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The “diableros” (hand truck hostlers) from Lagunilla market clustered around La Lupita’s Ricos Tacos in the rough and tumble barrio of Tepito were not smiling. “Yesterday these cost me six pesos. Today, it’s eight. Tomorrow, who knows, ten?” complained Rodrigo Aldama, 28, pointing at the three greasy tacos on his paper plate, “Vitamin T is rich man’s food now.” Vitamin T, a staple of urban diet here, includes tacos, tostadas, tamales, tortillas, and most any kind of street food concocted from corn.
The steep jump of tortilla prices here this January to as high as 18 pesos a kilo (they were six in November) have unleashed a storm of protest and suspicion. “Someone’s getting rich on my ‘ricos tacos’ but it isn’t me” lamented Lupita Perez. Many point fingers at the corn distribution system, which is run by transnationals.
Rodrigo had another theory: “the tortilla is Mexico but now they want us to eat white bread like the gringos.” Others see even more sinister motives behind the sudden spike in tortilla prices which the government of freshman president Felipe Calderon blames on short supply and high prices for white and yellow corn – the opening of the Mexican milpa or corn patch to genetically modified corn.
World corn prices are currently at an all-time high due to burgeoning interest in ethanol production as a petroleum substitute. In Mexico the price of corn has been pushed upwards by the cost of diesel and petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides despite the fact that Mexico is a major oil producer. Crop failures due to drought, flooding, and even ice storms have contributed to the price surge. But whatever the immediate causes, the dismantlement of government agricultural programs and the brutal impacts of the North American Free Trade Agreement have deepened the crisis in Mexican corn production.
Competing with highly subsidized U.S. farmers is driving their Mexican counterparts into bankruptcy. Whereas south of the border, guaranteed prices for farmers’ crops is a thing of the past, corporate corn growers north of the Rio Bravo can receive up to $21,000 an acre in subsidies from their government, enabling them to dump their corn over the border at 80% of cost. The impact of this inundation has been to force 6,000,000 farmers and their families here to abandon their plots and leap into the migration stream, according to a 2004 Carnegie Endowment study.
This assault on poor farmers down at the bottom of the food chain will be exacerbated at the end of 2007 when all tariffs on U.S. corn are abolished. Meanwhile President Calderon seeks to tamp down tortilla prices by importing up to 2,000,000 duty-free tons to augment what Mexican farmers can or cannot produce. Such a solution is guaranteed to drive more farmers off the land. Even worse is that much of the new influx of NAFTA corn will be transgenic.
A great deal of the 36,000,000 tons of corn Mexico has imported from the U.S. in the past six years is genetically modified – 40% to 60% estimates the environmental group Greenpeace, reasoning that U.S. producers, barred from dealing GMO corn in Europe and Japan are using Mexico as a dumping ground for the grain.
GMO corn began pouring into Mexico in 1998 and by 2001 was being detected in the remote sierras of Oaxaca and Puebla, a region in which maize was first domesticated seven millenniums ago – both BT and Starlink strains (Monsanto and Novartis brands) were found in Oaxaca’s Sierra de Juarez in 2001 and 2002. 11 out of 22 corn-growing regions in the two states registered readings of contamination as high as 60% in a 2002 government study that was suppressed by the Secretary of Agriculture.
Although Mexico imports millions of tons of transgenic corn, it remains a crime here to plant genetically modified seed. In 1998, the National Biosecurity Commission, an interdisciplinary body that involves the health and agricultural secretariats, declared a moratorium on planting genetically modified corn until its impacts could be determined, and the ban remains in place although under heavy attack from big biotech and agribiz and transnational grain purveyors like the Cargill Corporation which now controls much of Mexican corn distribution.
To keep the industry at bay, the Biosecurity commission now grants permits for “experimental” stations where the grain can be grown under government supervision – the Monsanto corporation is now testing its “YieldGuard” brand corn on hundreds of hectares in Sinaloa state, the most prolific corn-producing state in Mexico. A spillover of YieldGuard in Sinaloa could contaminate a big chunk of the existing corn supply.
Despite the prohibitions on planting, there is plenty of transgenic corn tassling up in the Mexican milpas these days. Some of it is accidental. Massive imports of NAFTA corn distributed in rural regions through state-owned Diconsa warehouses threaten vast swatches of the Mexican “campo.” Diconsa trucks are old and the roads rough and the GMO corn blows off into the wind contaminating cornfields for miles around.
Although more and more licenses are issued every year for experimental planting, producers groups are now threatening to plant GMO corn without government permission – “If the moratorium is not relaxed, we will start planting the transgenic corn in the spring cycle” warns Perfecto Solis, director of the U.S.-Mexican agribusiness giant Corn Products Systems.
Despite the prohibitions, big corn growers have been sewing transgenic maize without government permission for years. Roberto Gonzalez Barrera, “El Rey de la Tortilla”, whose Maseca-Gruma, now a third owned by the Archer Daniels Midlands conglomerate, rules the corn flour and tortilla market (between 60 and 80%), once boasted that he had thousands of hectares under transgenic corn.
Maseca-Gruma is indeed a major player in the “transgenization” of the tortilla industry. During the administration of the now-reviled Carlos Salinas (1988-94), Gonzalez Barrera began marketing an instant corn flour mix milled from both genetically modified and natural corn. Taco shells milled and confected by Gruma and marketed by Kraft were found to contain Starlink corn, then not yet authorized for human consumption, resulting in the largest call-back of any transgenically contaminated product in U.S. history.
The Maseca mix has largely supplanted the traditional Indian way of preparing corn for tortillas – the “nixtamal” in which the “granos” or kernels are put to soak overnight in a brew whose main ingredient is quicklime. As payback for market domination, the King of the Tortillas flew Salinas into self-exile in his private jet in 1995 after the ex-president’s brother was arrested for murder.
Barrera and his ADM partners and their transnational associates at Cargill-Consolidated Mexico and Mimsa-Corn Products now control the Mexican maize market. It is that monopoly, which has caused the current panic, considers Luis Hernandez Navarro, op-ed editor at La Jornada, the national left daily, and a writer intimately familiar with agricultural issues. When ex-president Ernesto Zedillo (1994-2000) closed down CONASUPO, the state grain distribution system in 1997, the transnationals moved in and have taken control, says Hernandez. “When Mexican corn is in danger so is Mexico” he cautions, echoing the old refrain “no hay pais sin maiz” – there is no country without corn.
Hernandez and other veteran observers of the Mexican “campo” strongly suspect that the current corn crisis is being manipulated to end the moratorium on planting transgenic corn in Mexico. “The transnationals want to end the moratorium and are using this made-up crisis to pressure the SAGARPA (Agricultural Secretariat) to do away with it” figures investigator Antonio Serratos at the prestigious College of Mexico think tank. “It is part of their strategy for taking control of the entire agricultural sector.”
As if to confirm Serratos’ hunch, Big Agro is already petitioning the Biosecurity Commission to permit widespread planting in 2007. “Bio-tech is the only solution to growing more corn and keeping the tortilla affordable” advises Jaime Yesaki, director of the National Agriculture and Livestock Council or C.N.A, the principal agri-business federation in the country.
The C.N.A. was joined in its petition to the Secretary of Agriculture to vacate the ban on growing GMO corn by the National Association of Supermarkets and Retail Stores which is controlled by the U.S. transnational Wal-Mart – Wal-Mart is now Mexico’s number one retailer of tortillas and other foodstuffs and, with 700 mega-stores, the nation’s largest employer.
The subtext of the corn conflict is control of the seed market. “We have been patiently waiting to end the moratorium for ten years now” complained Eduardo Perez Pico, director of Monsanto-Mexico, the St. Louis-based conglomerate that dominates world seed markets. “Meanwhile Mexico is falling behind the rest of the world in applying new seed technologies that can better feed its people” the magnate recently told La Jornada.
The Mexican geography produces hundreds of varieties of corn that have adapted to the country’s myriad bioregions over millenniums. The introduction of transgenic seed will work to homogenize these strains, reasons Dr. Ignacio Chapela, the University of California-Berkeley biologist who was the first to locate GMO contamination here while doing fieldwork in the tiny Oaxaca sierra town of Calpulapan in 2001. “Millions of years of biological history will be lost if transgenic seeds are allowed to be planted in the Mexican milpa” Chapela affirms.
Big Biotech with Monsanto leading the pack wants to replace those millions of years with seeds like the Terminator (named for the action hero governor of California) which goes sterile after one growing cycle and obligates farmers (they sign binding contracts with Monsanto) to buy more, a process Mexican investigator Silvia Ribiero tags “bio-slavery”.
Corn is not just nutrition and livelihood in Mexico but also culture and religion. Maiz came from the gods and the Aztecs and Mayas nourished those gods with sacrificial victims to keep it coming. The transnational attack on corn stirs passions and paranoias amongst the descendants of Mexico’s first peoples. At a meeting of NAFTA scientists a few years back, some with deep ties to Big Biotech, and charged with investigating allegations brought by 17 Mexican NGOs that GMO corn was a threat to the nation’s 57 distinct indigenous peoples, an Indian farmer from Oaxaca seized the mic and accused the scientists of practicing genocide by pushing transgenics. “First you killed your own Indians and now you want to kill us!” the farmer shouted angrily.
The Zapatistas are Mayans and the Mayans are the People of the Corn. According to their sacred books, the Popul Vuh and the Chilam Balaam, they are actually made from maiz. Manuel, a member of the ecology-agricultural commission at Oventik, the most accessible Zapatista “caracol” or public center in the mountains above San Cristobal de las Casas, venerates these roots. “We are the corn – if it is poisoned so are we” he insisted during this New Year’s “Encounter Between the Peoples of the World and the Peoples of the Zapatista Communities” up at the Caracol “Resistance and Rebellion for Humanity.” Now the Zapatistas are freezing their seed corn to preserve pure Mayan germ plasma so that there will never be a world without it. You can even purchase the seeds on the World Wide Web. Check out www.schoolsforchiapas.com.
JOHN ROSS is currently on the road with his latest opus ZAPATISTAS! Making Another World Possible–Chronicles of Resistance 2000-2006. He will be traversing the southwest (February), the south and mid-west (March) and the Atlantic Coast (April) – contact firstname.lastname@example.org for venues and itineraries. These dispatches will continue at ten-day intervals while the Blindman is on the road.