OAXACA, Mexico, March 12, 2004 (ENS): Genetically engineered
corn from the United States threatens to weaken the
integrity of Mexico's natural and agricultural ecosystems
and once introduced, its impact cannot be confined,
says an independent report written for the environmental
branch of NAFTA by many of the world's experts.
The report was presented to 400 people at a symposium
here, attended by growers of corn, also called maize,
as well as industry groups, academics, environmental
and governmental officials.
Written for the Commission on Environmental Cooperation
(CEC), the study says food safety impacts of the transgenic
maize, could include adverse effects on human and animal
Each chapter was written by a different author. In
his chapter on understanding the benefits and risks
Professor Paul Thompson, who teaches agricultural, food
and community Ethics at Michigan State University, warns
of economic losses or other forms of instability for
farmer households and communities.
Thompson says erosion of consumer confidence in the
food system might result from transgenic corn, and he
forecasts "large-scale cultural changes in rural
communities or throughout the food system that might
be regarded as adverse."
Considered the cradle of corn, Mexico has the most diverse
corn germplasm of any country, and is characterized
by many small producers and high cornconsumption.
The country has an intricate agrarian history and a
strongly polarized society. Maize is grown in contrasting
environmental, social and technological conditions in
plots that range from garden size to fields of hundreds
of hectares. Small farmers subsidize maize with revenues
from offspring working in cities or abroad, and use
family labor to subsist.
Until the 1960s, Mexico was more than self sufficient
in maize and could be again, the report says, with minimal
investment in local maize improvement and sustainable
Since NAFTA was signed, imports of US maize have accelerated.
Mexico now produces 78 percent of its maize; half of
this is grown by smallholders who comprise two-thirds
of all producers. There is no official estimate to date
of how much of this total is genetically engineered.
One author, Steven Brush, is a professor in the Human
and Community Development Department, University of
California at Davis, and he has worked as a senior scientist
at the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute.
Brush says the introduction of transgenic maize into
Mexico "typifies a technology whose impact will
not be confined to a specific social group or geographic
He predicts impacts ranging from declines in income
or the availability of food, and loss of relative economic
or social position, to loss of agricultural assets that
are part of cultural identity with the introduction
of engineered maize.
The report, "Maize and Biodiversity: Effects of
Transgenic Maize in Mexico" originated in response
to a situation in which the products of new technologies
found their way into scenarios for which they were not
intended, explains biologist Jorge Larson.
The Mexican public felt that transgenic maize had been
"imposed" upon them, Larson says, because
introduction of the technology did not take place through
"a process of extension, validation, and socialization
of the possible risks and benefits."
Since 1992, Larson has worked with Mexico's National
Commission for the Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity
(Conabio) on the country's national biodiversity policy,
access to genetic resources and benefit sharing, biosafety,
intellectual property rights and the in situ conservation
of biological resources.
He served as technical coordinator of the Mexican delegation
to the negotiations of the Cartagena Protocol on the
Transboundary Movement of Living Modified Organisms.
From this perspective, Larson said, "The controversy
in the scientific community reached levels rarely seen,
and this deepened the societal perception as to the
overriding scientific uncertainty surrounding the problem
and the existence of difficult situations arising from
the complex relationship between science, technology
There are benefits to the genetic engineering of maize
write Reynaldo Ariel Alvarez Morales and John Komen
in their chapter on managing the potential risks and
enhancing the potential benefits.
While the technology was originally developed to enhance
the market values of the grain in the industrialized
world, it may be beneficial to the rural and small landholders
Morales and Komen say, especially in areas of the world
where yields are low due to a lack of technology.
Genetically engineered maize may contribute to the
survival of the small farmers and all the cultural traditions
that they represent, write Morales and Komen, but "the
only way to ensure that the technology reaches these
people is by including them in the research and development
process from the very early stages."
The technology must be understood by the people who
are going to use it, and they must agree to test and
compare the new materials with whatever they are using,
Morales and Komen say. "Benefits should be clear
to them in the field rather than in the discourse."
The report is available online at: http://www.cec.org/maize/index.cfm?varlan=english
The CEC Secretariat appointed an international advisory
group to steer the development of the report and advise
the governments of Canada, Mexico and the United States.
The advisory group will present its recommendations
to the three governments in June based, in part, upon
public comments received at the symposium and on public
comments generated over the next 30 days by the report.
Public comments are welcome through April 12, and may
be addressed to: Chantal Line Carpentier by email at
with the subject line: Comments on Maize and Biodiversity
Comments can also be sent by mail to: Maize and Biodiversity
Report, Commission for Environmental Cooperation, 393,
rue St-Jacques Ouest, Bureau 200, Montreal, Quebec,
Canada H2Y 1N9. Tel: 514-350-4300; Fax: 514-350-4314.
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