s/r home  | issues  | authors  | 33 contents

Synthesis/Regeneration 33   (Winter 2004)

Biodevastation 7

Using Free Trade Agreements
to Contaminate Indigenous Corn

by S’ra DeSantis, Biotechnology Project,
Institute for Social Ecology

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has allowed United States agribusiness corporations to dump millions of tons of corn onto Mexico. The apparent strategy of these corporations is to spread genetic contamination throughout the world through future free trade agreements, which force poorer countries to accept imports of genetically modified seeds and products. Thirty to forty percent of the corn that the US dumps on Mexico is genetically modified. Reports recently released from several organizations in Mexico, including the ETC Group, found contamination in corn in 33 communities in nine states. This contamination serves as a prime example of how genetically engineered crops and free trade interface; together they create the genetic pollution of corn in its center of origin.

Central America is currently under attack by the Bush Administration, which is aggressively negotiating two free trade agreements for the area, the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) and the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). One of the main goals of these free trade agreements is to secure dumping grounds for US genetically engineered (GE) products, since numerous countries throughout the world continue to close their doors to GE imports.

Genetic contamination in Mexico

Campesinos (farmers) and corn have a symbiotic relationship. Without the other, neither could survive. The lifestyle of the campesino depends on corn, which provides their nutrition, economic livelihood and a basis for many religious ceremonies. Mexican campesinos maintain current varieties and facilitate the evolution of new ones. New varieties will evolve only if farmers remain the stewards of corn and the protectors of biodiversity. There are over 20,000 varieties of corn in Mexico and Central America. In southern and central Mexico, researchers have identified 5,000 varieties. Each variety has evolved to adapt to elevation levels, soil acidity, sun exposure, soil type, and rainfall. In 1998, the Mexican Congress passed a moratorium on the cultivation of genetically engineered corn to protect indigenous varieties.

One of the main goals of these free trade agreements is to secure dumping grounds for US genetically engineered (GE) products…

David Quist, a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley and Ignacio Chapela, professor of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at the University of California at Berkeley, discovered that indigenous corn varieties from Oaxaca contained DNA from GMOs. Their findings prompted two Mexican governmental agencies, the National Commission on Biodiversity (Conabio) and the National Ecological Institute (INE), to sample indigenous corn from 20 communities in Oaxaca and two in Puebla (another state in southern Mexico). They found that 95% of these communities (21 out of 22) had a 1–35% contamination rate, meaning that between 1% and 35% of the indigenous kernels they sampled contained traces of DNA from GMOs. In total, 8% of the 1,876 of the seedlings they tested were polluted by GMOs.

As indigenous corn varieties lose their ability to produce in southern Mexico, yields will decrease and the campesinos’ livelihoods will be undermined.

Recent tests conducted by indigenous and farming communities and several organizations exposed horrifying results in October 2003 (see www.etcgroup.org for more details). They tested 2,000 corn plants from 138 rural indigenous and farming communities from nine states (Oaxaca, Chihuahua, Morelos, Durango, Tlaxcala, Veracruz, Mexico State, Puebla, and San Luis Potosi). They made 411 groups of samples from these 2,000 plants. Thirty-three communities (24% of the total samples) contained some level of genetic contaminations. DNA was detected from several types of genetically engineered plants including StarLink (corn not approved for human consumption), RoundUp Ready (Monsanto’s herbicide tolerant corn), and several types of Bt corn (genetically engineered insecticidal corn). The contamination rates ranged from 1.5% to 33.3%. If this level of genetic contamination is present in Mexico where it was illegal to grow GE corn, then what is the contamination rate in countries like the United States and Canada where it is legal?

As genetically modified corn, such as Bt or Roundup Ready corn, cross-pollinates with indigenous corn varieties, the DNA from GMOs could interfere with the expression of unique physical characteristics and genetic predispositions, making the indigenous corn less suitable for its particular environment. As indigenous corn varieties lose their ability to produce in southern Mexico, yields will decrease and the campesinos’ livelihoods will be undermined. The development of new locally appropriate corn varieties is also threatened by this pollution. The biotechnology industry has countered the negative publicity and asserted that the GE corn will increase biodiversity because it introduces new genes into the environment.

Some industry scientists even claim that Mexican corn farmers are benefiting from the “free” DNA transfer and should have to pay for it.

Research must be conducted to ascertain what effects the Bt corn will have on insects and soil microorganisms in Mexico. Also, the genetically altered corn could cross with teosinte, the wild ancestor of corn, which grows in and around the edges of cornfields in southern Mexico. The distinct genetic composition could be lost in teosinte and other relatives of corn as they cross-pollinate with corn that contains DNA from genetically engineered organisms.

Farmers who have not signed a contract with the corporation and who are cultivating any crop that contains patented genes risk legal repercussions from transnational corporations. This is true whether the farmer knows her/his crops contain GE material or not. The Mexican government does not currently honor Monsanto’s patents but this is likely to change under future trade agreements or even existing ones. If this were to occur, the transnational corporations, which own the genetic patents, could sue farmers who have indigenous corn varieties that have cross-pollinated with genetically altered corn. Some industry scientists even claim that Mexican corn farmers are benefiting from the “free” DNA transfer and should have to pay for it.

The case of Oaxaca: One of NAFTA’s horror stories

Before NAFTA Mexico was practically self-sufficient in corn production and today is a major importer of corn. While NAFTA was being negotiated a comparative advantage analysis was conducted between the three signatory countries to determine what each should produce for export. Ironically, Mexico was not chosen to grow corn, even though it is the center of origin of this crop. Instead the United States was selected to produce corn and other basic grains since it controls “Green Revolution” technologies, like chemical fertilizers, pesticides, hybrid seeds, irrigation, and mechanized equipment. The comparative advantage indicated that Mexico should cultivate labor-intensive horticultural crops, since it has a large cheap labor force. This comparative advantage analysis failed to take into consideration the impacts it would have on the campesino way of life in Mexico and the survival of corn biodiversity.

Since NAFTA was implemented in 1994, over 1.8 million Mexicans have lost their jobs in rural areas.

Additionally, the large subsidies that US corn farmers receive from the US government were overlooked, which underscores the US contradictions of “free trade.” In 2002, the US government passed legislation to provide an increase of $40 billion for subsidies to large grain and cotton farmers. Large-scale farmers receive a disproportionately large amount of subsidies. Medium-sized farmers in the US depend on subsidies to survive, without them their farms would go under. This dependence on subsidies has been created by the falling prices of agricultural products on the global market.

NAFTA facilitated the further liberalization of the corn market in Mexico. The Agricultural Agreement of NAFTA, Chapter 7, eliminated all tariffs on agricultural goods either immediately or in a 5, 10, or 15-year period. NAFTA established a duty-free quota system or a protection period for corn with a 15-year phase out. In the first year of NAFTA 2.5 million metric tons of corn were permitted to enter Mexico from the United States, tariff-free. The amount the US could export without paying tariffs was to increase 3% annually for fourteen years, completing the 15-year phase-out period. Corn imports from the United States that surpass the duty-free quota are supposed to be subjected to a tariff.

This phase-out period, however, did not last for the anticipated time. Every year since the implementation of NAFTA (with the exception of 1995) exports from the US have gone beyond the quota and tariffs were not applied. Over $2 billion of fiscal revenue was foregone between 1994–1998 in Mexico because tariffs were never collected from the corn that exceeded the quota rate. Since the Mexican government did not impose the tariffs, US corn exporters were given the green light to send their subsidized corn to Mexico. Since 1998 until recently there has been a moratorium on the cultivation of GE corn in Mexico. Before NAFTA was implemented, the US exported approximately 2 million metric tons of corn annually to Mexico. In 2001, Mexico received 6.2 million tons of imported corn from the US, more than tripling pre-NAFTA rates. It is estimated that 26% of the corn grown in the US in 2002 was genetically modified. Both the European Union and Japan maintain restrictions on the import of GE foods, which disproportionately increases the amount of genetically engineered grains the US exports to other countries.

The primary direct source of the genetic contamination particularly in Oaxaca came from the imported corn from the US. Diconsa, a Mexican state-run grain distributor, facilitated the dispersion of this genetically altered corn. Diconsa delivers grain and other supplies to stores throughout rural areas of Mexico. According to Manuel Mérida from the Diconsa warehouse in Oaxaca City, 40% of the corn distributed by Diconsa in 2001 in Oaxaca originated from the United States. The Mexican Commission on Biodiversity (Conabio) and the National Ecological Institute (INE) found a 37% GE contamination rate in the corn in the Diconsa warehouse in Ixtlán (of the Sierra Juárez). Nonetheless a worker at the Ixtlán store, which supplies the Sierra Juárez region in Oaxaca, reported that a representative from Diconsa informed her there were no GMOs in the Diconsa corn in the store. Another worker at the Guelatoa Diconsa store was told “GE corn is colored and Diconsa only sells white corn, so there is nothing to worry about.” There are no signs in the stores warning campesinos not to cultivate the Diconsa corn, even though it is highly tainted with DNA from GMOs. Six workers at Diconsa stores throughout the Sierra Juárez stated that campesinos know not to plant Diconsa corn and only cultivate their criollo (indigenous) varieties. However, two of the 29 campesino families I interviewed admitted they had at one point experimented with Diconsa corn.

If TNCs can pollute the entire world’s production of basic grains with DNA from GMOs then there will be no possibility of regulating them.

A few campesinos in the Sierra Juárez tried planting Diconsa corn, since they had never been informed of its dangers. Diconsa corn falls off trucks during delivery and grows on the side of roads. Also, the Diconsa corn that is used as livestock feed often ends up germinating when the animals do not consume it all. Mexican farmers and scholars fear that if the corn can reach rural areas such as the Sierra Juárez and the other communities throughout Mexico that recently tested positive then the contamination near more populated areas must be even higher.

Diconsa corn is now cross-pollinating with criollo varieties and has become a direct source of contamination. Even if imports of genetically modified corn stop, cross-pollination will continue to be a direct source of pollution. Other potential sources of contamination include illegal planting by transnational corporations, government distribution of GE seed, and international food aid.

Another underlying cause of the contamination is the lack of understanding campesinos have about GMOs. Seventeen out of 29 campesino families in the Sierra Juárez had heard of GMOs but only 4 families I interviewed in 2001 knew that genetic engineering involves the transfer of genetic material from one species to another. Neither the Mexican Secretariat for Agriculture, Livestock, Fisheries and Food (SAGARPA) nor Diconsa are taking steps to educate the campesinos that corn in their area is polluted with DNA from genetically engineered organisms.

NAFTA has enabled GE corn to enter rural Mexico, encouraging campesinos to abandon their land because it has become cheaper to buy tortillas than grow corn. This has resulted in an increase in corn imports. Corn from the US is sold on the Mexican market for 25% less than its cost of production. Heavily subsidized US imports have flooded the Mexican corn market and driven down the price of corn, undermining the campesinos’ ability to make an economic livelihood. Since NAFTA was implemented in 1994 over 1.8 million Mexicans have lost their jobs in the rural areas.

The FTAA and CAFTA: Expanding US imperialism in Central America

Since 1994 the US has pushed for a free trade zone that would extend from northern Canada to the Tierra del Fuego in Chile. The Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) would consist of 34 countries from the Western Hemisphere, encompassing all countries in North, South, and Central America and the Caribbean with the exception of Cuba.

Central America has no large economies, like Brazil or Argentina, that could form an economic bloc to counter US hegemony.

Central America has no large economies, like Brazil or Argentina, that could form an economic bloc to counter US hegemony. Due to the large-scale resistance to the FTAA and the possibility that it may not come to fruition, the US proposed the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) with five Central American countries (Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Costa Rica). The US is pushing the CAFTA negotiation process incredibly quickly with the goal to finish by the end of 2003 and to begin implementation in 2004.

If CAFTA and the FTAA are implemented, this will inevitably spread GE contamination throughout the Western Hemisphere, providing an excellent business opportunity for US transnational corporations. What better way to control the world’s food supply than contaminating it with GMOs? If TNCs can pollute the entire world’s production of basic grains with DNA from GMOs then there will be no possibility of regulating them. Or if they can convince the world that the contamination is so widespread —even if it is not— then the TNCs can still make the argument that regulation is unnecessary. Countries would not be able to label their products as GE-free. This could hinder their ability to export their corn or products that contain GE contamination to countries in the European Union and other countries that maintain restrictions on the importation of GE foods.

Farmers do not need transnational corporations to dictate which seeds to sow or what kinds of crops they should grow. Farmers must be able to make decisions about what kinds of crops they grow and what kinds of seeds they cultivate. They are the protectors of crop biodiversity.

This article contains excerpts from a report, entitled Control through Contamination: US Forcing GMO Corn and Free Trade on Mexico and Central America, which is available in English and Spanish at http://www.nerage.org/

[14 dec 03]

Synthesis/Regeneration home page | s/r 33 Contents