Genetically Modified Maize Trial in Mexico Prompts Debate

In a controversial move, the Mexican government has authorized transnational corporation Monsanto to conduct a field trial of genetically modified (GM) maize that could potentially lead to the crop’s commercialization.

Though Mexico has approved 67 permits for GM maize to be experimentally grown since lifting its ban on transgenic crops in 2005, this is the first venture that could lead to successful commercialization of the crop.

As part of the project, approved last month, the company will use less than a hectare of land in northern Mexico to assess maize unaffected by the herbicide glyphosate. If the test is successful, the GM maize will be commercialized, joining other market-ready Mexican GM crops, such as cotton.

Yet unlike other crops in the country, maize comes in a hodgepodge of varieties, notable for its centuries-long biodiversity. Monsanto’s pilot program, opponents warn, does not require containment measures, as it is not an experimental trial.

Not that Mexico’s taking any chances.

The Mexican Agricultural Ministry claims that the GM crop’s pollen will be controlled, noting that the project will occur “under the strictest biosecurity measures to guarantee the prevention of involuntary dispersion of the GM maize’s pollen.”

Yet other experts maintain that the move could potentially contaminate the thousands of maize varieties indigenous to Mexico.

“’This opens up the door to contamination of native species in the most important centre of origin [of maize] in the entire world,” said Elena Álvarez-Buylla, head of the Union of Scientists Committed to Society (UCCS).

Back in March, the UCCS released a statement censuring the risk attached to GM crops, as well as skepticism over their ability to tackle non-GM crop scarcity.

“’There are alternative technologies to address the non-GM maize shortage and loss of crops due to climate events,” said the group. “GM [crops] are not more resistant to droughts and plagues, and they threaten our food sovereignty.”

In fact, the UCCS bemoaned commercial GM maize production as early as September of 2009, stating in a written letter that they wished to “establish an official banning of any and all field releases of commercial GM maize varieties, and at the same time, support rigorous scientific investigation on the potential of diverse and alternative agro-technologies in Mexico, as well as the risks implied in their use in centers of origin and diversification.”

And the UCCS isn’t alone. Earlier this month, at the third-ever Mexican Congress of Ecology held in Veracruz, scientists cautioned against the mingling of GM maize with non-GM varieties.

Mauricio Quesada, an expert at the National Autonomous University’s Centre for Ecosystems Research, echoed UCCS qualms about using GM technology before researching alternative techniques involving natural biodiversity.

Similarly, Andrew Stephenson, an ecology professor at Pennsylvania University, expressed concern over the essentially unknown effects of GM maize coexisting with non-GM maize in Mexico’s complex environmental conditions.

Yet, both sides have been churning out criticism, with Monsanto’s Latin American President, José Manuel Maduro, blaming government restrictions on GM maize production for elevations in Mexican corn imports in a recent press conference.

“Mexico’s decision to not move forward [on transgenics] has led to the importation of ten million tons of corn,” he said, “a situation that demands a swift response.”

Monsanto has been leading a public relations campaign to bring GM maize back into the commercial equation, though critics have dismissed their efforts as inane sound bites and propaganda. Even worse for the agricultural giant, many experts maintain that transgenics don’t increase crop yields.

But the public relations push may just boomerang on Monsanto.

Amidst cries of “No to transgenic corn! Monsanto out of Mexico!” from the National Union of Regional Autonomous Campesino Organizations (UNORCA) eco-minded experts continue to demand government support of small-scale producers, communal landowners, and alternative technologies – not transgenics.

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