The Guardian October 22, 2003

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 

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 

"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 

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 

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 

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 

"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: 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

Back to index page