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The Year of Playing Dangerously The Great Containment: Genentic Material Fallout from Mexico to Zambia

Frankencrops

by HOPE SHAND AND SILVIA RIBEIRO

Thirteen months ago, the agbiotech industry wakened to a nightmare. Illegal and unwelcome, the presence of genetically-modified (GM) maize was reported smack in the crop’s center of genetic origin in Mexico. There’s never a good time for a political/ecological calamity, but the beleaguered Gene Giants were already struggling to persuade consumers, following the Taco Debacle (Starlink), that companies could control their inventions and their inventory. The seed companies were also hoping to arm-twist EU ministers into lifting the ban on GM products in Europe. Suddenly, the headlines were full of the contamination scandal. To make matters worse, the year ahead was shaping up to be the Year of the Summits–a succession of diplomatic poverty, hunger, and pollution “retros” including the Monterrey Summit on development financing in March; the 10th anniversary of the Biodiversity Convention in April; another World Food Summit (once more with feeling) in June– all boiling up t! o the “mother of all summits” (World Summit on Sustainable Development) in South Africa in September. For the corporations (and the United States so aggressively supporting them) the issue was: how to run the gauntlet of intergovernmental marathons with GM contamination on their backs? Thirteen months later, the issue for governments, international agencies, and civil society is: how did the Gene Giants duck and dodge their way through all these fora and end the year with Southern African governments–half a world away from the “scene of the crime”–being blamed and vilified for rejecting GM seeds?

Dodge 1–Denial: One year after the Mexican Government announced that maize in two states was contaminated with GM varieties, neither Mexico nor the international genetic resources community have taken constructive, coherent steps to arrest, fully assess, or ameliorate the contamination. Mexico is the center of origin and diversity for maize–one of the world’s most vital food crops. As local farmers, joined by more than 150 social movements and civil society organizations worldwide, raged, the first reaction from pro-GM scientists (public and private) was denial. It couldn’t be true. The reports were wrong. Mexico (at least, initially) and the two U.S.-based researchers who provided corroborative evidence, held their ground. When the whistle-blowers revealed that their study was being peer-reviewed by Nature, industry’s nightmare became a hologram.

Dodge 2–Diversion: Quickly, biotech’s spin doctors took control, launching a vindictive e-mail and media campaign to discredit the scientific competence and political intent of the scientists. (One Mexican and one American–both located at the University of California at Berkeley.) Rather than deny contamination (the likelihood of which was scientifically undeniable), the industry strategy was to divert attention by orchestrating a row over research methodology (the vagaries of which are always academically irresistible). This strategy became doubly-important when Nature’s article confirming contamination was published in November, 2001 A good scientific squabble, industry reasoned, could obscure any truth and immobilize the germplasm community for months.

CIMMYT limited: Caught like a deer in the headlights of the battle, was the Mexican-headquartered International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT)–flagship of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research and the developing world’s leading institute for maize breeding and conservation. Mandated to help eradicate poverty and conserve maize diversity, CIMMYT soon took to the woods. Despite repeated requests from civil society for CIMMYT to weigh in on the reality of contamination and cut through the absurdity of the methodology obfuscation, the Institute limited itself to pious pronouncements about the need for scientific clarity and promises to help in any way short of action. CIMMYT went on to produce a succession of studies confirming that, whatever else may or may not be happening in the world, its own gene bank was not contaminated. The centre holds the world’s largest unique maize germplasm collection. Always dependent on U.S. funding and incre! asingly dependent for its technologies on the biotech corporations, CIMMYT refused to publicly acknowledge what every maize researcher in the world knew — that GM contamination of the Mexican maize crop was a reality. During the 10th anniversary of the Biodiversity Convention in April, however, the international institution did concede that the Mexican situation was grave enough for CIMMYT to adopt a moratorium on maize seed collection for conservation purposes. There was a risk that GM-contaminated seeds would find their way into the CIMMYT gene bank if collections continued. Still, CIMMYT refused to publicly-back the Mexican government’s ongoing moratorium on the introduction of GM crops. A moratorium for conservation in its own genebank, but not a moratorium for commercialization or contamination. Realizing that the Precautionary Principal was being ignored and that food sovereignty was being trampled, Mexican farmers’ organizations and CSOs were furious.

Dodge 3–Delay: Industry’s diversionary tactic was successful. Ultimately, Nature withdrew its support for the peer-reviewed study and the initial investigations both in Mexico and at Berkeley were widely distrusted. This accomplished, however, there was the danger that, in mid year, attention would again focus on the obvious reality that — regardless of methodology — farmers’ fields were filling up with transgenes in at least two Mexican states. The logical solution was to call for more studies. Mexico announced that two leading national institutes would put the methodology debate to rest with two independent studies. What’s more, as an act of national pride — and to vindicate the Berkeley scientists — Mexico would have the two studies peer-reviewed in Nature. The months ticked by. Called to act, FAO and CGIAR said they were awaiting Mexico’s report. Meanwhile, the World Food Summit came and went in Rome and the GM contamination debate was not on the agenda. The World! Summit on Sustainable Development came and went in Johannesburg and the unsustainability of agricultural biodiversity in the midst of GM contamination was not on that agenda either. Farmers in Mexico continued to wait.

Only in late October, while answering questions from reporters, did a senior Mexican official admit that the two institutions had had their findings rejected by Nature. According to the press, one of Nature’s reviewers explained that the reality of contamination was too obvious to bother publishing. A second reviewer insisted that the studies had been flawed. Something for everyone! Thirteen months later and both the earth and the debate had gone full circle.

Dodge 4–Damnation: With scientists and the scientific media already in chaos, drought and famine in sub-Saharan Africa afforded the biotech industry another opportunity to turn contamination into a virtue. Almost from the beginning, of course, some biotech enthusiasts had insisted that “if” contamination were proven to have occurred in Mexico, then the seed industry was not only providing a free gift of valuable patented traits but it was also contributing to genetic diversity. When several African countries expressed alarm that food aid containing genetically modified traits could have health, environmental, and trade risks for their people, American officials jumped in with moral outrage claiming that “beggars can’t be choosers” and accusing African governments of willfully starving their citizens. Even though other nations offered GM-free food, the United States and the biotech industry pressured FAO, the World Food Program, and the World Health Organization to urge the! governments to accept GM aid. Instead of focusing on the environmental and food security threat posed by contamination, the Johannesburg Summit became entangled in a debate over “despotic” African rulers and the overriding urgency of getting food to the hungry. There was no space for the discussion of alternative food supplies or of the human right to safe and culturally appropriate food.

Containment: Thirteen months after the revelation of GM contamination in Mexico, nothing has been done to change or even monitor the flow of contaminants through commercial food shipments into Mexico. The Mexican government has failed to make its own findings available to its own people with the exception of INE/CONABIO’s reports. We know nothing more about the extent of GM contamination in other Mexican states. No new regulations have been put in place. Neither Mexico, CGIAR, nor FAO have undertaken any new studies on the impact of GM contamination in a center of crop diversity. No studies have been undertaken on the legal implications of the diffusion of patented traits in farmers’ fields. We have no additional information on strategies to prevent contamination from entering gene banks. No wider studies have taken place anywhere in the world regarding the possibilities of contamination in other centers of diversity for other crops.

Ironically, the biotech industry is pushing for an end to the GM moratorium in Mexico, at the very time it is imposing new regulations to contain gene flow north of the border. In a desperate attempt to pre-empt public concerns over leaky genes, the biotech industry announced this week that it would adopt a voluntary moratorium on the planting of “Generation3″ pharma crops–crops genetically modified to produce drugs or chemicals or plastics–in major food-producing regions of the United States and Canada. Industry’s move to impose voluntary restrictions on the location of pharma crops demonstrates that GM pollution poses a serious risk. For the Gene Giants, the primary concern is not biosafety, but the need to avert a public relations disaster. One industry representative told the Washington Post, “I think we can all agree that industry cannot afford StarLink II.” But industry concerns apparently do not extend to Africa and Latin America.

Farmers and biodiversity continue to be threatened. The Gene Giants have successfully “contained” the GM debate. If only the biotech industry were as successful containing its genes!

Hope Shands can be reached at: hope@etcgroup.org. Silvia Ribeiro can be reached at: silvia@etcgroup.org. This article originally appeared on the ETC Group website.