences may disappear by themselves, or
remain at low levels for a long period of time," the Ministry said in a
Researchers from Oaxaca's Uzachi agricultural research center weren't
looking for genetically modified corn when they went to the Zapotec
Indian village of Calpulalpan in late November 2000.
They went to the area high in the Sierra Norte mountains to find pure,
locally occurring varieties that would serve as a 'control sample' for a
project to produce natural, organic corn.
But researcher Francisco Chapela - whose brother, Ignacio, published the
results in Nature - recalls that, when they analyzed the sample, it
contained a genetic marker commonly used in engineered plants.
"At first we thought our equipment was malfunctioning," Chapela said.
"Then, we thought, 'OK, maybe this field had some problems, we'll go to
another one farther back in the mountains.'"
But even in the hamlet of Trinidad, about three hours from the state
capital of Oaxaca, they found genetic alterations. After six tests, they
found two fields that did not contain traces of modification.
Planting genetically modified crops has been banned in Mexico since
1998. Officials of Mexico's Agriculture Department said there were no
plans to halt imports, or demand labeling of genetically modified corn.
Ironically, the Oaxaca research center that is now fighting for
biological purity was set up for an opposite purpose.
It was created in the mid-1990s by the Swiss pharmaceutical giant Sandoz
- which later became Novartis in a merger - to look for medicinally
valuable plant species, a practice decried by some activists as
Local farmers later assumed control of the lab.
Chapela speculated that the genetically modified corn found in Oaxaca
was planted by local farmers who obtained kernels intended for
"It could have been accidental," Chapela said. "Or somebody may have
seen it in a rural store and said, 'That's a pretty kernel, I think I'll
plant it.' It has no warning label. Either way, this shows how negligent
authorities were to import this without labels."