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3-Food: Science vs. culture in Mexico's corn staple



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TITLE:  Science vs. Culture in Mexico's Corn Staple
SOURCE: The New York Times, USA, by Elisabeth Malkin
        http://www.nytimes.com/2005/03/27/international/americas/27corn.html
DATE:   27 Mar 2005

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Science vs. Culture in Mexico's Corn Staple

APULÁLPAM 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 sacred."

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 life.

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 effects.

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 Britain.

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 maize."

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.




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