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Science vs. Culture in Mexico's Corn Staple

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  • Science vs. Culture in Mexico's Corn Staple

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    Science vs. Culture in Mexico's Corn Staple

    Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times
    Luis Antonio, a farmworker in Zimatlán, Mexico, in Oaxaca State, inspects
    ears in a cornfield where genetically altered corn has been discovered.


    Published: March 27, 2005

    CAPULÁLPAM DE MÉNDEZ, Mexico - This ancient Zapotec Indian town of
    whitewashed adobe houses and tiled roofs perched on a verdant slope of the western
    Sierra Madre could not be farther from the American laboratories where white-coated
    scientists create strains of genetically altered corn.

    This is the birthplace of maize, where people took thousands of years to
    domesticate its wild ancestor, where pre-Hispanic myths describe it as a gift from
    the gods, and where cooks prepare it in dozens of ways to be served at every
    meal. So the discovery of genetically modified corn in the tiny plots here set
    off a national furor over what many here see as an assault by American
    agribusiness on the crop that is at the core of Mexico's identity.

    "For us, maize is in everything: tamales, tacos, tortillas, pozole," said
    Miguel Ramírez, a local teacher who is active in community affairs. "For us it's

    Then, radiating distrust of government assurances after a decade of free
    trade that has all but depopulated the Mexican countryside, he asked a familiar
    question here: "What is the government doing to make us self-sufficient?"

    The response was a controversial biosecurity law passed by the Mexican
    Congress in February, a step that has divided Mexico's scientists. The issue has
    also put Washington on alert, making it wary of any threat to the 5.5 million
    tons of corn that American farmers export to Mexico each year, more than to any
    other country except Japan.

    After several years of study, a panel of international experts found that the
    risks to health, the environment and biodiversity from genetically modified
    corn were so far very limited. But after a public forum here in Oaxaca State,
    the panel gave special weight to social and cultural arguments about protecting
    corn. It recommended that Mexico reduce corn imports, clearly label
    transgenic corn and mill genetically modified corn as soon as it enters the country, to
    prevent farmers from planting it.

    In the end, the Mexican government set aside the milling recommendation as
    too expensive, but the new law requires still unspecified labeling. Over all,
    imports of American corn, mostly for animal feed, have stayed steady.

    The United States' response to the report was immediate and blistering. It
    called the report "fundamentally flawed" and argued that the recommendations did
    not flow from the panel's scientific conclusions and undercut provisions of
    the North American Free Trade Agreement. "If implemented, these recommendations
    would unnecessarily limit Nafta farmers' access to high-quality U.S. corn
    exports, as well as the environmental benefits that biotech corn provides," a
    statement read.

    The argument has exposed deeper chords that have been resonating here for two
    decades. At its center is a dispute over whether Mexico's embrace of free
    trade can coexist with age-old farming practices that form the fabric of rural

    Like everyone here, Mr. Ramírez farms a small plot to put corn on his table.
    Following tradition, each household plants grain selected and saved from the
    previous year's crop. The practice has created a diversity of corn varieties,
    reflected in a palette of kernels from nearly white to wine red to blue-black,
    making Mexico a corn seed bank for the world.

    One argument against the introduction of genetically altered corn here is the
    fear that cross-pollination with native varieties could alter the purity of
    those crops.

    To many in Oaxaca, the transgenic corn that seeped in from the United States
    was the final insult from successive governments that have dismantled supports
    for uncompetitive peasant farming and embraced free trade. The impact has
    been enormous over the past generation, driving hundreds of thousands of Mexicans
    from rural areas, many of them to the United States for work. "There is a
    systematic strategy to finish off the countryside," said Aldo González, an
    advocate on farm issues from the town of Guelatao.

    Scientists have echoed those concerns, saying the threat to the crop and to
    the rural population cannot be separated. "The most important cause of the loss
    of genetic diversity to the maize varieties is the loss of people, their
    departure from the countryside for California, New York and Texas," said José
    Sarukhán, a respected professor of ecology at the National Autonomous University
    of Mexico who led the panel.

    As Congress debated the biosecurity law, opposing sides marshaled their own
    evidence to support contradictory conclusions. The potential danger to corn -
    and its special place in Mexican society - remain a centerpiece of opposition
    to the law.

    The law's supporters say genetically modified strains could increase yields
    for Mexico's flagging corn production. They argue that the law sets up
    safeguards to introduce genetically modified crops cautiously and monitor their

    But such promises carry little weight in Oaxaca.

    After scientists found transgenic corn in the fields of these mountains in
    2001, despite a 1998 ban on commercial planting, Mr. Ramírez, the local
    activist, and others here asked for a study of the issue. That led to formation of the
    study panel, which was set up by the Commission for Environmental
    Cooperation, a government-financed group that monitors the environmental effects of
    Nafta, and was made up of experts from Mexico, the United States, Canada and

    The study concluded that the alien corn found here probably came from
    American food imports distributed in government stores for the poor and planted by
    local farmers.

    One such farmer, Olga Toro Maldonado, said the new corn produced well the
    first year. But the grain she saved and planted the following year produced
    "tiny, ugly little things." That is because she planted corn developed for the
    Great Plains. In the end, she said, "we realized that it is better to have our own

    The new law promises special rules to protect corn, gives the environmental
    ministry new power over whether to approve any transgenic crops and allows
    communities to set up zones that are free of transgenics. The ban on commercial
    planting is still in effect.
    Don't worry that it's not good enough for anyone else to hear... just sing, sing a song.sigpic

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