Mexico, cradle of corn, at risk from U.S. biotech varieties

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 health.

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 production strategies.

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 region."

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 and power."

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 clcarpentier@ccemtl.org, with the subject line: Comments on Maize and Biodiversity Report.

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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