The Laws of Nature


The document below is based on a public
letter written in Spanish (by Ignacio Chapela, translated by
John García) as a response to a flash-track vote on a
law presented by the Senate majority to the Chamber of Deputies
in the Congress of the United States of Mexico. The legislation
in question is entitled the “Law on the Biosecurity of Genetically
Modified Organisms” (Ley de Bioseguridad de Organismos Genéticamente
Modificados). For presentation, the law was packaged with heavy
legalistic padding, which resulted in a larger document through
which Congress would establish its intent with regards to GMOs
and lay down the framework through which transgenic organisms
can be legally released into the environment of the Mexican sovereign

It might not be self-evident
why such minutiae of local politics in a country well within
the “developing world” would deserve an English translation,
let alone the attention of the English-speaking world. But the
ways of a globalized ecology, rigged as it is upon a patchwork
of political boundaries, works often delusively, rarely inscribing
itself in a single language. We believe that the complex piece
of legislative performance playing out on the Mexican stage yields
up many clues to what the future of GMOs holds in store for the
world. After the resounding failure of the Biotech industry to
launch the world-wide release of transgenic organisms “English-only”,
such a future is now often to be read more commonly in other
languages: Spanish, Mandarin, Tagalog, Swahili, pidgin English,
pidgin French. For English-speakers, the history of the transgenic
transformation of the Biosphere is “going underground”,
and the battles of resistance are slipping out of record in a
multitude of tongues, just as the transgenic infiltration of
the environment moves from the familiar maize, soybean, canola
and cotton and into the innumerable species of real-existing
biology: fish. insects, microbes, trees. In the usual spirit
of a New Year, we feel that it is timely and relevant to provide
a sample from this History: a look into one development that
is likely to resonate around the world albeit in this silent-because-not-in-the-dominant-language
kind of way.

This law lives up to its name
as a piece of legislation which secures the existence and further
development of transgenic organisms in Mexico, and by extension
much of the developing world. In a year 2001 personal communication
to one of us (ICh), the then-Executive Director for Mexico’s
“Biosecurity Commission” (CIBIOGEM), Fernando Ortiz
Monasterio, made it clear what he believed “biosecurity”
(“bioseguridad”) meant to officialdom in that country:
referring to Mr Alfonso Romo -one of Mexico’s billionares with
deep investment in the global biotechnology industry- by his
nickname, Mr Ortiz suggested that in Mexico “la bioseguridad
significa asegurar las inversiones de Poncho Romo” (“biosecurity
means securing Mr Romo’s investments”).

To this lofty end, the specific
piece of legislation discussed here was quickly voted on and
approved within the last session of the Mexican legislature for
the year, on December 14, the day before the beginning of the
traditional Christmas Processions, the fortnight-long Posadas,
and the longer Winter break of the Legislature. It is not surprising
that the law should have passed easily, considering the importance
of the AgBiotech industry for key players in the ruling PAN party;
the years-long maneuvering by the industry, the US State Department,
and the PAN leadership to secure favorable legislation; and the
eventual cave-in of the Mexican Academy of Sciences. The outcome
of the last-minute vote can be explained as a simple consequence
of partisan votes and a few horse-trading deals on an issue that,
for many representatives in the Chamber, still sounds esoteric
and remote although vaguely fraught with undefinable political

What is surprising under
such conditions is the actual level of resistance and activism
within the legislative Chambers and out in the streets and fields
of Mexico and beyond. As politicians weighed their decision,
campesinos, indigenous people, and urban citizens were doing
what they could to express their disapproval to the release of
transgenic living organisms into their environment, something
that thousands of people in Mexico see clearly as wildly out
of control. In Mexico, where people believe themselves to be
physically and spiritually one with maize, campesino actions
and street demonstrations on a scale seen elsewhere only in the
peace rallies preceding the US invasion of Irak have steadily
punctuated the development of this History. Meanwhile, a full-blown
CD was produced collecting the inspiration of twelve different
traditional singers and regional bands, all decrying the release
of transgenic maize into the Mexican landscape. An example from
the domains of English: a landmark exhibition at the New York
Guggenheim Museum on the Aztec Empire was visited by the soul
of this dissent in the form of performance-protests by leading
Mexican intellectuals.

As all this unfolds, other
developing countries and their governments maintain a watchful
eye on Mexico, because Mexico conjoins a series of characteristics
which make it more than a mere test-case; this country has become
a major gateway for the transgenization of the developing world.
Since the discovery of widespread contamination of corn with
transgenic DNA in this, the very cradle of maize, a source of
diversity for the world’s second most important crop, the struggle
over the Mexican beach-head has represented the “worst-case
scenario” for the uncontrolled release of transgenics into
the environment. **This is why this battle has been fought so
ardently not only by campesinos and indigenous people who see
their very existence under deadly threat, but also by the biotech
industry activists, who see in this struggle a prize too important
to lose. If this, of all cases, could be navigated with winds
favourable to the industrial activists, it stands to reason that
no other country in the developing world could possibly muster
the capacity to argue against the contamination of their landscape
on purely rhetorical grounds. And since most of the developing
world does not have the technical establishment to approach the
problem with an independent praxis, little opposition could be
expected from a practical, scientific approach. Furthermore,
Mexico’s highly qualified scientific and regulatory establishment
is also one of the strictest to be found anywhere in the world;
displaying such an establishment’s acquiescence in the contamination
of a highly valued and delicate environment would further solidify
the claims to victory by industrial promoters. To raise the stakes
even higher, the insertion of Mexico as a partner in the North
American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), together with the strenuous
lobbying by a coalition of indigenous and campesino organizations,
urban activists and the international GMO campaign of Greenpeace,
placed Mexico and its travails over transgenic organisms as the
premier case study of global aspects of transgenic release.

So it might come to pass that
2005 could see one of the most important turns in the 30-year-old
history of the transgenization of the biosphere evolve under
cover of legalistic language, in the darkness of the Winter still,
within the labyrinths of the Mexican legislature, and in a tongue
other than English. The market-makers, who need to see their
transgenized organisms (and the profits and control they represent)
take a hold over the land, have learned enough during this time
to know that transparency, truth and knowledge are their enemies.
It remains to be seen where those who would ally themselves to
these very values will take their stand.

So far, to be sure, the traditional,
English-speaking “popular movements” have not spoken
with conviction or unanimity on the question of transgenics.
Some intellectuals continue, at this late hour, to harbor fantastical
and archaic illusions about the benefits to that coming age of
economic and social justice of an exuberant industrial and technological
development guided by the caprice of 21st-Century capital. But
there are other wisdoms about technology; vast numbers of people
live in their environment through a knowledge and technological
prowess rooted not in profit but age-long survival. The stories
of these technologies have been -and will continue to be- told
in many tongues besides English.

The Law in question proposed
by the Mexican Senate is now approved by the Chamber of Deputies,
and will be back for a vote on the Senate floor early in February,
after which it will be ready for signature by a President who
has more than tangential interests in seeing the biotech industry
grow in the country he now controls.

California, late January

To the citizens, Members
of Congress of the Mexican Republic

To the citizens and colleagues
of the Scientific Community

To the Mexican Population

The proposed Ley de Bioseguridad
de Organismos Geneticamente Modificados (Law on the Biosecurity
of Genetically Modified Organisms), which was flash-tracked and
signed by the Mexican Chamber of Deputies on 14 December, could
well be called the Law on Genetic Colonization for the 21st Century,
or perhaps the Law for the Promotion and Gratification of the
New Genetic Colonies. This law secures the interests of a narrow
élite in Mexico, which in turn represents the interests
of further economic and political powers, more foreign than domestic.
The eventual signing of this law by the Senate and the President
of Mexico would open a sad chapter in a history that appears
to be leading Mexico, and the world, into a new Dark Age. The
way out of this age can only be long and painful. Signing this
law, I believe, is not a good idea, and it is not good public
policy-making. Not for the country, not for the world.

The indigestible “Dictamen
a la Minuta Proyecto del Decreto” (sic) by which this law
was brought before the Deputies of the Republic could have been
taken from the pages of the egregious documents of the Inquisition:
it is a consummate excercise in bureaucratic, pseudo-scientific
intricacy and obfuscation, whose only purpose was to justify
the execution of a dictatorial scheme that stifles even the faintest
opposition to a powerful new takings of communal and public resources,
an appropriation of agrarian and indigenous rights, and a seizure
of the freedom and sovereignty of the country.

The science behind the so-called
“Debate”: What we know.

If we know anything about the
new transgenic organisms (popularly known as Genetically Modified
Organisms, or GMOs), it is that they represent an intervention
in living nature without precedent in the history of the planet,
much less of humanity. We know that this intervention is profound
and has consequences not limited to the time and place in which
they are produced, but which can, on the contrary, spread via
the reproductive properties of the oraganisms that suffer them.

We know too that we don’t
know enough to predict even the faintest consequence/outcome
of the transgenic intervention. The intellectual authors of the
proposed Law are quite right when they say that there is no evidence
of damage caused by the release of transgenic organisms into
the environment. This is precisely why the Mexican public should
be alarmed, not satisfied, with such declarations.

There is no adequate evidence
of the consequences of the transgenic intervention for the simple
reason that not enough attention has been paid to the obvious
and expected problems of the genetic manipulation of living nature.
Even in the most enlightened and affluent societies and institutions,
such as mine at the most prestigious university in California
– the sixth-largest economy on the Planet- we see a troubling
dearth of information or capacity to deal with transgenics in
a wise manner. Nowhere can we find the physical capability, the
intellectual interest or the political will that would be needed
to determine the very real potential risks of transgenics or
the measures necessary to confront the realization of these risks.
I am not alone in saying this: other individuals and groups agree,
not least the National Academy of Sciences of the US.

We also know that our academic
institutions have been transformed from within, from the core
of their most intimate workings. In the area of transgenics,
what passes for “science” in our institutions (as also
in the proposed Law) is no more than a technical manipulation
based on a mixture of now-antiquated principles and the abuse
of natural reproductive properties of living beings. Nevertheless,
this technical practice, which is now more politics than science,
is defended and protected in the same manner as other dogmatic
practices have historically been protected when insecure of their
legitimacy within society: any source of opposition to the dogma
is swiftly and brutally silenced with the strongest of punishments
which our distinguished academic institutions arrogate to themselves.

We know that, along with our
inability to even see -much less predict- the consequences of
the transgenic manipulation, we also have an inability to control
it. We cannot control it within the organism who carries it,
nor within the environment where that organism lives. In spite
of all the efforts to suppress information about this reality,
the lack of control over transgenics is of such a magnitude and
nature as to continue being detected by more and more members
of the scientific community, as well as by other citizens. Just
as it cannot be declared away by presidential decree, this problem
can also not be resolved by its conspicuous deletion out of the
documents that the Congress of the Mexican Union has received.
As an example: despite the crisis of rampant transgenic contamination
in the Mexican environment, the word “contamination”
is used in the Congressional document only in those passages
which narrate the plan through which transgenic microbes should
be released in the immediate vicinity of endangered plants or
animals, such as those in the National Parks and United Nations-sanctioned
Biosphere Reserves, under the excuse of “bioremediating”
possible chemical contamination.

We also know that the few
-and persecuted- independent efforts to even glimpse the existence
of problems with transgenics continue to build an alarming record
which confirms that there are indeed potentially very serious
problems associated with these organisms. In contrast to the
70,170 articles I find this morning in a simple search of the
scientific literature under the term “transgenic,”
only one has been published with primary data on the contamination
of maize in Mexico; only ten concern human health problems. Of
the latter, a detailed study in Norway has shown that all five
of those that purport to show the “absence of proof of damage”
were funded by the biotechnology industry. Three of the remaining
were written in Scotland by Dr. Arpad Pusztai, who was relieved
of his position of 30 years as a direct consequence of his audacity
in presenting the simple results of his studies on the damaging
effects of transgenics on the health of laboratory animals.

We know that the only way
to obtain scientific information on the effects of transgenic
organisms on the health of individuals, the population and the
environment is to perform epidemiological studies, which in turn
would require, at the very least, a labelling that would allow
us to contrast transgenic organisms with their non-manipulated
counterparts. The proposed Law knows this too, and takes care
to protect the interests of obfuscation by not mandating this
necessity, while a lax labelling policy is proposed, which, far
from permitting greater public knowledge about products derived
from transgenics, would veil the matter even more, placing it
in the hands of “the experts.” It is clear to me that
the alleged end of public good in a measure such as this does
not justify the means: suppressing the flow of information to
the public or excluding the public and its representatives from
the formulation of policy.

This Law simply promotes the
interests of those who want to release transgenics into the environment,
without serious consideration of what it would take to determine
if transgenic releases would be desirable or not. Nowhere in
this Law is there the possibility for the people, through its
representation in Congress, to say a simple “No” to
such releases, and instead all that is envisaged is a promotion
of transgenic releases into the environment through the promotion
of more research, more funding to the very academics who wrote
the Law, and more subsidies to members of a scientific and governmental
community that has stopped asking whether there might be relevant
public problems that they could address with publically acceptable
solutions. The unaccountable support for this Law by the National
Academy of Sciences of Mexico, as well as by a limited but influential
group of technologists signals a time when the Scientific Community
has perverted its true mission of addressing social problems
in measure with social needs, and instead expects the transformation
of society ­and now, through transgenesis, of nature itself-
to its malformed designs.

The Origins and Consequences
of the “debate” and its supposed resolution in this

It would be a historical error
for the Mexican Union to approve this law, which represents an
attempt to close a discussion in which the people want to engage,
but which has been roundly and systematically denied them. Those
deputies responsible for its passage have erred in not having
considered fundamental issues of sovereignty and national identity,
but also in not having taken into account the origins of this
Law and its ramification beyond the national context.

GMOs, transgenic organisms,
are not a novelty, as there have been attempts to release them
into the environment for over twenty years. This fact is not
well known, mostly because the management of transgenics has
always been left to the “experts” -those with a financial
stake in seeing their organisms prevail in the public environment.
Opposition to the release of transgenics has nevertheless been
continuous and growing ever since their inception. In many countries,
this opposition has developed into officially declared bans,
which invariably enjoy the support of the general public. In
the US, where the great majority of GMOs ^and the corporations
that want to reap a profit from them- originate, opposition is
robust and has reached more than ten state legislatures. In California,
too, there is a growing movement at the local level to prevent
the release of transgenics into the public envioronment. Why,
then, the urgency to pass a law promoting transgenesis in Mexico
without adequate consultation, ^ and this just before the year-end

The only reason I can find
is the financial stake of those who have invested $220 billion
and almost a quarter of a century in a scheme that has borne
virtually no economic benefit. It is clear to me that, faced
with the refusal of more developed countries (which in general
are better informed on this matter) to pay the accumulated debts
of the biotechnology industry, corporations and the US Department
of State as their representative are attempting to force an opening
for their transgenic products in less-industrialized countries
who would be forced to pay this debt at their expense. This should
be obvious to anyone free of a conflict of interest who has participated
in multilateral meetings on this subject in the last five years.

GMOs have not been developed
to address any problem relevant to Mexico, nor do they hold out
a justifiable hope of meeting its needs. More than anything else,
they serve as a kind of “molecular branding iron,”
by which it is possible to identify living beings as the “private
property” of one or another commercial interest. For example,
Monsanto has littered Chiapas with announcements of its intention
to claim, either directly or through the Mexican government,
“intellectual property rights” over any transgenic
maize plants that can be found there, whether campesinos intended
or not to receive or use the genes from Monsanto’s claimed property.
Earlier this year, the Supreme Court of Canada found in favor
of such private claims to property rights over living plants,
setting a legal precedent to the realization of these genetic
takings around the world, takings that would have been unimaginable
only a few years ago. Needless to say, such rights are intended
to supersede the rights of farmers to control their destiny through
the control of their seeds, and to defuse the opposition from
those who would want to defend their fields from transgenic contamination.

These are some of the weighty
reasons that explain the strong opposition that has arisen against
transgenics, opposition that the Mexican Law does not seem to
have registered in any significant way. Indeed, opposition to
the release of trangenic organisms into the environment has been
actively suppressed in the academic environment for years, and
the passage of this Law will further expand the reach of this

A law that takes account only
of the position of those who are desirous for the release of
transgenics on any terms will only exacerbate an already costly
and unnecessary confrontation. This Law will not help ease the
suppression of those who seek truth in this area and instead
will plunge us deeper into a path driven by dogmas and fear.
The citizenry has a legitimate concern about the transgenic intervention
into nature and this justified concern cannot be outlawed by
decree, ruled inexistent by legislation, or argued away by the
corruption of our academic institutions, merely to provide cover
for dictatorial practices in our public biology. As the diversity
of non-human species accelerates into this milennium, there is
an equally steep loss in the diversity and sheer capacity

With the advent of transgenic
manipulations, Mexico finds itself playing a the role of a genetic
turntable. On one hand, Mexico is the source of genetic resources
for several plants and animals of economic importance, but most
especially for maize, the world,s second biggest staple. On the
other hand, flowing in the opposite direction, Mexico is perhaps
the largest international portal for the introduction of trangenics
into the less-industrialized world. There is a veritable flood
of introductions of transgenics via Mexico into the “developing”
world that takes place through pseudo-Mexican institutions like
CIMMYT [note for English readers], through other publicly-funded
“research” institutions, through well-known transnational
actors like Monsanto, Syngenta (Novartis), and Dupont, but also,
importantly, through less well-known but equally powerful corporations
like the Mexican Seminis/Savia. [Note to the English reader],.
Mexico, a land with a complex and fragile landscapeand biology,
then, plays at once the role as the world’s depository of genetic
riches and as the international test-site and dumpster for the
products of transgenesis. In a very real manner, we are witnessing
the biological equivalent of what would apply in financing if
we decided to place the gambling table in the same hands and
location as the bank vaults. The Law presented to the Mexican
Congress will do no more than place Mexico’s seal of legitimation
on this perverse and damaging situation.

Mexico is also perhaps the
most respected source of opinion on these topics in the less
industrialized world, thanks to its excellent and highly developed
talents in science, policy, and analysis. It is not coincidental
that 6 pages of the preamble to the Law are dedicated to display
15 points where. The message that Mexico sends with the passage
of this Law is likely to influence greatly the introduction of
transgenics in many other countries that lack the scientific
or political wherewithal to enter the discussion with sufficient
critical capacity. Once the Law becomes approved, the apologists
for transgenesis will take it upon themselves to disseminate,
apply, and, where necessary, “correct” and expand that

For these reasons:

I call upon the citizen members
of the Congress of the Mexican Union to reject the draft Law
before you. I believe this would be the most rational decision
if one weighs the benefits (always hypothetical and exaggerated)
against the risks (clear, though only precariously established)
presented by the release of transgenics into the public environment.
I believe it would be the politically appropriate decision, given
the bluntly negative implications that these advances have for
national sovereignty, the survival of the country ,s small farming
and idigenous populations, and for Mexico’s leading role among
the countries of the world.

I call upon the members of
the academic and scientific communities to reject the efforts
(well-paid, ill-intentioned) to undermine the foundations of
our community in the diversity of intellectual approaches to
problems, academic freedom, freedom of speech, social engagement,
and idependence from influences alien to sound reason. It is
is time to call publicly for a clear and decisive halt to the
hijacking of our institutions by illegitimate agents of foreign
commercial and political interests. Our community is the last
public refuge of reason, and it is now under attack the world
round. We have no choice but to defend and cultivate it as a
public common, neither private nor privitizable.

From lands that were once
also that country, I call upon the citizenry of Mexico to maintain
and sharpen their vigilance over their genetic resources, which
are now in the same danger as their land, their identity, their
way of life, and their folkways have been for so many centuries.
Mindful that the culture which maintains the values of biological
resources is still alive in Mexico, I am hopeful the citizenry
will find it within itself to reclaim once again what it knows
as its own and to demand public accountability of those who steward
its patrimony.

One of the many indigenous
communities that has honored us with its correspondence writes:
“The maize has helped us overcome many hardships through
the generations. Now the maize is in danger. The time has come
for us to help the maize.”

To the cry for land and liberty
that was given us by those who could perceive things of transcendent
importance, I wish to add one more for genetic independence:

“Land, Liberty, and Genetic

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