Mexico, September 29, 2004 -- CropChoice news -- Hugh
Dellios, Chicago Tribune: Even before its release,
a report addressing the potential impact of genetically
altered U.S. corn exports to Mexico has stirred up a
dust devil of controversy, including fears that the
Bush administration is trying to bury it.
The report by a group of distinguished scientists and
policy experts urges caution in trade policies that
send millions of tons of corn to Mexico from Illinois
and other states, including a recommendation to grind
it up first. The report also could influence a global
debate over the safety of modified food.
Originally scheduled to be made public in June, the
report has not been released. Last week, the agency
managing the report, the North American Commission for
Environmental Cooperation, handed it privately to the
U.S., Mexican and Canadian governments, which have 60
days to decide whether it should be published at all.
The delay has angered the study's authors and environmentalists,
some of whom allege that U.S. officials have pressured
the CEC, a watchdog agency associated with the North
American Free Trade Agreement, to keep the report under
The critics note that the 60-day period could postpone
the report's release until after the November presidential
election, when votes from corn-farming states such as
Iowa will be crucial.
"This is totally unacceptable," said Jose
Sarukhan, a prominent ecology professor at the Autonomous
National University of Mexico and chairman of the expert
panel. "Surely [U.S. officials] don't like it,
but it is the same report they didn't like three months
Sarukhan said he planned to consult with the other
panelists to see whether they would consider releasing
the report independently.
U.S. officials dismiss suggestions of undue pressure.
But they and Canadian officials have strongly criticized
the quality of the science used in the report and say
it goes beyond its original ecological scope. Industry
groups have made the same criticisms.
"We want to make sure that any recommendations
in the report are fully supported by science,"
said Richard Hood, a spokesman for the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency. "As the process allows, we raised
concerns. That's been responsible for the length of
the process, not us delaying anything."
Hood said the CEC rules are "pretty flexible"
and that U.S. officials will take longer than 60 days
if they need it.
According to an EPA letter to the CEC in July, the
draft report recommended that U.S. corn imports be "milled
immediately upon entry into Mexico." That would
ensure that local farmers could not plant it and spread
the modified genes but it would be very expensive and
"a significant barrier to trade," the letter
The draft report also recommended that Mexico reinforce
a national ban on planting and experimenting with modified
corn and educate peasant farmers not to plant it, the
EPA letter said.
This year the U.S. is expected to export 6.3 million
metric tons of corn to Mexico. The majority is shipped
by companies like Archer Daniels Midland in the Midwest
and as much as half contains modified genes created
by companies like St. Louis-based Monsanto.
The vast majority is for animal feed, not for planting
or human consumption. But lab-modified genes recently
have been found growing inexplicably in homegrown corn
crops in southern Mexico, the home of the world's original
"Mexico is a very, very important market"
for U.S. corn, said Ricardo Celma, Mexico representative
for the U.S. Grain Council, who said any halt in U.S.
corn imports would make prices collapse. "It would
have a major impact on the Chicago Board of Trade,"
Greenpeace and other environmental groups have urged
the CEC panel to demand a moratorium on Mexican imports
of transgenic corn. They say a ban is needed until further
studies prove that modified crops pose no risk to human
health and will not displace Mexico's native corn.
Industry and government officials say fears about transgenic
imports are unsubstantiated and overblown. They say
a ban also would be harmful to Mexico's policy of using
cheap U.S. corn to improve the diet of its growing population.
CEC officials refused to comment on the delay. The
commission was established after NAFTA was signed in
1994 to advise the U.S., Mexico and Canada on the effect
of free trade on the environment. Its recommendations
Scientists reject criticism
The panel of experts--15 geneticists, botanists and
others, all approved by the three governments--scoff
at criticism of their scientific data. Sarukhan, the
chairman, said that the report was final in June except
for a few minor corrections and that the authors will
not accept changes to their conclusions.
While declining to discuss the report's recommendations,
he said the panel agreed that Mexico should adopt a
"precautionary principle" in dealing with
"We need to proceed carefully, evaluating risks
and having monitoring systems in Mexico which do not
[presently] exist, in order to be really safe,"
"On the other hand, we think this is an extremely
important technology that Mexico should [master] ...
so it can make its own choices in terms of which transgenes
and where and how they should be utilized and not just
using and importing whatever is produced in other countries,"
Critics of the delay suggest the reason is that the
report could hurt U.S. efforts to overcome concerns
that have blocked transgenic crop exports to Europe
and Africa. Zambia and other countries have refused
U.S. corn as food aid unless it is milled.
The Bush administration challenged the European Union
last year through the World Trade Organization over
the EU's restrictions on importing transgenic products,
saying they unfairly obstruct trade.
In defending their position, European officials have
cited the calls for a corn-import moratorium in Mexico.
They hope a separate panel of experts will be chosen
to study the issue in that case as soon as November.