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Genetic Pollution: Biotech Corn Invades Mexico

by Carmelo Ruiz-MarreroSpecial to CorpWatch
March 20th, 2002

Photo:USDA
áUSDA

Mexican corn farmers joined by students, Zapatista supporters and others, took to the streets this week challenging the U.N. International Conference on Financing for Development taking place in the northern city of Monterrey. The summit is supposed to focus on alleviating poverty, but protestors say developed countries and multilateral institutions are prescribing the same free market solutions that have widened the gap between rich and poor over the last decade.

Mexican corn farmers have a special grievance: their crops have been contaminated by genetically altered corn. While advocates of biotechnology argue genetically engineered crops are the key to ending hunger, Mexican farmers say their crops, native seeds and very livelihoods are at risk.

For years, biotechnology boosters have repeatedly stated that genetically altered (also known as GM) organisms could be contained. Pro-industry scientists were quick to dismiss the possibility of GM organisms migrating or reproducing out of control as purely theoretical -- and easily refutable -- scenarios. But this theoretical scenario is now a reality in Mexico, the US and even parts of Asia.

Contaminated Corn Invades Mexico

Last September the Mexican environment ministry (INE) announced that cornfields in the states of Puebla and Oaxaca turned up GM-positive.1 In November, Nature magazine published a peer-reviewed article that confirmed INE's findings. According to Antonio Serratos, of the Mexico-based International Center for the Improvement of Maize and Wheat (CIMMYT), if a farmer with a one-hectare plot plants a single row with GM seed, 65% of the plot will be GM in only seven years.2 Farmers, indigenous peoples and activists in Mexico are asking the government to take measures to prevent further contamination and to identify those responsible. So far, no one has determined the source of the contamination.

"This is pollution in the very center of origin of a crop of major importance for world nutrition. This pollution can spread not only to native and traditional maize, but also to wild relatives," wrote Silvia Ribeiro, of the Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC Group), in an article published in the Mexican daily La Jornada. This gene flow "is polluting and degrades one of Mexico's major treasures."3

Biotechnology advocates have tried to minimize the importance of this development, stating that it is not "pollution", that it will not harm Mexico's corn, and even arguing that the corn -- deemed unfit for human consumption -- is a positive addition to the crop's genetic endowment.4 However, critics respond that such statements completely overlook the ethical concerns.

"For the Gene Giants to argue that there is no problem, is to suggest that violating Mexico's sovereignty and insulting the socio-cultural rights of Mexican farmers is of no concern", said the ETC Group in its January/February 2002 newsletter. "Can industry really be saying that citizens don't have the right to say 'no' to a technology that offends their views on life and food and, as well, raises concerns for their livelihood, health and environment?" 5

According to Oaxaca farmer Aldo Gonzlez, "Native seeds are for us a very important element of our culture. The (Mayan) pyramids could be destroyed, but a fistful of corn is the legacy that we can pass on to our children and grandchildren, and today we are being denied that possibility."6

US Consumers First to be Affected

In September 2000, a year before the spread of GM corn to Mexico was confirmed, a coalition of US activist groups announced that fast food chain Taco Bell's tortillas contained traces of a GM corn.7 The variety in question, called Starlink, contained Cry9C, a bacterial protein that is not broken down by the human digestive system, and is therefore a potential allergen. However, US authorities approved Starlink for consumption by cattle.

In the days and weeks that followed, Kraft Foods, seller of the Taco Bell product line, recalled its tortillas from US supermarkets, Starlink maker Aventis bought the entire harvest of Starlink corn from the farmers who had planted it, and traces of Starlink were found in countless other food products. 350 flour mills had handled this GM corn, and doubts had started to surface as to how well they had segregated it from the human food supply.8 The FDA and the Centers for Disease Control are investigating 48 cases of alleged Starlink-induced allergies.9

Genetic Pollution Spreads

In March of last year, Aventis announced that no less than 143 million tons of corn had been contaminated.10 Seed companies, farmers, processors and food makers spent over $1 billion in six months trying to get rid of this GM corn.11 Then it started showing up in corn exports.

Later that year, over 100 US consumer, farm and environmental groups called on president George W. Bush to suspend the exports of corn and corn-derived products unless the government could assure they were Starlink-free.12

In spite of all the outrage, the US keeps exporting Starlink-polluted corn. "The discovery of Starlink in Japan and South Korea, two of the biggest customers of American corn, means that this genetically modified corn could be anywhere," explained Meena Raman, of Friends of the Earth-Malaysia. "Until the US government and the Aventis biotech corporation can control the contamination, these countries should not allow corn imports until they are guaranteed to be Starlink-free."13

Civil society organizations in the Global South fear that the US could resort to dumping this decommissioned GM corn on poor countries by labeling it "aid". It is estimated that over two million tons of GM products are sent yearly from the US to poor countries by way of food aid. "We categorically oppose any delivery of Starlink food aid as an alternative market for these products," said Karin Nansen, of Friends of the Earth-Uruguay.14

Terminator Seeds: the Neutron Bomb of Agriculture

The biotech corporations assure consumers that they can rest easy, for they have found a way to put an end to genetic contamination forever: A GM seed that is genetically programmed to not reproduce.

But such seeds, known colloquially as Terminator seeds, will force farmers to buy seed every year. Since the dawn of history, farmers have saved and exchanged seed, a practice that is vital to the survival of 1.4 billion subsistence farmers in the world today.15 With the seed industry rapidly consolidating in recent years and falling under the control of corporate giants like Monsanto and Dupont, farmers will be left with little choice but to accept Terminator seeds. The biotech industry plans to add Terminator genes to every one of its GM seeds in the near future. Dupont, the world's largest seed company, and Syngenta, the world's biggest agrochemical company, currently own patents for Terminator technology.16

Environmental and food safety activists from all corners of the globe have come out against Terminator technology since it first came out in 1998. "This is an immoral technique that robs farming communities of their age-old right to save seed and their role as plant breeders," according to Camila Montecinos, of Chile's Center for Education and Technology. "This is the neutron bomb of agriculture."17

Apart from the political and ethical issues, will Terminator seeds be safe to eat? What will happen to bacteria, fungi, rodents and birds that eat them? Scientists, like University of Indiana biologist Martha Crouch, warn that Terminator genes could pass on via pollen on to other plants, with unpredictable consequences. "I am sure that there will be other problems nobody yet foresees or imagines. There will be surprises," says Crouch. "But whatever the potential biological problems presented by Terminator, in my view they are small in comparison to Terminator's economic, social and political ramifications."18

Terminator tech is part of a broader package known as Traitor technology, which allows genetic traits to be turned "on or off" through the application of an inducer chemical.19 This proprietary chemical will be available only from the agrochemical-biotech company that provides the seed, and can come conveniently mixed with a pesticide or herbicide from the same company. Using Traitor, for example, Monsanto could sell seeds for plants that die unless given constant doses of its Roundup herbicide.

What, then, will happen to farming and food security? In his recent book, The ETC Century, author Pat Mooney warns that "In a world in which a handful of transnational enterprises dominate agricultural biotechnology, in a world where the Terminator is the platform technology upon which all new biotech breeding is undertaken, it is not difficult to believe that corporations or governments would use the technology to impose their will."20


Footnotes

  1. Silvia Ribeiro. "Maz: Contaminacin gentica y moral". La Jornada, December 13 2001; Reuters. "Mysterious 'alien' corn invades Mexico countryside". January 29, 2002; Rachel's Environment and Health News. "New threat to indigenous people". Issue #743, January 31 2002.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. ETC Group. "Fear Reviewed Science: Contaminated corn and tainted tortillas- Genetic pollution in Mexico's Centre of Maize Diversity". ETC Group Communiqu #74, January/February 2002.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Quoted in "El maz nativo, recurso de autogobierno". Published in Ojarasca, a monthly supplement of La Jornada, February 2002.
  7. Peter Rosset. "Anatomy of a 'Gene Spill': Do we really need genetically engineered food?" Food First Backgrounder.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Biodiversidad en Amrica Latina. "Paren las exportaciones de maz contaminado".
  10. Ibid.
  11. New York Times, June 10 2001.
  12. Biodiversidad en Amrica Latina. "Carta de las ONG al presidente de los Estados Unidos por el maz Starlink".
  13. Biodiversidad en Amrica Latina. "Paren las exportaciones de maz contaminado".
  14. Ibid.
  15. Rural Advancement Foundation International. "The Terminator Technology". RAFI Communiqu, March/April 1998; Vandana Shiva. "Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply". South End Press, 2000; Martha Crouch. "From Golden Rice to Terminator Technology: Agricultural biotechnology will not feed the world or save the environment". Included in "Redesigning Life? The Worldwide Challenge against Genetic Engineering". Brian Tokar, ed. Zed Books, 2001; ETC Group. "What is Terminator technology?". Brochure, 2002.
  16. ETC Group. "Sterile Harvest: New crop of Terminator patents threatens food sovereignty". News release, January 31 2002.
  17. RAFI Communiqu, March/April 1998.
  18. Martha Crouch. "How the Terminator terminates: An explanation for the non-scientist of a remarkable patent for killing second generation seeds of crop plants". Edmonds Institute, 1998.
  19. Rural Advancement Foundation International. "Traitor Tech: The Terminator's wider implications". RAFI Communiqu, January/February 1999; Rural Advancement Foundation International. "Traitor Technology: 'Damaged Goods' from the Gene Giants". Press release, March 26 1999.
  20. Pat Mooney. "The ETC Century: Erosion, Technological Transformation and Corporate Concentration in the 21st. Century". Published by RAFI and the Dag Hammarskjld, 2001.

Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero is a Puerto Rican journalist and a Research Associate at the Institute for Social Ecology.