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The DNA of Corn: Mexican Peasants vs. Techno-science

Even as corn prices rise with the demand for biofuels, a simmering dispute percolates in Mexico where genetically modified imports from the U.S. are both welcomed and damned.

In a debate that pits sovereignty against science, grassroots networks of peasant groups and their allies in academia are challenging the top-down strategies of corporate farming and biotechnology for feeding the world.

Researchers such as Kathleen McAfee, an assistant professor in international relations at San Francisco State University, are weighing in on the side of small-scale farmers who want the U.S. to stop exporting its subsidized crops to poor countries, displacing native varieties of those same crops and the people who grow them.

They call it "food sovereignty." Farmers with fewer than five acres of land say they could raise their families and communities out of poverty, not with cheap imports or genetically modified seeds, but with home-grown crops and seeds that are passed on from generation to generation — if only their governments would invest in rural areas.

In four studies of Mexico's corn culture and the North American Free Trade Agreement in as many years, McAfee chronicles how the nation where corn originated has become the second-largest importer of U.S. corn, accelerating the exodus of its own corn farmers, more than half of whom are Indians, out of rural areas (and oftentimes into the U.S.). She examines the conflicting claims about genetically modified, or "transgenic," corn imported from the U.S. and the potential "contamination" of thousands of local varieties — corn that is every color of the rainbow, hand-tailored to every microclimate.

Transgenic corn, if it should spread, might not crowd out native corn, McAfee said. But, she said, it would likely make peasants dependent on patented seeds and the corporations that manufacture them, profoundly changing the cycle of agricultural life.
"Genetic engineering was originally sold as if it were a solution to hunger and food shortages," McAfee said. "It's not. The patents and technological tools of genetic engineering are owned by a small number of companies who use it to try to increase their sales ... This is not a solution to feeding the poor."

The ban on planting

More than half the acreage in corn in the U.S. is genetically engineered to tolerate pesticides or produce its own insect-killing toxins. Once harvested, transgenic corn is not separated from "old-fashioned" corn in the U.S. or upon export to Mexico.

In 1998, the Mexican government banned the planting of transgenic corn; then it officially lifted the ban in 2004 for experimental purposes — but no permits have been given out. This spring, though, some farmers reportedly bought seeds in the U.S. and planted them illegally in the state of Chihuahua.

Monsanto, the Missouri-based corporation that creates and produces seed brands for genetically modified crops, declined comment for this article, referring questions to José Luis Solleiro, a researcher at the National University of Mexico and the technical director of Agrobio, a Mexican association of agricultural biotech firms, including Monsanto, Bayer and Dow.

Solleiro said the critics of transgenic corn were holding Mexico back. The government, he said, is considering restricting the corn to northern Mexico, where, he said, there is no native corn and not much opposition to it. Farming in northern Mexico more closely resembles the large-style, industrialized agriculture of the U.S. than in southern Mexico, where peasants work small plots of land called "milpas."

"It's been four years — and nothing's happened," Solleiro said. "I think we ought to do some serious experiments that can show the effects of transgenic corn on our environment and biodiversity. We should talk to different groups of farmers and find out who wants to evaluate the benefits and who doesn't.

"There's a very strong political and ideological bent to all the criticism. The control of multinational corporations over the agricultural sector is a serious question, but the discussion should be based on verifiable information."

Report of "contamination"

In 2001, two University of California, Berkeley researchers reported that genetically engineered DNA, probably from U.S. corn, had found its way into the genomes of local varieties in the mountains of Oaxaca (where corn was first domesticated). Their claims were disputed, but there was an outcry from indigenous peasant organizations, which feared they were becoming part of a large-scale experiment with unpredictable results.

Mexico's great corn diversity — a resource that might someday help the world address food shortages, adapt to climate change or combat yet unknown crop diseases — suddenly became international news.

Amid roiling controversy, NAFTA's Commission for Environmental Cooperation convened a panel of experts to study the potential impacts of transgenic corn in Mexico. In 2004, the commission recommended that Mexico close its borders to whole U.S. corn (i.e. kernels) and allow in only ground corn, so that it could not be planted. The U.S. protested, and the Mexican government never carried out the recommendation.

In a report published this spring in Geoforum, McAfee praised the panel for broadening its risk assessment well beyond what she termed "the terrain of techno-science." The experts studied the potential impacts of transgenic corn on Mexico's culture, ecology, culinary habits, daily life and the fate of its impoverished farmers, millions of whom, against all odds, still save the seeds of local varieties from year to year, just as their ancestors did.

"Agriculture is always part of culture and works better when it is," McAfee said. "The CEC opened the door as a model for studying the effects of transgenic crops. There are so many other ways that agricultural productivity can be increased without the expense and the risk of genetic engineering."

Tim Wise, a Tufts University economist who studies globalization and sustainable development, agreed that the commission's work was unique.

"It recognized the limited applicability of scientific knowledge of genetically modified crops outside industrialized North American agriculture," Wise said. "It's surprisingly rare that that's recognized."

But Solleiro and Peter Raven, a prominent U.S. conservation biologist — both of whom served on the commission's panel of experts — did not favor the recommendation for barring whole U.S. corn at the border. They signed off on the report but only for the sake of consensus.

"I did this with the expectation that the Mexican government would eventually get real," Raven said.

The opponents of transgenic corn, including Greenpeace and the Sierra Club, have told small farmers in Mexico that the corn is "really bad stuff and they're all going to die and it will destroy their culture," Raven said.

"Nobody's tried to persuade them of the advantage of modified maize, but a lot of effort has been put in to whipping them up about the potential disadvantages."

Raven called McAfee's study of trade and corn "misguided."

"It will prevent a lot of good things for a lot of people," he said. "It reminds me of Myanmar not allowing aid in when hundreds of thousands of people are dying."

And that remark, said Elena Alvarez-Buylla, a researcher and plant evolutionist at the National University of Mexico, is "just outrageous."

"The introduction of transgenic crops brings big business to a few companies and no help at all to poor peasants in Mexico or even the most prosperous," Alvarez-Buylla said. "If there were bigger subsidies for the Mexican countryside, we would have non-transgenic Mexican technology for increasing crop yields in no time."

As for Solleiro's views that transgenic corn could be limited to certain areas, she said, "It would be impossible to control ... and there is native corn across practically the whole country. There's probably already been some contamination despite the moratorium."

Limits of science

Throughout the contentious debate, said Daniela Soleri, an ethno-ecologist at University of California, Santa Barbara who studies Mexico's corn culture, "there's been a failure to maintain the standards of scientific scrutiny on all sides."

"It's important that science be involved in this discussion," Soleri said. "But 'sound science' is more than just our interpretation of what 'sound science' is. The U.S. system does not include what farmers believe and what they know."

Soleri's own research in the state of Oaxaca shows that only 15 to 20 percent of farmers are buying seeds in stores.
"They'll use the best grain for planting, but it comes from fields, from the same ears of corn," Soleri said. "The smaller grains are used for eating and the larger for sowing ...They need technology but on their own terms. They're saying, ‘We're open to trying new things, but it has to work for us.'"

In a boost for the critics of transgenic crops, 60 countries this spring endorsed a report by the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, an initiative of the World Bank and United Nations, calling for a radical overhaul in the way food is produced and distributed.

Transgenic crops, the report said, do not always increase crop yields and may drive up costs in developing countries. Many of the risks and benefits to the environment, public health and the economy are "as yet unknown," it said.

The U.S. did not endorse the report, and Monsanto withdrew from the project in January.

Meanwhile, three weeks ago in Chihuahua, the leaders of several peasant organizations demanded that the government destroy two fields planted with transgenic corn.

"If this experiment does not end by mid-July, when the corn begins to flower and shed pollen, we will destroy the crop," one farmer told the Mexican press.