MEXICO CITY, 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 wraps.
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
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 corn.
"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
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 transgenics.
"We need to proceed carefully, evaluating risks and having
monitoring systems in Mexico which do not [presently] exist, in
order to be really safe," he said.
"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," he said.
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
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.