Mexico: Monsanto to start commercial GMO planting

After a decade of small-scale experimental planting, biotech multinationals are now free to start commercial development of transgenic corn in Mexico. On Dec. 31 the government's Secretariat of Agriculture, Cattle Raising, Rural Development, Fishing and Food (SAGARPA) quietly lifted the last barrier to the use of genetically modified organisms (GMO) for corn sold to consumers. The Missouri-based biotech giant Monsanto will lead the way by sowing 63 hectares in the northern state of Sinaloa, to be followed with genetically modified corn in other northern states: Chihuahua, Coahuila, Durango and Sonora.

Sowing in Tamaulipas will begin a little later, bringing the total land under cultivation to 1,000 hectares, and commercial production is eventually to include some 2 million hectares. Other multinationals—Bayer AG, Dow Chemical Company, Pioneer Hi-Bred (owned by DuPont) and Syngenta AG—apparently will be involved in the project, with public relations handled by a Mexican firm, AgroBIO México. The left-leaning Mexican daily La Jornada devoted a three-part series, starting on Feb. 13, to the change in policy; otherwise it seems to have received little coverage in the media.

As with the experimental planting over the past decade, the commercial transgenic corn will be grown mostly in the relatively arid north, where the government claims there are few native varieties of corn at risk of being contaminated. Corn diversity is a major concern in Mexico, where the crop was first cultivated; the country now has 52 to 70 different varieties. But even the small quantity of experimental transgenic corn that was grown under controlled conditions in the north may have spread as far as the southern state of Oaxaca. Evidence of transgenic corn was found there as early as 2000, according to a 2001 article in the US journal Nature by University of California Berkeley microbiologist Ignacio Chapela and then-graduate student David Quist. The biotech industry responded with a campaign to discredit the article and its authors, but the main contention was confirmed by a later study.

GMO proponents claim the benefits of transgenic crops outweigh the threat to biodiversity. Elena Álvarez Bullya, a biologist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) and president of the Union of Socially Committed Scientists, counters that the industry has had 20 years to prove that it could dramatically improve food production. "Globally, there are more hungry people than there were two decades ago," she told La Jornada. She noted that in the US transgenic planting is becoming more costly as weeds develop resistance to the herbicide glyphosate (sold by Monsanto as Roundup); one of the benefits of transgenic crops was supposed to be that the herbicide could be used on weeds without harming the crops. The industry "wants to present itself as leading edge," Álvarez Bullya said, "but it's already an obsolete technology." (LJ, Feb. 13, LJ, Feb. 14)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Feb. 19.

See our last posts on Mexico and the global struggle against GMOs.