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Environment

Genetically modified corn takes root in Mexico

Biotech companies have been experimenting with varieties of GM corn in Mexico ever since the lifting of a moratorium on the crops. Both proponents and detractors are claiming to represent the interests of poor farmers.

A hand picking corn

GM maize has been planted in Mexican test fields

The Mexican government first lifted its ban on experimental crops of genetically modified (GM) maize last year, freeing the way for field trials in the country where the crop was first domesticated.

But, much like in Europe where opposition to cultivating genetically modified crops has been strong, some small-scale farmers and environmental protection groups have criticized the government's decision to add modified crops to the roughly 60 types of maize traditionally cultivated in Mexico.

For family farmers like Rogelio Sanchez, who lives in the village Vicente Guerrero, maize is more than just a crop and deserves to be protected from genetic alteration.

"Maize is sacred to us," he said of the staple that has been cultivated in Mexico for some 7,000 years. "It's the foundation of our diet and a part of our cultural identity that we inherited from our forefathers."

Conflicting interests

Maize

There are some 60 sorts of maize cultivated in Mexico

A village of about 200 families, mostly working one-to-two-hectare subsistence farms, together with a group of farmers in Vicente Guerrero have joined forces to promote traditional farming methods that call for natural seeds, composting and no pesticides.

The group's agricultural methods are a far cry from the kind of agriculture being trialed in Mexico's north, although the government hasn't yet given the green light to commercial production of GM maize, as it already has for genetically modified cotton.

The modified maize would help farmers - especially cash-strapped small-time farmers - increase the size of their harvests without significantly increasing costs, according to Ariel Alvarez of Mexico's Inter-Secretarial Commission on Biosafety of Genetically Modified Organisms (CIBIOGEM).

"Some people call it genetic contamination, but others say that this gene can help the people who need it most: small-time farmers," he said.

"The farmers who don't have the money to buy pesticides and end up losing half of their harvests could benefit. Are we going to call that contamination?"

A person in a lab coat with corn in a test tube

Supporters say GM maize would increase harvest sizes

Calming fears

To help calm people's fears about GM crops, Alvarez and other officials recently opened the commission's doors to inform the public and take questions.

One of their arguments is that the government does not force farmers to buy and use the modified seeds sold by Monsanto and other companies.

The commission also claims that more research into genetically modified crops is necessary, and that it could become a substantial source of future income and transform Mexico from a niche market into a global player.

Aleira Lara of the environmental protection group Greenpeace has, however, warned that the government risks opening a Pandora's Box, because it is not known how the GM crops will affect indigenous varieties of maize.

She added that Mexico, the birthplace of corn crops, was a valuable country for biotech companies trying to win over regulators to their cause.

"Mexico is a symbol for Monsanto," she said. "If they get permission for genetically modified maize here, it's like a springboard for other countries where there has been opposition."

Author: Martin Polansky, Sean Sinico (IPS)

Editor: Nathan Witkop

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