martes, enero 11, 2005

Biotechnology and the eco-politics of corn in Mexico

Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero

(Written for the Native Americas Journal in the summer of 2004)

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 catastrophic.

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 world.

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.

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 bioprospection.

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.

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.

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 saying.

"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 all."

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 unpredictable.

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 experiment.

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 was.

"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.

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 field.

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.

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 government.

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.

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.

The activity served also 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 insensate."

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.

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