New Internationalist

Mexico resists Monsanto corn

The movement is growing to protect Mexico’s native corn crops Jen Wilton and Liam Barrington-Bush

Saturday 25 May is a chance to say ‘no’ to genetically modified foods, with actions taking place all over the world against GM giant, Monsanto. The movement in Mexico is growing considerably, as local people are challenging the introduction of Monsanto corn in the crop’s historic birthplace, out of concern for what it could mean for traditional cultures, local diets and the biodiversity of the broader environment.

In late April, world renowned Indian ‘seed activist’ Vandana Shiva travelled to the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca to join a gathering of Mexican farmers, indigenous leaders and environmentalists, fighting to protect Mexico’s native corn crops against the imposition of genetically modified alternatives.

The group gathered for the ‘Pre-audiencia Nacional: Contaminación Transgénica del Maíz Nativo’ in the shadows of the Sierra Juárez mountain range, in response to the Mexican government’s proposal to allow the seeding of twelve million hectares of genetically modified corn. The proposal followed an initial pilot project in which Monsanto was allowed to plant GMO corn in test sites in 2009. While many local communities remain adamantly opposed to the move, extensive lobbying by Monsanto, with support from the world’s richest man, Mexican Carlos Slim, and considerable efforts by the Gates Foundation, have raised real fears that local concerns may be ignored.

While Slim, the Gates Foundation and Monsanto argue that GMO technology will feed the world’s poor, many locals deem the imposition of transgenic crops a serious threat to the native varieties of corn that have been at the core of rural Mexican cultures for millennia.

‘On every ground transgenics are wrong,’ Vandana Shiva told the Oaxaca audience of several hundred, “but they are hugely wrong in the centre of diversity of maize here in Mexico.’

The historic birthplace of corn, and home to several thousand varieties of the crop, corn is more than just a staple in the Mexican diet. Beyond its prevalence in local cooking, corn is a symbol at the heart of countless indigenous traditions and holds great spiritual significance. An indigenous Nahuatl man from the state of Hidalgo explained that his community hosts a festival to celebrate corn every year in which ‘we dance with the corn and we celebrate the Earth Mother.’

Vandana Siva
Vandana Shiva spoke at a gathering in Oaxaca Jen Wilton and Liam Barrington-Bush

Echoing this sentiment, a woman from an organization representing indigenous communities in the south-east of Mexico and Guatemala said, ‘When we care for and cultivate our cornfields, God is with us. He gives us the food that we need. He works with us and he rests with us… The corn that God gives us, lives with us, sings and dances with us, and in certain moments it also cries with us.’

A nationwide campaign was born in Mexico in 2007 called ‘Sin Maíz, no hay país’ (Without corn, there is no country). ‘Corn is the life of the towns,’ said event organizer Neftalí Reyes Mendez, of the Oaxacan Collective in Defence of Territories in an interview following the event. ‘Corn is the base of life, the base of resistance for the peoples of Oaxaca.’

Aware of the crop’s supreme importance in Mexico, Vandana Shiva travelled more than 30 hours to share her experiences of fighting GM-giant Monsanto in India. ‘We started the seed saving movement in India,’ she explained, ‘with the commitment to not obey laws that make it illegal for us to have our own seeds, because [seed] saving for biodiversity, continuing our heritage, receiving what we have received from nature and our ancestors, looking after it with love and care to pass it on to future generations is not a crime. It is our sacred duty.’

Shiva went on to explain the catastrophic effects that the widespread planting of BT cotton in India has had, relating how within one season only Monsanto seed was available to cotton farmers. Subsequent crop failures and the rise of indebtedness, following an 8,000-fold increase in seed prices, have devastated the fabric of community life. Shiva poignantly told the gathered crowd, ‘150,000 people have been killed in the criminal violence of organized crime in Mexico. In India, 270,000 Indian peasants have committed suicide because of the criminal violence of the organized crime of Monsanto. … Don’t allow Monsanto to make Mexico a suicide economy.’

With what critics have called ‘The Monsanto Protection Act’ having recently passed into law in the US, some Mexicans fear Peña Nieto’s government will follow suit and approve the widespread commercial planting of GM corn, making seed sharing illegal and making it far harder for farmers to maintain non-GMO-contaminated varieties of corn. Dr Alejandro Espinosa Calderón, a nationally recognized expert on GMO corn in Mexico, echoed this fear, stating emphatically, ‘The Mexican government does not defend Mexicans, they defend Monsanto.’

GM advocates argue that scientific tests show no harmful health or environmental results. But Shiva has heard these arguments before. ‘All the tests they do for safety are not tests, because they work with surrogate proteins. They don’t work with the transgene,’ Shiva explained. Her concern is backed up by a 2006 report by Friends of the Earth UK, on the allergenic qualities of GMO foods. The report argues ‘surrogate proteins may not reflect the toxicity or allergenicity of the plant-produced protein to which people are actually exposed… The use of surrogate proteins is not acceptable – protein produced by the GM plant that will actually be eaten must be used in allergenicity assessments.’

Similarly, a 2009 report from the Indian Academy of Sciences recommends ‘carrying out acute toxicity studies with native (not “surrogate”) protein.’

‘They say this is natural,’ Shiva explains incredulously. ‘It is substantially equivalent to your corn and therefore we don’t have to really test because it is equal. … They say it is just like nature, but when it comes to owning the seed they say, “We are the creators. We made it, we are the inventers. We own it, we have the patent. It is our intellectual property.” So the same thing is new, when it comes to owning, and it is natural when it comes to shedding responsibility for the environmental, health and socio-economic impacts. I call this ontological schizophrenia.’

Shiva concluded by reiterating the connection between Indian and Mexican seed activists, despite their geographical separation – ‘We are doing what you are doing and we are part of one movement that is planetary, while being deeply local. We have started a global citizen’s movement for seed freedom, to say no to transgenics, no to patents, no to Monsanto’s empire to destroy the planet, and our lives and our food systems.’

Find out more at the March Against Monsanto website.

This post was originally published on the Revolution is Eternal blog, crossposted with the author’s permission.

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  1. #2 Diane Kennedy Pike 25 May 13

    The patenting of genetically altered seeds and the criminalizing of those who would save and plant nature's own seeds is an enormous threat to the health and well-being of individual humans, of cultures, and of our planet. Thank goodness there is a movement in Mexico to oppose Monsanto's take-over of food production. We need a similar movement here in the United States.

  2. #3 b_glennie 07 Jun 13

    Joni Mitchell was singing 40 years ago about'give me spots on my apples, but give me the birds and the bees' in the song Yelloe Taxi. Instead of getting better, after 40 years we are worse off as the giant corporations take over our farmlands with bank/military support when necessary. The Gates Foundation gets tax breaks for doing ’good works’ like backing Monsato interntionally. Hilary Clinton has signed up with Monsanto after retiring from government- lucrative reward for drevices rendered.
    Get rid of the corpoate farms and processors,the sugar,coffee, banana and now corn plantations. Pay the farmers a decent price for their products, so a family can survive, and farmers will supply the world.
    Russia produces 87% of food from small and family farms.

  3. #4 Scott T 10 Jun 13


  4. #5 Allen Anderson 11 Jun 13

    It is wonderful to hear from someone with the intelligence of Vandana Shiva. She and the Mexicans with her are absolutely right about the intentions of the ever greedy wealthy. As usual, they claim it will do good things for all. Even if there were no health hazards with the gmos, there would still be starvation because much of the world could not afford their exorbitant prices once they establish control. It would be the same as Tennessee Ernie Ford sang about, ’I owe my soul to the company store’.

  5. #6 Ruth Hazlitt 24 Jun 13

    All respect to Vandana Shiva.

  6. #8 Louise Mantia 02 Nov 13

    Monsanto doesn't care about the health of anyone, all they care about is the bottom line, HOW MUCH MONEY THEY CAN MAKE. PLEASE HELP GET RID OF GMO FOODS!!!!!!

  7. #9 Roger Briand 17 Apr 15

    Please put publishing date at top of article. This is so important for researchers who go through volumes of material and need to know if it's current info.

    Thanks for considering this.

  8. #10 ciderpunx 20 Apr 15

    Hey Roger,

    We're in the process of redesigning at the moment so will pass that on.

    in the meantime you can look at the URL to see the date ;-)

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About the author

Jen Wilton a New Internationalist contributor

Jen Wilton is a freelance journalist, researcher and photographer currently living in London, UK. In 2013 Jen spent time in Mexico working on an Investigative Journalism Fellowship for the Tyee, Canada, looking at Canadian mining in the region. She reports on social and political issues related to Mexico and Latin America more widely. Her particular interests include indigenous rights, migration and the role of the extractive industries.

Jen has been published by the Guardian UK, Canadian Dimension, ROAR mag, Latino Rebels, Upside Down World and the Dominion (Media Co-op Canada). You can read more of her written work on Revolution Is Eternal.

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