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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

GM Corn

Air Date: Week of February 22, 2002

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In 1998, the Mexican government issued a moratorium on genetically modified corn to safeguard the diversity of its native corn. Despite the ban, GM corn has infiltrated the country. Jana Schroeder reports.

Transcript

CURWOOD: Mexico is the birthplace of corn, one of the world's most important crops. More than 300 varieties of corn grow in Mexico. In 1998, in order to protect this rich biodiversity, the Mexican government placed a moratorium on planting genetically modified corn there. But, despite that ban, GM corn has been discovered growing in a remote area of the country. And, as Jana Schroeder reports, the discovery has touched off a vigorous public debate.

SCHROEDER: Driving up the Sierra Norte mountains of Oaxaca the first thing you see as you approach the town of Capulalpam is a patchwork of houses and cornfields. Most everyone here has a backyard corn patch, since corn is a basic ingredient in the Mexican diet.

[SOUND OF CORN STALKS RUSTLING]

SCHROEDER: Only a few still work the land full time, like Mario Santiago, who has a bigger cornfield, on the edge of town.

[SANTIAGO SPEAKING SPANISH]

VOICEOVER: We only harvest when the moon is full, not when the moon is still new. Our ancestors taught us this way of doing things.

[SOUND OF SPANISH CONTINUES IN BACKGROUND]

SCHROEDER: Mario Santiago says traditional methods of farming are still used in Capulalpam. Inhabitants of this community are Zapoteco Indians, and, while they no longer speak their native language or wear traditional dress, they proudly preserve many traditions, like planting their own native varieties of corn that have evolved over centuries. Mario Santiago names the three varieties of native corn grown in his community a black, a white and a yellow. He says he chooses the best ears of corn from each harvest to use as seed for the next season. That's what most indigenous farmers in Mexico do, instead of buying commercial corn seed.

[SOUND OF ROOM]

SCHROEDER: Francisco Chapela is an agronomist who works with indigenous farmers in Oaxaca. He says the evolution process for corn is very much alive.

CHAPELA: It is still exploring new, genetic possibilities, so you are having new varieties. It's amazing is that you, in ten years, can find in the same place new varieties.

SCHROEDER: Francisco Chapela says it's vital to protect this genetic information, since corn's potential for feeding the growing world is still developing. So, like most everyone else in Mexico, he was surprised to find genetically engineered DNA among Mexico's native corn grown in remote Capulalpam in the state of Oaxaca. The contamination was discovered when the rural assistance group he works with was helping local farmers market their organic corn. They wanted to advertise the corn as GM-free but needed a way to back their claim.

[SOUND OF ROOM]

CHAPELA: We were sure, we were completely sure, that all the corn here was completely clean. So we just needed to have the proof that it was clean, to start selling it, to start promoting this kind of corn in the market.

SCHROEDER: He asked his brother, Dr. Ignacio Chapela, of the University of California in Berkeley, to test the corn from the Capulalpam area. Transgenic DNA was found in five to ten percent of the corn in the fields sampled. These results, published in the science journal Nature, were alarming for environmentalists, since Mexico is considered the center of origin and diversity of corn. A possible source of the genetic contamination was found in the corn sold at local government stores run by the Diconsa agency.

[SOUND OF CORN BEING SCOOPED AND WEIGHED]

SCHROEDER: The discount priced corn is sold to low-income families in thousands of rural communities across Mexico. Elfego Martinez works at the Diconsa store in Capulalpam. He says seven tons of corn are sold every month in this community of only 3,000 inhabitants.

[MARTINEZ SPEAKING SPANISH]

VOICEOVER: People don't grow corn like they used to. You can't cover your costs. Now, it's more like a pastime.

SCHROEDER: Diconsa reports that a third of the corn it sells is imported. Almost all the corn Mexico imports is from the United States, where GM corn is grown in large amounts. In the University of California study the corn sold at local Diconsa stores was analyzed and 40 percent had genetically engineered DNA. That makes this corn the leading suspect for having contaminated Mexico's native corn in Capulalpam, and maybe in other parts of the country. But Mr. Martinez says the corn he sells at the Diconsa store is mostly used for making tortillas.

[MARTINEZ SPEAKING SPANISH]

VOICEOVER: It's not used for planting. Well, some might try it out, but that's all. Like over there, there's a plant growing right there.

SCHROEDER: Mr. Martinez points to the end of the walkway leading up the store, where a single corn stalk has sprung up; proof that, while the corn sold by Diconsa may be designated for consumption only, there's nothing to keep it from sprouting and growing.

MAGALLON: Diconsa sells this cheap corn in poor communities, in communities farmed by farmers that, what they have done for thousands of years is to try the seeds, to experiment with the seeds.

SCHROEDER: Hector Magallon is a consumer advocate with Greenpeace in Mexico. He says Greenpeace warned that genetically modified corn imported from the U.S. would end up being planted, despite a 1998 government ban on planting GM corn.

MAGALLON: They didn't tell anyone, "You shouldn't plant this, it's only for food, don't plant it". And somebody planted it.

SCHROEDER: Magallon says Greenpeace sees a contradiction between prohibiting the planting of GM corn while allowing it to be imported. While his group is calling for Mexico to immediately stop all GM corn imports, others say GM corn must at least be separated from non-GM corn and used only for specific purposes. Victor Villalobos is Mexico's Assistant Secretary of Agriculture. He says most imported corn goes directly into food processing, to make oil, starch and sweeteners. And he doesn't see a need for separation.

[SOUND OF VILLALOBOS SPEAKING SPANISH]

VOICEOVER: Some of the organizations who are calling for separation should think about who is going to cover the added costs for low income sectors, because this will directly affect the cost, and it will have to be paid by consumers.

SCHROEDER: The Agriculture Ministry is not convinced a problem exists, even though a study of Mexico's own National Institute of Ecology confirmed the results from the University of California study. Victor Lichtinger, the Environment Secretary, has expressed his concern for protecting Mexico's corn, and called for immediate actions. Environmentalists say the Mexican government is giving mixed messages and taking too long to respond. It has yet to announce any measures. The Agriculture Ministry says results must be corroborated by another study currently under way. Some environmentalists suspect this is a delay tactic to wait until public attention diminishes. But, even if the earlier findings are confirmed, Assistant Secretary of Agriculture Villalobos insists Mexico's native corn varieties are not at risk.

[VILLALOBOS SPEAKING SPANISH]

VOICEOVER: They've been growing side by side with hybrid corn varieties for the past 50 years, and today native corn is still native and hybrid corn is still hybrid. Transgenic corn is just another hybrid.

SCHROEDER: But agronomist Francisco Chapela disagrees. He says that in transgenic corn foreign genes from a different species, such as bacteria, are introduced, with consequences still unknown. In the worst of cases, he says, native varieties could experience major changes in their genetic systems, making them useless as seed, unable to reproduce. That would mean a loss in genetic diversity that experts say may be needed in the future, to adapt to changing climatic conditions, new plant diseases, and other unpredictable circumstances in different parts of the world. Francisco Chapela believes agricultural policy in Mexico must be changed, to support the important role played by indigenous farmers.

CHAPELA: The main role of the communities in south Mexico is not to produce truth, it's to keep the genetic information in their fields. So we have a responsibility, with the food security in the world, to keep that information.

SCHROEDER: For indigenous farmers in Oaxaca, preserving their ancient corn varieties is as important as preserving their music, their culture and way of living. For the rest of the world, it may be as important as guaranteeing food security for future generations. For Living on Earth, I'm Jana Schroeder, in Oaxaca, Mexico.

[Michael Brook, "Andean", COBALT BLUE (4a.d. - 1992]

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[MUSIC OUT]

 

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