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Frankencorn Threatens Mexico's Ancient Maize

On September 4, 2001 Mexican officials admitted that an alarming number of genetically engineered (GE) corn plants have been detected growing alongside traditional corn varieties over a widespread area in the state of Oaxaca.

For a millennia, corn has been sacred to the Mayans and other native people of Mexico. Over centuries, small farmers have carefully bred and preserved thousands of different traditional varieties of corn, called landraces, which are specific to each geographical region, soil type, and micro-climate of the country. Corn, or maize, as it is called traditionally, remains today the most important crop for a quarter of the nation's 10 million indigenous and small farmers. Corn tortillas play a major role in the diet of Mexico's 100 million people.

Critics have warned that GE corn should never be imported into Mexico -- the most important world center of biodiversity for corn -- since the gene pool of the nation's 20,000 corn varieties and plant relatives, including the progenitor species of corn, called teosinte, could be irreversibly damaged by "genetic pollution" from the genetically engineered (herbicide-resistant or Bt-spliced) maize being aggressively marketed by Monsanto, Syngenta (formerly called Novartis) and other agbiotech transnationals.

Under pressure to protect the nation's corn biodiversity, Mexican authorities have proclaimed a moratorium on domestic cultivation of GE corn. Meanwhile, they have ignored the massive dumping of millions of tons of cheap (U.S. taxpayer-subsidized) GE corn by corporations such Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) and Cargill.

Agronomists and environmentalists fear that Mexican farmers have now, perhaps unknowingly, spread this imported Frankencorn into most of the corn-growing regions of the country, by planting GE corn from the U.S. which was supposed to be sold for human food consumption only. Since impoverished Mexican farmers are looking to plant the cheapest corn seed possible, they are increasingly choosing to buy the imported GE-tainted corn from the U.S., since it is considerably cheaper than non-subsidized Mexican varieties.

Corn Dumping Damage

Compounding Mexico's genetic pollution problem is the fact that major overseas buyers of corn (Europe, Japan and Korea) are stubbornly refusing to buy gene-altered corn. Consequently, North American exporters are finding it necessary to dump increasing amounts of GE-tainted maize on captive markets such as Mexico, China, Egypt, Colombia, Malaysia, and Brazil. Nineteen percent of the U.S. corn, 14 million acres, is now genetically engineered, although GE acreage is down 30 percent from two years ago, mainly due to global resistance against Frankenfoods.

Corn dumping in Mexico has accelerated since the advent of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Under the relentless pressure of globalization, Mexico has been transformed from being a major producer of corn (producing 98 percent of its needs for example in 1994) to a major importer, ranking third in the world (after Japan and Korea) in terms of imports from the U.S. and Canada.

The reason for this is simple. Corn costs essentially $3.40 a bushel for family-sized farmers in the U.S. and Canada to produce, and even more for a small farmer in Mexico. Yet Cargill and ADM, due to their monopoly control of the market, pay U.S. farmers less than $2 a bushel, with the U.S. taxpayer picking up the remainder of the tab.

This enormous subsidy, in turn, gets reimbursed to farmers, although large corporate farms get the lion's share of the U.S.' annual $20-30 billion in farm price support payments. Even with enormous taxpayer subsidies, most years U.S. farmers have trouble even recuperating their costs of corn production -- leading to demands by family farmers for a breakup of Cargill and ADM's grain monopoly.

Only organic corn farmers, operating outside ADM and Cargill's cartel, are receiving a fair price for their harvest. And of course North American organic corn growers are increasingly alarmed over the fact that "genetic pollution" or gene flow from GE corn fields are starting to contaminate their valuable crops.

Longstanding Mexican government regulation of corn supply and prices, support for small corn growers, and price subsidies for corn tortillas for Mexican consumers have been eliminated, all at the behest of Cargill, ADM, and ADM's powerful Mexican partner, Gruma/Maseca. The end result of this globalization process is that small- and medium-sized farmers, both North and South of the border, can't make a living, while ADM and Cargill (and their preferred customers such as McDonald's, Wal-Mart, Tyson and Smithfield) make a killing. Meanwhile consumers, who have been promised that Free Trade would result in lower prices, are paying more for food every year. Corn tortillas, the main staple of the Mexican diet, have risen in price 300 percent since NAFTA came into effect.

Southern Corn Blight

As botanists and plant breeders warn, contaminating Mexico's irreplaceable corn landraces and germplasm pool could be "catastrophic" for farmers and consumers. For example in 1970, millions of acres of the U.S. corn crop were devastated by a Southern corn leaf blight which destroyed 15 percent of the total U.S. harvest (50 percent of all corn in some areas), leading to over $1 billion in losses, not to mention marketplace shortages.

By going to the "germplasm" bank of thousands of traditional varieties cultivated in Mexico, and withdrawing several varieties which were resistant to the Southern corn blight, plant breeders were able to use conventional cross-breeding and come up with a single blight-resistant hybrid variety which was planted in 1971 -- thereby saving billions of dollars in losses and maintaining global food security.

Underlining the central importance of corn biodiversity and preserving traditional varieties or landraces, researchers have also found in recent years that a perennial variety of corn's original parent, teosinte, found in Mexico, contains genes that can protect plants from seven of the nine principle viruses that infect corn crops in the U.S.

Of course, if herbicide-resistant and Bt corn had already been polluting Mexico's centers of corn biodiversity before 1970, no one knows if the traditional variety resistant to Southern corn blight would still have been around to save the day. Likewise no one can predict the impact of Frankencorn pollution on virus-resistant teosinte varieties and other corn plant relatives.

But one thing is certain: if globalization continues to drive several million Mexican farmers from the land, and forces traditional growers to shift to growing non-corn export crops, most of the nation's heirloom corn varieties or landraces will be lost forever, since centralized seed banks (which typically store rather than cultivate their thousands of different varieties) cannot properly preserve landraces which are no longer being cultivated in their native areas.

Analysts estimate that almost a million small farmers -- primary breeders and stewards of thousands of corn and other crop landraces -- have already been driven from their cornfields and communal lands (ejidos) since Mexico essentially turned over control of its agricultural sector to Cargill, ADM and other North American food giants.

GE Corn Spawns Global Trouble

Even U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) scientists have previously warned that genetically engineered crops should not be grown where wild relatives exist (prohibiting for example GE cotton from being grown in parts of southern Florida, where wild relatives of cotton exist), much less in biological centers of diversity such as the maize-growing areas of Mexico.

Of course, this concern over genetic pollution didn't prevent the EPA in October 2001 from giving the green light to allow Bt corn to continue to be grown for seven more years in the U.S., ignoring environmental and public health concerns voiced by scientists and consumer groups -- knowing full well that millions of tons of GE-tainted corn continue to be exported by U.S. corporations to centers of corn biodiversity such as Mexico, Central America, South America and the Caribbean.

Genetic engineering of agricultural crops and corn dumping not only pose a serious threat to Mexico and Central America's corn biodiversity, they pose a threat to continental peace and stability as well. Since NAFTA went into effect, local and regional markets for indigenous and small farmers in the region have been undermined and destroyed.

Farmers are finding it increasingly difficult to sell their corn, beans, coffee, and other crops. Rural poverty and hunger have increased, forcing millions of campesinos to migrate to the U.S. Mounting desperation has also spawned widespread, at times violent, agrarian conflicts in Mexican states such as Chiapas, Oaxaca, and Guerrero and threatens to reignite armed struggle across Central America.

Ronnie Cummins is the national director of the Organic Consumers Association and the editor of BioDemocracy News, a monthly on-line newsletter devoted to genetic engineering, factory farming, and organics.

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