New Internationalist

Tainted Tortillas

Issue 353

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Food and farming / GENETIC MODIFICATION

Tainted tortillas
Tania Molina Ramírez reports from Mexico, where indigenous corn
varieties have been found to contain genetically engineered material.

Who would have imagined that the environmental news story of the year would surface one Saturday night on the TV channel of the Mexican Congress?

'Our native maize is, in some regions of Oaxaca, contaminated with modified genes,' Lina Ornelas, a high-ranking official, told senators on 5 September 2001.

The news went unnoticed. A few days later, Masiosare (the political weekly of the Mexican daily La Jornada) published an excerpt from the meeting. Something that had been suspected for many years by indigenous, peasant and environmental organizations finally reached the mass media. A year of campaigns, forums and workshops began.

 Mexico is the original home of maize. There are hundreds of varieties. One cannot exaggerate their cultural significance. Indigenous farmers over hundreds of years have bred maize until it became the staple food crop we know today. They call themselves 'people of maize'.

Aldo González, a Zapotec from the Sierra Juárez of Oaxaca, puts it this way: 'The indigenous community has been able to survive because of maize. The communities that no longer have maize become dependent and can be destroyed easily, while indigenous communities have been able to resist for 500 years because they have been capable of being self-sufficient.'

Unless you're a scrupulous consumer, if you live in Mexico you have probably eaten modified maize already. Well, you might ask yourself, so what? Little is known about the long-term consequences. Nevertheless, bit by bit, information comes out. For example, modified DNA taken in food can recombine in the human stomach and intestines, transferring the properties of the modified plants. This means that there is a possibility that if you eat maize with resistance to an anti-biotic you could develop resistance. The next time you're ill the medicine won't be effective.

The Mexican case became an international scandal when an article was published in Britain's most prestigious scientific magazine, Nature, in November 2001, by University of California researchers Ignacio Chapela and David Quist who concluded that the Mexican maize genome had been contaminated with genetically modified organisms (GMOs). 


Not enough evidence
In an unprecedented move, Nature did an about-turn, subsequently arguing that the research had methodological errors. Scientists from all over the world sent emails to each other discussing the issue. Several researchers pointed out that the big biotech companies like Monsanto, Syngenta and Dupont, support scientists who claim that GMOs are harmless to your health.

In Mexico, environmental authorities argued that there wasn't enough evidence to prove maize contamination - until there was too much evidence. At the January 2002 Forum in Defence of Maize it was announced that National Ecology Institute and National Commission on Biodiversity studies confirmed the Berkeley research. Transgenic sequences were found in 20 to 60 per cent of maize samples in Oaxaca. Nobody knows who is responsible for the contamination or what type of modified gene it is.

Last October, Nature refused to publish another report - this one by scientists contracted by the Mexican Government - that confirms the contamination.

The organization Food First comments: 'One reviewer recommended rejection of the Mexican report because the results were "obvious", while the other recommended rejection because the results "were so unexpected as to not be believable".'

As a result of the demands by 22 peasant, indigenous and non-governmental organizations throughout the world the North America Environmental Co-operation Commission has decided to investigate the contamination of native maize. The National Autonomous University of Mexico is conducting research in other regions of the country to find out how extensive the contamination is.


Moratorium
At a session of the Consultation Group on Agricultural Research (CGIAR) in October, the Committee of NGOs announced that it would suspend its participation for one year in protest at the Group's inadequate response to the crisis. CGIAR, a network of 16 big agricultural research centres throughout the world, is increasingly influenced by the biotech corporations.

Mexico is the original home of maize Meanwhile, the conclusions of the Forum In Defence of Maize are still waiting to be put into effect: stop the sources of contamination, including imports of maize; determine where and to what extent the maize is contaminated; demand a moratorium on the release of transgenics through the Biological Diversity Convention and Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN; compensate for the harm already caused.

Why doesn't Mexico follow Japan's example? Japan demands that all 16 million tons of maize that enter the country every year from the US must be free of transgenics. Mexico, though it has operated a moratorium on planting GM maize since 1998, imports almost six million tons a year without making any such stipulation.

Tania Molina Ramírez is a journalist with
the Mexican daily newspaper La Jornada.

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