Transgenic contamination of Mexican corn adds insult to NAFTA injury

In his second of two stories on Mexican corn, Don Lotter traces the history of carelessness—and cover-up—that threatens the heart of the world’s corn biodiversity.

By Don Lotter

Posted August 31, 2004: Small-scale Mexican corn farmers were expected by experts to abandon fields all over Mexico, due to the near-complete loss of farm subsidies combined with the opening of the Mexican market to heavily subsidized US corn. Subsidies for Mexican farmers have dropped, at the behest of US “free market” proselytizers, from 33% of farm income to less than 13%, while during the same period subsidies for US farmers have grown and now make up 40% of US farm income. Cheap corn from the US is flooding the Mexican market and competing with the locally grown corn.

But against all predictions, corn acreage is up in Mexico, despite the economic disincentives. Different theories are tossed about as to the reasons. Remittances (money sent from Mexicans in the US), a $13 billion industry, larger than Mexico’s agricultural economy, are believed by some to currently subsidize small-scale corn production. Some farmers must keep cultivating land in order to maintain rights to it, so they plant what they are accustomed to growing: corn.

These small-scale corn farmers, now almost completely abandoned by their government, as well as by the market system, are also the guardians of most of the world’s corn biodiversity -- the approximately 60 major land races, as Mexico is the major center of origin and diversity of corn. The fact that the Mexican government, along with the NAFTA administration, willfully designed an economic policy to drastically reduce the number of small farmers who are the keepers and original developers of such a valuable resource, is unconscionable.

On top of the loss of corn as the economic base of rural Mexican communities is the problem of contamination of indigenous corn by transgenes, genes from genetically modified US corn.

Mexico’s shift to the “free market” directly underpins the contamination of the native varieties corn by transgenes: Mexico imports about five million tons of corn a year from the US. On the average, 30% of the US corn is transgenic, which has been mixed with non-transgenic corn. While the cultivation of transgenic crops is not yet permitted in Mexico, their import as food and feed is. It is now believed that the transgene contamination came from Mexican peasant farmers buying corn from local stores and, as is common here, planting it as part of their corn crop.

According to Aldo Gonzales of the Uníon de Organizaciones de la Sierra Juarez Oaxaca, a group dedicated to the welfare of indigenous farmers, the most likely channel of entry of transgenic corn was via the local government stores which sell grain in rural areas all over Mexico. Transgenic corn that was imported from the US was mixed with corn for sale via the government stores, named DICONSA. Farmers often plant the seed sold at DICONSA stores. The distinction between corn as feed or food and corn as seed for planting has never traditionally existed in rural Mexico.

Guelatao de Juarez, the town where Gonzales’ group is based, is one of the communities where transgenes were found in the corn crops of indigenous farmers. Samples from the local DICONSA stores were transgene positive as well.

The controversy first broke when Ignacio Chapela and David Quist of UC Berkeley published a paper in the journal Nature in December 2001 showing that transgenes from Bt and RoundUp Ready corn contaminated the local corn in Oaxaca. The evidence showed that the transgenes had “introgressed” into the local corn, meaning that, mostly likely via pollen transfer from transgenic corn plants, the genes had been transferred to the local corn. The next year, Mexican government scientists showed the same result, concluding that 3% to 60% of corn samples were contaminated with transgenes. Furthermore, it was stated in the Chapela article that the promoter gene, known as the 35S promoter, originally from cauliflower mosaic virus, was probably one of the polluting genes. The function of the promoter gene is to turn on the target transgene. Much is unknown about what the promoter gene would do in the native corn plants.

Transgenes in corn are independent entities so that when they introgress into populations they can be more or less hidden. In other words, if pollen from transgenic yellow corn (all commercial transgene corn is yellow) fertilizes white corn, the kernels that were pollinated will develop into yellow grains where the transgenic pollen fertilized, but not necessarily in subsequent generations. Subsequent generations of corn can be yellow with transgenes, white with transgenes, yellow without transgenes, or white without transgenes.

Different transgenes can end up mixed in one plant. No testing has ever been done on such mixes, and no one knows what effect this kind of mixture may have on human or animal health.

A storm of controversy, created by the biotech industry PR machine, followed the findings of Quest and Chapela. For the first time in its 133 year history, Nature, considered the top science journal in the world, published an “apology” (short of a retraction) stating that they should not have published the paper, even though it had been reviewed by scientific peers. It turns out that they were under intense pressure from the biotechnology community, reportedly facilitated by a PR firm hired by Monsanto, to retract the paper.

When scientists from the Mexican government submitted to the results of their study, which verified the Quist and Chapela results that there is transgenic contamination in Mexican corn, the two peer reviewers for Nature turned it down – one stating that the results were already common knowledge (!) and the other rejecting it saying that the percentage contamination was too high to be believable.

The possible reasons behind the Nature editors’ questionable decisions came out via some aggressive investigative journalism by a writer for The Guardian (UK), George Monbiot, who uncovered a surreptitious, neo-viral type PR campaign whose goal was to attack and undermine the work of Chapela and the Mexican scientists. The PR firm, the Bivings Group, was reported by Monbiot to be a client of Monsanto and other biotech firms. The attacks were carried out, using the names of individuals who were supposedly scientists, via postings on the main pro-biotech Internet discussion group, AgBioWorld.

The Guardian quoted the following from the Bivings Group’s website about their “viral marketing” strategy:

“There are some campaigns where it would be undesirable or even disastrous to let the audience know that your organization is directly involved ... it is possible to make postings to these outlets that present your position as an uninvolved third party ... Perhaps the greatest advantage of viral marketing is that your message is placed into a context where it is more likely to be considered seriously.”

Incredible is the fact that, despite world concern and huge gaps in knowledge, no new analyses have been done for the 2003 Mexican corn crop, or at least, no results have been released. Just at the time that the whole issue needs clarifying, there is no information whatsoever. I received the following response from the David Poland of the International Center for the Improvement of Maize and Wheat (CIMMYT), near Mexico City, the world center for the monitoring of corn genetics, when I asked about follow-up analyses of Mexican corn:

“I don’t know of any analysis of field samples done by CIMMYT for 2003… Nobody has stepped forward with funds to conduct such studies. Our core budget is under extreme pressure from ….cutbacks….We have sought, without success, to get the (latest analysis) data from INE/CONABIO (the Mexican government), including methodology, but they will not release it nor publish it in a peer reviewed journal.”

There may be legitimate questions about the methodology and accuracy of the analyses that have been done for transgenes. At least one corn geneticist maintains that transgene contamination levels of over a few tenths of a percent would indicate faulty methodology. False positives can also be a problem, especially when the levels of the target compounds are low, such as 1% to 3%.

If this is the case, then why have there not been any new analyses which attempt to remedy these methodological problems and clarify the situation?

The whole thing smacks of cover-up, not necessarily by CIMMYT, but by the entities involved in funding further studies, making policy, and developing transgene products.

Strengthening the case for cover-up is the recent decision by the North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC), under pressure from the US to delay the release of a report on transgene contamination of Mexican corn, which had been scheduled to be released June 7. The report ostensibly contains the most recent analyses of Mexican corn for transgenes.

The CEC, a Montreal-based body set up as part of the environmental aspects of NAFTA, is currently the main international organization that appears to be “in charge” of monitoring and recommending policy on the issue of trans-border transgene contamination in North America, as the contamination came about as a result of trade.

The CEC report comes as part of a legal process initiated by non-governmental organizations in Mexico, led by Greenpeace Mexico, filed under Article 13 of the North American Agreement on Environmental Cooperation, which challenges the legitimacy and safety of US corn exports to Mexico.

As part of this process, the CEC created the Maize and Biodiversity Advisory Group and in March 2004 hosted a conference in Oaxaca “Maize and Biodiversity: The Effects of Transgenic Maize in Mexico”. Some of the world’s top corn scientists presented papers on the issue. The conclusions were not earthshaking, but they were significant:

  • The fact that transgenes have indeed polluted Mexican indigenous corn crops is irrefutable. This backs up the Chapela study and throws the entire incident of its retroactive disavowal by Nature, and the attacks by the biotech community, into sharp relief: it was and continues to be politically-based manipulation of science and the suppression of scientific evidence.
  • The dynamics of gene flow in corn are extraordinarily complex and scientists know little about how the genetics of transgenes will develop in the Mexican corn populations. Nor does anyone know what the ecological and human health effects will be.
  • Transgene contamination is currently continuing and will spread, if no action is taken.

The final report and recommendations of the Advisory Group were to have been released this month (June 2004) at a conference in Puebla, Mexico. However, the commission, made up of representatives from the US, Canada, and Mexico, has postponed the release of the report. According to a June 22 article in the Mexican newspaper La Jornada, the commission is under pressure from the US and multinational biotech companies to delay the report, whose release would support the case of an EU ban on transgenic crops from the US. The US is currently challenging, via the WTO, the EU ban.

The pressure from the US to delay the release of the Maize and Biodiversity Advisory Group’s report comes despite the fact that the group is heavily skewed toward the biotech industry, despite Article 13’s proviso that advisory groups be made up of “independent experts”. At least five of its 16 members are directly involved in or benefit economically from the biotech industry. The original group had no one whatsoever from groups representing indigenous farmers or environmental groups, nor did it have any scientists specializing in corn. After pressure from the original groups who brought on the investigation, one woman from a Oaxaca farmers group was admitted.

Mexico is under intense pressure from the US to back the US’s pro-transgenic crops policies. Many groups here in Mexico are accusing the Mexican government of caving in to pressure from the US and multinationals in not moving swiftly to develop a strong policy against transgenics. The incipient weak Mexican government policy on transgenics is consistent with its policy toward small farmers, that of catering more to the interests of large-scale agriculture and industry.

Similar scenarios are being played out in other countries like India and Thailand.

The next year or two will continue to be watershed years in the history of the genetic makeup of the human food system, and the story unfolding in Mexico may play a critical role in determining which direction the issue flows.

COMING NEXT: An overview of organics in Mexico