Genetic Mutation of Mexican Maize

Scientists from Mexico, Canada and the United States met on March 11th this year in the Hotel Victoria in Oaxaca for a symposium on the effects and possible risks of the presence of genetically modified maize in Mexico. The furtive and growing presence of this maize has been documented in small plots of land belonging to rural workers first in the southern State of Oaxaca and more recently throughout the whole country. This discovery could have serious implications for agricultural biodiversity since maize is the third most important crop in the world after wheat and rice and Mexico is the center of its origin and diversity.

Alejandro de Avila, director of the Oaxaca Ethnobotanic Garden reported that the most recent archaeological studies indicate that maize was discovered and domesticated in Oaxaca ten thousand years ago, not six thousand or eight thousand as had been believed until recently. Maize is considered to be humanity’s greatest agricultural achievement and the greatest treasure Christopher Columbus took back to Europe from the American continent.

Today, it is grown all around the Mediterranean, in Africa and in China. But its center of diversity continues to be Mexico, where the greatest part of the thousands of varieties and stocks are sown which are the result of millenia of patient work and experiment by campesinos. These varieties were developed so as to bring out favorable characteristics such as, among others, nutritional value, tolerance to acidic or salty soils, immunity to disease. There is even a variety which fixes its own nitrogen. It is far from strange to see in an indigenous community like Sierra Juarez of Oxaca more varieties of maize than in the whole of the United States.

This astonishing diversity leads agronomists from all over the world to travel to Mexico to get specimens so as to improve their own varieties of maize which is the reason Mexico is the seat of the International Center for Investigations for the Improvement of Maize and Wheat (CIMMYT). The maize fields of the Mexican campesinos are thus an irreplaceable resource of agricultural biodiversity. Social or ecological disruption in that area might compromise the viability of maize as a food and endanger world food supply. The CIMMYT, with all its laboratories and seed banks, could not replace the dense and complex rural social and ecological skein from which innumerable varieties of maize srping.

That morning of March 11th, while the participants arrived at the hotel to register for the symposium of the Commission on Environmental Cooperation, which resulted from the parallel agreement of the North American Free Trade Area, the organizers and private security guards seemed tense and expectant. They knew a protest demonstration was imminent and that the demonstrators would arrive any moment.

The day before, groups representing indigenous people, environmentalists and progressive intellectuals had held an alternative forum called ‘Defending Our Maize, Protecting Life’. They feared that the experts, generally favourable to the biotechnology industry and its genetically modified products would declare that the genetic contamination of maize is an irreversible fact of life and that in future Mexicans would have to get used to it. The forum participants agreed to go to the symposium the following day so as to present their arguments and concerns to the bureaucrats and the scientists. Their admission to the symposium was not confirmed, but they were going to go anyway.

Enter genetically modified foods

In 1996 the US began to grow genetically modified maize and in five years it came to make up 30% of that crop’s national harvest. Mexican scientists and environmentalists expressed concern that this maize might enter Mexico through imports with uncertain consequences for agricultural biodiversoty. The government responded the following year by imposing a moratorium on the sowing of genetically modified crops. But the measure was never complied with and maize imports carried on without any regulation at all. No one ever explained to people in Mexico that those grains could not be used as seed.

Already in 1999 the Mexican branch of Greenpeace had analyzed samples of United States maize that were entering the country and had shown positive traces of genetic modification. The government then formed the Interdepartmental Commission on Bio-security and Genetically Modified Organisms (CIBIOGEM) to examine the issue. To this day it has done nothing according to civil society groups. The web page of CIBIOGEM has not been updated since August 2003.

In 2001 it was proven that genetically modified maize had been used as seed and sown by rural families who had no idea what it was. Silvia Ribeiro of the Action group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC Group) remarks, ‘And that’s not all. You’re talking about contamination in the very centre of origin of a crop with huge importance for world food supply, which means significant effects in other zones since the contamination can spread not just to the native varieties of maize but also to their wild parents.’

This genetic flow ‘contaminates and degrades one of Mexico’s main treasures. In contrast to dispersion and genetic flow between native maize and conventional hybrid varieties, it doesn’t just transfer maize genes but also pieces of genes of bacterias and viruses (that have nothing to do with maize) whose environmental and health effects have not been seriously evaluated.’

‘The contamination of our traditional maize attacks the fundamental autonomy of our indigenous and agricultural communities because we are not just talking of our food source; maize is a vital part of our cultural heritage,” declares indigenous leader Aldo Gonzalez, ‘For us native seeds are an important element of our culture. The pyramids may have disappeared and been destroyed but a handful of maize is a legacy we can leave behind for our children and grandchildren and today they are denying us that possibility.’

The following year environmental, indigenous and rural workers organizations took their case to the North American Commission on Environmental Cooperation (CCA), an inter-governmental body created to remedy environmental problems caused by the Free Trade Treaty. The CCA took up the case and named a multinational panel of 17 experts to investigate the problem and to report with recommendations.

The panel took submissions from the public but only via Internet, which outraged the rural workers and indigenous peoples. After all, how many Mixteca or Zapateca communities in the Sierra Juarez have internet cafes? To respond to demand for authentic participation, the CCA set up the panel to carry out the symposium of March 11th.

In the meantime, the Fox government did what wanted. At the end of last year Victor Villalobos the executive secretary of CIBIOGEM and coordinator of international affairs for the Department of Agriculture signed an international agreement as part of the Free Trade Treaty behind the backs of the Senate and the citizenry permitting legal entry to genetically modified products into the country without labelling requirements

Countdown to Oaxaca

One month before the March 11th symposium, the Seventh Biodiversity Convention was held in Malaysia, followed immediately by the first conference on the Cartagena Protocol, also in Malaysia. The Protocol which entered into effect last Septemberis an international agreement to deal with the possible risks posed by genetic engineering. During the conference a dispute broke out when Professor Terje Traavik of the Norwegian Institute for Genetic Ecology presented a pilot study which pointed to the dangers for human health inherent in genetically modified crops and in the very process of genetic engineering.

On the other side of the world, the day before, in Washington DC, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) presented a study indicating that varieties of traditional United States maize seeds, soya and canola used as a reference and source of re-supply by agronomists and farmers are contaminated with genetically modified material. Taken together the studies of Traavik and the UCS make up a damning critique of the biotechnology industry.

In the Conference on the Cartagena Protocol, after many difficulties and intense negotiations the delegations of the signatory countries imposed themselves against the pressures of the multinational genetic engineering companies and reached an agreement. The agreement required that all genetically engineered products traded internationally should be labelled. But this agreement came to nothing because at the last minute, right before it was to be signed, the head of the Mexican delegation, the same Victor Villalobos of CIBIOGEM said that he found the text unacceptable. Even the members of the Mexican delegation looked at him openmouthed and dumbfounded. As the Protocol works by consent, Villalobos managed to scupper all the hard won progress and so the delegates had to return home with a diluted, emasculated agreement that left the matter of labelling in the hands of individual governments. Various observers asked, if each country is to do as it pleases what point is there to an international agreement?

The reaction of civil society in Mexico was furious. In the forum of March 10th, the participants signed a declaration against Villalobos demanding his resignation. ‘We are ashamed that Mexico is accused in international fora of doing the dirty work of multinational corporations to the detriment of other countries,’ says the declaration. ‘Villalobos represents neither the feelings nor the interests of Mexicans.’

They rejected too the ‘intolerable corruption’ of officials who promote genetically modified organisms like-it-or-not style. ‘We are not interested in confirming whether or not they receive money from the corporations, whether they behave out of mercenary self-interest, ignorance or recklessness. We are not the police. But nor do need more investigation to be able to affirm unreservedly that they do not represent us and that they are incapable of understanding our reality and aspirations, much less defend them.’

And to sharpen the tense atmosphere that growing up around the Oaxaca symposium, news arrived of the vote in Mendocino County, California in the US approving a measure against genetically modified foods.

Different languages

The demonstrators finally arrived at the Hotel Victoria: rural workers, Greenpeace militants, indigenous peoples representatives, academics and committed intellectuals, all entering to register for the symposium. the organizers wisely gave them all admission and the conference hall promptly changed into a Tower of Babel. The scientists, bureaucrats and journalists who spoke English, Spanish or French were now accompanied by indigenous peoples speaking Mixteco, Zapateco, Chinanteco or any other of dozens of pre-Colombian languages that are spoken in the region.

The differences between the two parties went far beyond language barriers. It was a clash between ways of thinking and world views totally distinct and incompatible. The members of the CEC panel spoke in a highly technical language limiting themselves to their particular speciality. They tried to discuss ethical, technical environmental and economic issues in isolation from each other.

But the indigenous peoples and their allies with an integral, holistic vision did not accept this. For them it was unethical to look at the various issues separately. They spoke of their age old indigenous cosmology, spirituality, culture, inalienable principles and duties, colonialism, neo-liberalism, sovereignty and struggle. They raised the risks of genetically modified products and questioned industrialized agriculture and the power of the agribusiness multinationals.

The demonstrators demanded the end of all maize imports, genetically engineered or not, and that the government comply with its inescapable duty to act to hold back and stop genetic contamination. ‘We seek the solidarity and support of all in Mexico and the world, who have taken up a struggle similar to our own so as to extend ever further the territories free from genetically modified food.’

Carmelo RUIZ MARRERO is a journalist based in Puerto Rico published in Ecoportal and other media. He is the author of , ‘Agricultura y globalizacion: Alimentos transgenicos y control corporativo” published by the Americas Program of the Interhemispheric Resource Center. This article was assisted by Tania Fernandez for EcoPortal.

Translation by toni solo


Carmelo Ruiz is a Puerto Rican author and journalist. He directs the Latin America Energy and Environment Monitor, runs a bilingual blog on journalism and current affairs, and is a member of the directive commission of the Puerto Rico Socialist Front. His Twitter ID is @carmeloruiz.