Mexico is one of the most extraordinary places on Earth when it comes to agricultural biodiversity, with the majority of the country being globally recognized as a Vavilov center (1) or in other words a center of crop origin and evolution. Maize, one of the world’s most widely grown agricultural crops and the main ingredient in the famous Mexican tortilla, is even known to have originated from the beautiful Tehuacan Valley (2).
Written By Henry Rowlands, Director, Sustainable Pulse
Plant specialists have also described the more than 60 native varieties of maize in Mexico as a genetic trove that might prove valuable should extreme weather associated with global warming or cooling get out of hand.
It is against this background that a serious fight is currently brewing, between those who want to protect Mexico’s agricultural history and biodiversity and those who see GM crops as the modern and progressive way forward.
Although GM maize caught the attention of some the country’s media following an emotional court battle in 2013, which saw the cultivation of the GM crop being completely banned by a Mexican judge, the general public are allegedly still mostly unaware of the issues surrounding GMOs.
Mercedes López Martínez of Via Organica, a Mexican nonprofit organization whose mission is to promote good nutrition through organic agriculture explained that; “There is no position of the Mexican people in general regarding GM foods, as the government, violating the constitutional right of the people to healthy food, has not provided information about the risks of these GMO products, which are not even labeled.
“However, there is strong opposition from informed and organized civil society organizations, which have demanded that the government apply the precautionary principle, to protect biodiversity and crops of origin such as corn and cotton. Proof of this is the lawsuit filed by individuals and civil organizations that managed to stop all planting of GM Maize in Mexico and that is still on-going,” Martínez concluded.
It is the GM Maize lawsuit that Martínez mentions which is at the center of what has turned into an uncomfortable situation for both the Mexican government and the Biotech industry in the country, both of whom are banking on GM crops being accepted by the Mexican public, so as to increase revenue.
GM Maize Lawsuit: Emotional Court Struggle Focuses Minds
GM Maize was always going to be the main stumbling block for the biotech industry in Mexico due to maize’s historical and environmental importance to the Mexican people.
Fact Box: Like other Mesoamerican peoples, the traditional Mayas recognized in their staple crop, maize, a vital force with which they strongly identify. This is clearly shown by their mythological tradition. According to the 16th-century Popol Vuh, the Hero Twins have maize plants for alter egos and man himself is created from maize. The discovery and opening of the Maize Mountain – the place where the corn seeds are hidden – is also still one of the most popular of Mayan tales.
Acción Colectiva, a group of 53 scientists and 22 civil organizations, successfully brought a case to ‘protect the historical and ecologically important native maize varieties’ in 2013, which ended with a total ban on GM maize in Mexico. The Twelfth Federal District Court for Civil Matters of Mexico City’s Judge Jaime Eduardo Verdugo J. cited “the risk of imminent harm to the environment” as the basis for the decision.
A second Judge then threw out the initial appeals of Mexico’s SEMARNAT (Environment and Natural Resources Ministry) and Monsanto in late December.
Monsanto reacted fast to the appeal failure and further appeals from the biotech industry are set for later in 2014.
Robert Fraley, Monsanto’s Chief Technology Officer, said the he expects his company to try to end the suspension on the cultivation of GM Maize in Mexico.
“This will be a case where we’ll follow up,” Fraley said during a visit to the Des Moines, Iowa-based media company, Meredith Corporation. He added that in Mexico, “any judge, anywhere, can make a ruling.”
Acción Colectiva’s attorney, René Sánchez Galindo stated; “The Calderón government illegally granted permits for the planting of GM maize, for which the results have been hidden. Currently there are 79 new applications pending. The good news is that all of these have been frozen by the court. Joy has filled the hearts of thousands. The current government now has a choice between defending the wealth of native maize or supporting Monsanto.”
The growth in attention on GM crops surrounding the on-going court battle has even caused some Mexican scientific experts to look abroad to countries in South America, such as Argentina, due to their vast experience with the biotech industry.
Dr. Andres Carrasco from Buenos Aires University is just one of the experts who has been contacted by his Mexican counterparts. Carrasco’s research showing that the glyphosate (Roundup) herbicide, which is used on Roundup Ready GM crops could cause brain, intestinal and heart defects in foetuses (3) was followed up by an Associated Press (AP) photo report (4) in 2013 showing the possible effects of pesticides in Argentina.
According to Via Organica and other environmental groups in Mexico the GM Maize court case could now start a public backlash against the biotech industry, which has successfully managed to dive under the Mexican public’s radar with regards to the large areas of other GM crops grown in the country; GM Cotton and GM Soya already have a strong foothold in many regions of Mexico.
GM Cotton: Gene Escape Threat?
It is not just GM maize that has caused waves in Mexico’s expert circles. Mexico is also the center of origin and diversity of cotton. Thus, GM Cotton, which is now grown widely in the country, has been studied in great detail by local scientists, including Dr. Ana Wegier of the Laboratory of Forest Biotechnology (CENID-COMEF, INFAP).
Wegier’s 2011 study into gene transfer between cultivated GM cotton plants and their wild relatives (5) identified a number of serious problems.
“Since 2011 we have known that gene flow exists between cultivated GM cotton plants and their wild relatives even between those that live in very remote areas. Wild plants were found to contain two types of transgenes, one of which contains insecticidal proteins that kill the larvae of some moth pests in the fields but we do not know if they can affect other organisms in the ecosystem and the other transgene confers tolerance to the herbicide glyphosate (Roundup),” Wegier explained.
Despite this study the Mexican government has fully supported GM Cotton cultivation on a massive scale. The federal government has granted 359 permits for environmental release of GM cotton, at the request of Monsanto , Bayer, Dow AgroSciences and Pioneer Hi-Bred, according to information from the databases of the Inter-ministerial Commission on Biosafety of Genetically Modified Organisms.
The government authorizations have allowed for the experimental and pilot commercial planting of GM Cotton on more than 2 million hectares in Mexico since 2007.
According to a review by Contralínea, Monsanto and Bayer, through its subsidiaries in Mexico: Monsanto Comercial, SA de CV, and Bayer de Mexico , SA de CV, have been the largest beneficiaries. The first five authorizations allowed the two biotech giants to plant over 350 thousand hectares of GM Cotton.
“Mexico is the center of origin and diversity of cotton. Our country was the first to release genetically modified organisms as a center of origin, in 1996. It was also the first in which transgenes were located in a wild relative and now is likely to be the first in which damage caused by transgene flow will be identified. To know the real effects of this issue, a complex investigation that integrates many areas of biology, that analyzes potential impacts from the molecular to the ecological level, with many human and financial resources, performed freely and without conflict of interest is required,” Dr. Wegier concluded.
Gene transfer alongside GM pollen has also been seen a threat to honey farmers in Mexico. However, it is not GM Cotton that has been put in the spotlight by the Mexican honey industry; instead GM Soybeans have been put under the experts’ microscopes.
Mexican GM Honey Endangers Export Markets
Fact Box: Mexico is the fourth largest honey producer and fifth largest honey exporter in the world.
A Smithsonian researcher and colleagues have helped rural farmers in Mexico to quantify the genetically modified organism (GMO) soybean pollen in honey samples recently rejected for sale in Germany. (6) (7)
David Roubik, senior staff scientist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, and colleagues developed the ability to identify pollen grains in honey in Panama and in Mexico during the 1980s and 1990s when they studied the effects of the arrival of Africanized bees on native bees. “Nobody else can do this kind of work in the ‘big field’ environment and be confident that what they are seeing are soybean pollen grains,” said Roubik.
They found that six honey samples from nine hives in the Campeche region contained soy pollen in addition to pollen from many wild plant species. The pollen came from crops near the bee colonies in several small apiaries, e! Science News reported in early February.
Due to strict European regulations, rural farmers in the Mexican Yucatan face significant price cuts or outright rejection of their honey crop when their product contains pollen from GMO crops that are not for human consumption. The regional agricultural authorities, furthermore, seemed unaware that bees visited flowering soybeans to collect nectar and pollen.
“As far as we could determine, every kind of GMO soybean grown in Campeche is approved for human consumption,” said Roubik. “But honey importers sometimes do no further analysis to match GMO pollen grains with their source.”
To test the honey for GMO pollen, researchers from the Smithsonian, El Colegio de la Frontera Sur la Universidad Autonoma de Yucatan and el Instituto Nacional de Investigaciones Forestales, Agropecuarias y Pecuarias sent the nine samples to Intertek laboratory in Bremen, Germany, for genetic analysis. Two samples tested positive for GMO pollen.
“We cautiously interpret these results as significant for elsewhere in Mexico where some five times the GMO soy grown in Campeche is found and beekeeping is alive and well, not to mention the rest of the world,” said Roubik. “Bee colonies act as extremely sensitive environmental indicators. Bees from a single colony may gather nectar and pollen resources from flowers in a 200-square-kilometer area. With an economy based on subsistence agriculture associated with honey production, the social implications of this shift in the status of honey are likely to be contentious and have profound implications for beekeeping in general.”
Eric Vides, who spent 18 months studying the soybean pollen transfer to honey in soybean landscapes as a technician of the bee ecology group in the department of agro-ecology, society and environment at ECOSUR, stated that “beekeepers are also very worried about associated deforestation that they perceive is happening because of the expansion of industrial agricultural systems in Campeche.”
Mexican scientific experts and civil organisations have started to put GM crops at the top of their agendas. The result of this move will surely benefit Mexico as a globally important biodiversity hotspot and it seems that the biotech industry and the government will be deeply scrutinized in this area from now on.