Genetically Modified Organisms Threaten Indigenous Corn
November 2001, Ignacio Chapela and David Quist, scientists from
the University of California at Berkeley, published an article in
the scientific journal Nature
revealing that indigenous corn in Oaxaca, Mexico was contaminated
with DNA from genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The biotech
industry has been working ferociously to discredit this research.
Many of the anti- Chapela/Quist editorials and articles have been
directly traced back to Monsanto’s public relations firm. Pressure
and criticism from a small group of influential biotech supporters
caused Nature to withdraw the article in April 2002. Since
this event, the biotech industry has reported that the genetic contamination
in Mexico never occurred. Unfortunately, most of the mainstream
media coverage in the recent months has focused on the controversy
over Chapela and Quist’s research and has disregarded the ramifications
this contamination will have. The introduction of DNA from genetically
altered material could cause the native corn to lose its ability
to produce and reproduce in its natural environment, destabilizing
the economic livelihood of campesinos (small-scale farmers).
of the pro-biotech editorials and articles conveniently ignore the
fact that two Mexican governmental agencies, the National Commission
on Biodiversity (Conabio) and the National Ecological Institute
(INE), sampled indigenous corn from 20 communities in Oaxaca and
2 in Puebla (states in southern Mexico). They found that 95 percent
of these communities had a 1 to 35 percent contamination rate. This
means that between 1 percent and 35 percent of the indigenous kernels
they sampled contained traces of DNA from genetically modified organisms
(GMOs). In total, 8 percent of the 1,876 of the seedlings they tested
were polluted by GMOs. At the Biosafety Conference in The Hague
at the end of April 2002, Jorge Soberon, director of Conabio, declared
this genetic pollution as the worst case of GMO contamination in
crops ever reported in the world.
campesino lifestyle depends on corn, which provides their nutrition,
economic livelihood, and the basis for many religious ceremonies.
In order to ensure the continued existence of the corn, campesinos
must disperse the seed. Without human intervention, the cob would
fall on the ground and all the kernels would compete with each other.
After a few generations the corn would no longer be able to reproduce.
Mexican campesinos maintain current varieties and facilitate the
evolution of new varieties. These new varieties will evolve only
if farmers remain the stewards of corn and the protectors of biodiversity.
There are over 20,000 varieties of corn in Mexico and Central America.
In southern and central Mexico, approximately 5,000 varieties have
been identified. In one village in Oaxaca, researchers found 17
different environments where 26 varieties of corn were growing.
Each variety has evolved to adapt to elevation levels, soil acidity,
sun exposure, soil type, and rainfall. When more varieties are grown
in close proximity to each other, the corn is less vulnerable to
insect and disease epidemics.
agricultural policy, NAFTA, and the lack of awareness of GMOs among
campesinos are the underlying causes of the genetic contamination
in the corn in Oaxaca, Mexico.
NAFTA was being negotiated, a comparative advantage analysis was
conducted between the three NAFTA countries to determine what each
country should produce for export. Ironically, the United States
was chosen to produce corn since its large-scale monocultural corn
farms yield approximately 75 percent more corn per acre than subsistence
farmers in Mexico do. Because of this comparative advantage it was
decided that Mexico should cultivate labor-intensive horticultural
crops, since it has a large cheap labor force.
comparative advantage analysis failed to take into consideration
the impacts it will have on the campesino way of life and the survival
of maize biodiversity. Also, the large subsidies that U.S. corn
farmers receive from the U.S. government were overlooked, which
skews the comparative advantage equation. Some U.S. corn farmers
receive 42 percent of their income from government subsidies.
Rosales, an engineer from the Mexican Secretariat for Agriculture,
Livestock, Fisheries and Food (SAGARPA), stated in an interview
that Mexican campesinos should produce higher yields of corn, cultivate
a more profitable crop, or leave the land. SAGARPA has taken measures
to implement this policy, resulting in the displacement of tens
of thousands of campesinos.
Agricultural Agreement eliminated all tariffs on agricultural goods
either immediately or in a 5-, 10-, or 15-year period. A duty-free
quota system was established for corn with a 15-year phase out period.
The first year of NAFTA 2.5 million metric tons of corn were permitted
to enter Mexico from the United States, tariff-free. This number
was to increase 3 percent annually for 14 years, completing the
15-year phase-out period. All corn imports from the United States
that surpassed the duty-free quota were supposed to be subjected
to a tariff, which would also be gradually eliminated over 15 years.
This phase-out period, however, did not last for the anticipated
time. In 1996, corn imports exceeded the quota by over three million
tons and tariffs were waved. Every year since the implementation
of NAFTA (with the exception of 1995) the quota was surpassed and
tariffs were not applied. According to Alejandro Nadal, from the
Mexico College’s Science and Technology Program, over $2 billion
of fiscal revenue was foregone between 1994-1998 in Mexico because
tariffs were never collected from the corn that exceeded the quota
rate. Since the Mexican government did not impose the tariffs, U.S.
corn exporters were given the green light to send their crop to
1998 there has been a moratorium on the cultivation of GM corn in
Mexico. Before NAFTA was implemented, the U.S. exported approximately
two million metric tons of corn annually to Mexico. In 2001, Mexico
received 6.2 million tons of imported corn from the U.S., more than
tripling pre-NAFTA rates. It is estimated that 26 percent of the
corn grown in the U.S. last year was genetically modified. Both
the European Union and Japan have banned the importation of GM foods,
which disproportionately increases the amount of genetically engineered
foods that enter into other countries. Thirty to forty percent of
the corn exported from the United States to Mexico is from GM varieties.
Mexican agricultural policy and NAFTA (which is part of Mexico’s
agricultural policy) have enabled corn polluted with DNA from GMOs
to enter rural Mexico. Both have encouraged campesinos to abandon
their land, demanding an increase in corn imports. These heavily
subsidized U.S. imports have flooded the Mexican corn market and
driven down the prices of corn by 45 percent, undermining the campesinos
ability to make an economic livelihood.
underlying cause of the contamination is the lack of understanding
campesinos have about GMOs. I interviewed 29 campe- sino families
in the Sierra Juárez and 59 percent of them had heard of GMOs
but only 14 percent actually understood that genetic engineering
involves the transfer of genes from one species to another. Neither
SAGARPA nor Diconsa are taking steps to educate the campesinos about
corn contamination. Aurelio Bautista, a technician from SAGARPA
in Calpulalpan (a village in the Sierra Juárez), stated that
he believes the contamination in the Sierra Juárez is only
a rumor. Even though government agencies have taken samples from
Calpulalpan and it is one of the most highly publicized communities
that has GM corn contamination, Bautista nervously insisted that
Calpulalpan did not have polluted corn. These types of blatant lies
have lead to further misunderstanding and misinformation about genetically
modified organisms in Oaxaca.
primary direct source of the genetic contamination came from the
imported corn from the United States. Diconsa, a Mexican state-run
grain distributor, facilitated the dispersion of this genetically
altered corn. Diconsa delivers grain and other supplies to stores
throughout rural areas of Mexico. According to Manuel Mérida
from Diconsa warehouse in Oaxaca City, 40 percent of the corn distributed
by Diconsa last year in Oaxaca originated from the United States.
Conabio and INE found a 37 percent GM contamination rate in the
corn in the Diconsa warehouse in Ixtlán (of the Sierra Juárez).
When I spoke with a worker at the Ixtlán store, she reported
that a representative from Diconsa informed her there were no GMOs
in the Diconsa corn in the store. Another worker at the Guelatoa
Diconsa store was told, “GM corn is colored and Diconsa only
sells white corn, so there is nothing to worry about.” There
are no signs in the stores warning campesinos not to cultivate the
Diconsa corn, even though it is tainted with DNA from GMOs. Six
workers at Diconsa stores throughout the Sierra Juárez with
whom I spoke stated that campesinos know not to plant Diconsa corn
and only cultivate their criollo
(indigenous) varieties. However, 2 of the 29 campesino families
interviewed admitted they had at one point experimented with Diconsa
corn has made its way into the ground through many avenues. For
centuries, farmers have conducted agricultural experiments. A few
campesinos in the Sierra Juárez have tried planting Diconsa
corn, since they had never been informed of its dangers. Diconsa
corn falls off trucks during delivery and grows on the side of roads.
Also, the Diconsa corn that is used as livestock feed often ends
up germinating when the animals do not consume it all. Mexican scholars
fear that if the corn can reach rural areas such as the Sierra Juárez
then other areas throughout Mexico must also have contamination.
Diconsa corn is now cross-pollinating with criollo varieties and
has become a direct source of the contamination. Even if imports
of genetically modified corn stop, cross-pollination will continue
to be a direct source of pollution. Other potential sources of contamination
that have been discussed include illegal planting by multinational
corporations, government distribution of GM seed, and international
food aid. None of these possibilities have been confirmed and need
to be researched further.
originated in southern Mexico where over 5,000 varieties exist today.
As genetically modified corn cross-pollinates with indigenous corn
varieties, the DNA from GMOs could dominate the physical characteristics
and genetic composition, making indigenous corn less suitable for
its unique environment. As indigenous corn varieties lose their
ability to produce in southern Mexico, yields will decrease and
the campesinos’ livelihood will be undermined. The natural
evolution of new corn varieties is also threatened due to this pollution.
The biotechnology industry has countered the negative publicity
and replied that the GM corn will only increase biodiversity because
it introduces new genes into the environment.
of the most popular types of genetically-engineered corn is an insecticide
producing corn called Bt corn. It contains a toxin derived from
Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a naturally occurring soil bacterium.
Corporations have genetically inserted the gene for this toxin into
crops to function as an insecticide against harmful insects, such
as the European corn borer and the Colorado potato beetle. However,
Bt crops also kill and adversely effect beneficial insects, like
monarch butterflies, bumblebees, and lacewings. Swiss scientists
showed that lacewings die when they feed on larvae of the European
corn borer that have ingested Bt toxin. Iowa State University researchers
found that 19 percent of monarch caterpillars died within 48 hours
after feeding on milkweed plants that were growing in or on the
edge of Bt cornfields. In Venezuela and New York, scientists discovered
that the Bt toxin secreted from Bt corn remained bound to soil particles
in its active, lethal state for more than seven months.
must be conducted to ascertain what effects the Bt corn will have
on insects and soil microorganisms in Oaxaca. As Bt corn cross-pollinates
with indigenous varieties of corn, the pollution will replicate
itself, causing more damage to insects. Also, the genetically altered
corn could cross with teosinte, the wild ancestor of corn, which
grows in and around the edges of cornfields in southern Mexico.
The distinct genetic composition could be lost in teosinte and other
relatives of corn as they cross-pollinate with corn that contains
DNA from genetically engineered organisms.
engineered foods can transfer food allergies from one food to another
as genes from one species (a potential allergen) are placed into
another. When a gene from another plant/animal/bacteria is inserted
into our food, it is uncertain what kind of effect that will have
on the human body. New chemicals could be formed that are toxic
to humans. Starlink corn genetically engineered by Aventis, contained
a bacterial protein Cry9C that cannot break down in the human digestive
system and is therefore a potential allergen. The United States’
FDA only approved Starlink for cattle feed. In September 2000, U.S.
activists publicized that Taco Bell tortillas were contaminated
with Starlink corn. The FDA and the Center for Disease Control in
the United States are investigating 40 cases of allergies induced
by Starlink corn. In March 2001, Aventis announced that 143 million
tons of corn were contaminated, forcing farmers, seed companies,
processors, and food makers to spend over $1 billion to get rid
of it. Hundreds of lawsuits have been filed against U.S. and Canadian
farmers by Monsanto, who claims that the farmers are using proprietary
seeds without Monsanto’s permission. Percy Schmeiser from Saskatchewan
had his fields of canola contaminated with his neighbor’s GM
canola when it cross-pollinated. Monsanto sued Schmeiser for illegally
planting their patented variety of GM canola without a license,
even though he never intended and never wanted to cultivate Monsanto
cultivating any crop that contains patented genes and have not signed
a contract with the corporation could risk legal repercussions from
transnational corporations whether the farmer knows her/his crops
contain GM material or not. The Mexican government does not currently
honor Monsanto’s patents but this could change under future
trade agreements or with free trade agreements that are already
in place. If this were to occur, the multinational corporations
who own the GM genes could sue farmers who have indigenous corn
varieties that have cross-pollinated with genetically altered corn.
Some industry scientists even state that Mexican corn farmers are
benefiting from the “free” DNA transfer and should have
to pay for it.
comprehensive plan to eradicate the contamination needs to be implemented
immediately. The campesinos, after being informed about the dangers
of genetic engineering, must make the ultimate decision of what
actions should occur. Many solutions have been discussed in Oaxaca
to stop and reverse this pollution. First, the direct source must
be eliminated by banning U.S. imports of genetically altered maize.
This will be difficult since Mexico is subordinate in the free trade
hierarchy and is not in an economic position to dictate to the U.S.
what imports they will or will not accept. However, with enough
pressure from around the world on both the Mexican and U.S. governments,
the imports could be halted.
needs to hang signs in their stores and warehouses to warn campesinos
not to plant the corn; explicitly stating the corn may contain genetic
material from GMOs. Also Diconsa must take responsibility and inform
their workers about GMOs. There need to be education campaigns throughout
Oaxaca to inform farmers what genetic engineering is and its impacts.
Education and ending U.S. imports are two solutions that address
only the direct sources of contamination.
they do not solve the problem of cross-pollination, which will be
difficult to eradicate. Testing corn is expensive and few labs exist
in Oaxaca to analyze the maize. Several NGOs and grassroots organizations
are trying to fund labs and criollo seed saving projects. Establishing
a seed bank in Oaxaca controlled by the campesinos could serve as
a secondary source of seed preservation. Cultivation in the fields
should be the primary source of conserving indigenous corn, since
storage in seed banks does not permit evolution to occur. However,
seed banks can provide a backup copy for genetic material of corn
varieties that are GM-free.
suggestions detailed above only address the immediate issue of the
corn contamination in Oaxaca. A long-term strategy must be discussed
to prevent further contamination of crops, especially in centers
of origin of biodiversity. Stopping the production of genetically
modified crops throughout the world is the most crucial long-term
goal to help preserve the biodiversity of all crops and environments
glo- bally. Indigenous and campesino farming practices in Mexico
and throughout the world must be preserved and encouraged. Free
trade and capitalism, through such institutions as the World Bank
and the International Monetary Fund and free trade agreements, like
NAFTA, must not be able to dictate what farmers should produce and
export to meet the needs of the industrialized countries.
critique of genetic engineering with a deeper understanding, addressing
capitalism and free trade must occur on a global scale so that people
comprehend the underlying causes of environmental disasters, like
genetic contamination of crops. This case should serve as a warning
to farmers throughout the world to the potential contamination of
their crops with DNA from genetically modified organisms. Z
DeSantis recently finished her thesis on Oaxacan corn at the University
of Vermont. She works with ACERCA, Action for Community and Ecology
in the Regions of Central America. Danielle Rolli, a farmer advocate,
was her research assistant in Mexico.