GM maize contamination in Mexico:
Is the genie out of the bottle?
Twenty-five months after the first scientific evidence became public, the Mexican Government and the scientific community have acknowledged that Mexico's traditional maize crop is contaminated with DNA from genetically modified (GM) maize despite a government prohibition on the planting of GM seeds. Mexico is the centre of origin for maize — one of the world's most important food crops. On October 9, Mexican peasant farmers and indigenous communities along with NGOs publicly released the results of their own testing that found GM contamination of native maize in at least nine states — far more serious and widespread than previously assumed. Their findings are a timely warning for Australia and the rest of the world where the release of GM crops is being pushed by the transnational Gene Giants. No fewer than four government-sponsored studies have been undertaken in Mexico over the past two years to determine whether or not transgenes are present in native maize. Although none of the studies has yet been published, each study found varying levels of contamination in two or more states. But acknowledgment of gene flow has not come with a clear plan of action to address contamination and to prevent it from continuing. Neither is there a plan to protect vital national and international collections of crop germplasm stored in gene banks in Mexico and elsewhere. Given the appalling lack of action and follow-through by the Mexican Government, international plant breeding institutes and the Gene Giants, the true creators and custodians of maize decided to take matters into their own hands. At a news conference on October 9 in Mexico City, indigenous and peasant farmer communities in Mexico joined with NGOs, including ETC* Group, to announce the results of genetic testing of maize grown by traditional farmers in 138 communities. The results show that contamin-ation has spread to farmers' fields in nine states: Chihuahua, Morelos, Durango, Estado de Mexico, Puebla, Oaxaca, San Luis Potosi, Tlaxcala and Veracruz. Of 2000 maize plants tested, samples from 33 communities in nine Mexican states tested positive for contamination. In some cases as many as four GM traits, all patented by transnational Gene Giants, were found in a single plant. The organisations were espec-ially alarmed to find traces of the insecticidal toxin (Cry9c), the engineered trait found in StarLink maize (formerly sold by Aventis CropScience). StarLink was never approved by the US Government for human consumption because of concerns it could trigger allergic reactions. Illegal traces of StarLink were found in US food products in 2000. Following a massive recall of tainted food products in the US, Aventis withdrew StarLink from the market. Alarming test results The results show contamination has spread at least to the South, Central and Northern regions of Mexico. "If we're finding contamination in random samples from indigenous and farming communities far from urban centres and in communities that have traditionally used their own seed, then the problem is much more widespread" , said Ana de Ita of the Centre for Studies on Rural Change in Mexico (CECCAM). "The presence of StarLink is especially serious because it ends up in the corn these communities consume. The plants in several communities that contain two, three and even four different transgenes together indicates that the contamination has been around for years, and that contaminated maize on small farms has been cross-pollinating for generations to have incorporated all these different traits in its genomes", Ana de Ita said. Silvia Ribeiro of ETC Group warned that "Recent US production of corn genetically modified to produce substances ranging from plastics and adhesives, to spermicides and abortifacients poses an even greater risk of contamination". "There have already been cases in Iowa and Nebraska of accidental escape of corn modified to produce non-edible substances. If we're already finding contamination in remote areas of Mexico, where cultivation of GM corn is prohibited by law, how can we guarantee that these other types won't spread as well?" Ribeiro continued: "Like all GM products in the world, the proteins detected are all under patent. The Monsanto corporation that accounts for 90% of the world market in genetically modified agricultural products already won a lawsuit against Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser claiming un-licensed use of their patent, even though Schmeiser's fields were inadvertently contaminated by Monsanto's GM canola." "There are currently 2000 similar cases filed by Monsanto and other biotech corporations against farmers in Canada and the US." Elizabeth, a peasant from the state of Veracruz, declared: "The companies themselves should be sued, for contamination. We publicly declare their responsibility, and we will not permit any lawsuit filed by them, in any part of Mexico, since they're the ones who have damaged our corn with their genet-ically modified products." Pedro, an indigenous commun-ity member in Chihuahua, echoed a view expressed by many of the representatives of indigenous and farming communities affected, stating that for them the contamination of their corn is an attack on their most profound cultural roots and a threat to their basic source of sustenance and autonomy. "Our seeds, our corn, is the basis of the food sovereignty of our communities. It's much more than a food, it's part of what we consider sacred, of our history, our present and future." Baldemar Mendoza, an indigenous farmer from Oaxaca, reported: "We have seen many deformities in corn, but never like this. One deformed plant in Oaxaca that we saved tested positive for three different transgenes. The old people of the communities say they have never seen these kinds of deformities." He also stated that government representatives came to his community to tell him not to worry about contamination, because GM crops have been available i n some countries for five or six years and there is no evidence that GM crops are harmful to health. "But we have our own evidence", asserted Mendoza. "We have 10,000 years of evidence that our maize is good for our health. To contaminate it with genetically modified maize is a crime against all indigenous peoples and farming communities who have been cultivating and improving maize over millennia for the benefit of humankind". Basis of existence Alvaro Salgado of National Centre to Support Indigenous Missions (CENAMI) cited a Nahuatl poem that emphasises the role of corn in Mexican communities: "It is our mother because it gives us life; it gives us unity and identity, as children of the same family. It makes us love our mother earth and not abandon her. It makes us peoples. We share the maize with joy, but nobody has the right to use it as its owner, maize can feed us all, but we cannot appropriate it. We have a mutual relationship, that's why we defend it from foxes, coyotes and rats. We don't want it to run out, because we exist thanks to corn". "Contamination isn't just one more problem", said Salgado. "It's an aggression against Mexico's identity and its original inhab- itants. We won't let the same technicians and institutions and companies that gave us chemicals and hybrid seeds come along now to tell us not to worry and that the solution is their seeds. We want our seeds and we are going to defend them and rescue them". The coalition of indigenous communities, farmer and non- government organisations demanded that the Mexican Government make public the results of all studies on GM contamination, stop all imports of transgenic maize, continue its moratorium on the cultivation of transgenic maize, and scrap the flawed "biosafety" bill crafted by biotech proponents, which is now under discussion in the Mexican Congress. Safe Contamination? Many Mexican Government officials and scientists have acknowledged contamination, but deny that it is a problem. On September 7 Mexico's newly-appointed Minister of the Environment, Alberto Cardenas told the Global Biodiversity Forum in Canczn that there is no doubt that GM contamination in Mexico is real but he insisted there is no harm to native maize biodiversity or to public health. The Minister offered no spec-ific information on contamination levels, nor did he provide evidence supporting his claim that public health and the environment had not been compromised. Danger to gene banks Travelling transgenes are a global problem, not one confined to maize in Mexico. Among others, GM contamination of traditional varieties of cotton in Greece, canola (rapeseed) in Canada, soy in Italy, papaya in Hawaii have been reported. In February 2002, La Via Campesina (the international organisation of small farmers) and several hundred other civil society organisations worldwide joined forces to call upon the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and CGIAR (Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research) to address the issue. Although FAO has expressed concern, it has only been in touch with CIMMYT (International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre), the CGIAR institute in Mexico, which has global responsibility for maize breeding and for the world 's most important maize gene bank. CGIAR has refused to take decisive action until they are convinced there is solid scientific proof of contamination. However, CIMMYT did decide to halt its maize collection program in the region for fear that it could inadvertently introduce GM traits into its gene bank, and began to test for the presence of transgenes in its seed collection. At the October 9 press conference in Mexico City, indigenous people and small farmers described CIMMYT's failure to acknowledge and take action on the contamination of traditional maize as "deplorable". They urged that responsibility for the CIMMYT gene bank as well as other banks in the CGIAR network be surrendered to an intergovernmental body such as FAO, under conditions that would make it more responsive to the concerns of small farmers and indigenous people. The group also condemned the Convention on Biological Diversity for its failure to effectively address GM contamination in centres of genetic diversity. The long-term impacts of GM contamination on crop genetic diversity are not known. Neither governments nor international institutions have taken action to stop GM contamination and to protect farmers and indigenous peoples' livelihoods. In February 2002, hundreds of NGOs called for a moratorium on the shipment of GM seed or grain in countries or regions that form part of the centre of genetic diversity for the species. The communities and NGOs at the press conference in Mexico City repeated demands for a global moratorium. Immediate demands CECCAM's Ana de Ita summed up the demands of the organisations and communities involved in the study: * total rejection of genetically modified crops; * rejection of the bill on biosafety before Congress, which would only legalise genetic contamination; * hold the multinational producers of GM products, particularly Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer, Dupont, Dow and BASF, responsible for the contamination. We reject their lawsuits for "unlicensed use of patents", that are in direct violation of farmers' rights; * the Mexican Government make public all the results of studies of contamination; * maintain the moratorium on cultivating and freeing GM maize into the environment; * immediate halt to importations of GM corn, the most likely source of contamination; And finally she said, the indigenous and farming communities, supported by the organisations they choose, will take specific actions to stop and reverse GM contamination. The ETC Group raises the important question of not only understanding how to prevent further contamination but whether or not it is possible to de-contaminate without further harming diversity. "Peasant farmers throughout the world, those who hold intimate knowledge of local farming systems and crop diversity, are the only ones capable of undertaking the task, but must have the support of the international community in this process", notes the ETC Group.
* * *Acknowledgements to the ETC Group the Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration, formerly RAFI. The ETC Group is an international civil society organisation headquartered in Canada. It is dedicated to the advancement of cultural and ecological diversity and human rights. For more information visit: www.etcgroup.org The report is the collective effort of indigenous communities and peasant farmers from Oaxaca, Puebla, Chihuahua, Veracruz and CECCAM, CENAMI, ETC Group CASIFOP — Centre for Social Analysis, Information and Popular Training, AJAGI — Jaliscan Association of Support for Indigenous Groups, UNOSJO — Union of Organisations of Sierra Juarez of Oaxaca. Abbreviations CECCAM (Centre for Studies on Rural Change in Mexico) CENAMI (National Centre to Support Indigenous Missions) CIMMYT — International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre CGIAR — Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research ETC Group (Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration) FAO — UN Food and Agricultural Organisation GM — genetically modified NGOs — non-government organisations