GENET archive


9-Misc: Chicago Tribune with 3 articles on "MEXICO, MAIZE AND MONSANTO - Genetic colonialism"

                                  PART I
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TITLE:  MEXICO, MAIZE AND MONSANTO - Genetic colonialism
        REGULATION - Good enough for U.S., good enough for Mexico?
SOURCE: Chicago Tribune, USA, by Norman C. Ellstrand
DATE:   3 Apr 2005

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Genetic colonialism

Good enough for U.S., good enough for Mexico?

Despite Mexico's multiyear ban on planting genetically engineered corn,
scientists have confirmed that engineered genes have made their way into
remote cornfields in Mexico.

For most corn scientists, this discovery wasn't a surprise.

For millenniums, Mexican farmers have managed the genetics of their
crops--particularly corn--carefully replanting seed saved from last
year's crop, exchanging seed with others and experimenting with new seed
when the chance arises. Mexico's native crops may be traditionally grown
and managed, but they are genetically sophisticated, far from primitive.
Farmers have created a constellation of corn varieties for specific uses,
from tortillas to tamales.

Because Mexico imports millions of tons of corn from its NAFTA neighbors,
some of that foreign seed might find its way into its cornfields. It is
likely that some farmers experimentally planted seed imported from Canada
or the United States for human or animal consumption (seed technically
known as "grain").

Almost half of that corn seed contains engineered genes.

If a transgenic corn plant in a Mexican field had a chance to flower and
cross-pollinate others, then the seed it sired would carry engineered
genes. Because it's not unusual for corn pollen to fertilize ears
hundreds of feet from a source plant, some transgenes could end up in a
neighbor's crop.

But are unintended engineered genes in Mexican corn a big deal?

That question was addressed by a report released last year by the North
American Commission for Environmental Cooperation which studies the
environmental impacts of NAFTA trade. The report came at the request of
Mexican organizations worried about what these unexpected genes might
mean for Mexico's environment and health.

Regulatory scientists in the United States, Canada and a few other
countries have approved the commercial production of corn with certain
transgenes for insect resistance and herbicide resistance. The first
variety was approved in the United States a decade ago, without
subsequent evidence of environmental or health effects. The fraction of
genetically engineered corn has grown to about 40 percent of the U.S. crop.

Not so fast

If it's good enough for the United States, shouldn't it be good enough
for Mexico?

Not without Mexican regulatory scrutiny.

The Commission for Environmental Cooperation recommended reducing the
likelihood that imported GE corn is planted in Mexico until scientists
there can consider the impacts of GE corn in Mexico. This recommendation
makes sense for two reasons.

First, regulators in one country don't consider possible impacts of
transgenics beyond their borders. I once asked a regulator why a U.S.
Department of Agriculture decision document didn't mention that corn
naturally hybridizes with its wild relative, teosinte. He said, "Teosinte
doesn't grow in the United States, only Mexico. It would be presumptuous
to tell the Mexican government what to do." And he is right.
Environmental context is important. What is considered a crop in some
countries may be a nasty weed elsewhere. Mexican government scientists
haven't yet studied the impact of American transgenic corn in the Mexican

Wouldn't Americans be anxious and angry about importing millions of tons
of living transgenic seed deregulated in, for example, China, but not by
our own regulatory scientists? Clearly, this issue of regulatory
sovereignty is critical.

Second, unintended transgene spread could create corn varieties that
might not be as benign as the intended varieties.

Corn has been the species of choice for genetic engineers who create
plants to produce pharmaceuticals and other industrial chemicals not
intended for human consumption. The USDA has approved hundreds of field
tests for corn engineered to create such chemicals.

Many of these chemicals wouldn't be harmful if they inadvertently ended
up in food. But others would result in adverse health effects, if they
occur at high enough levels.

Stringent confinement

Nonetheless, current U.S. regulations require fairly stringent
confinement for so-called pharm crops; thus, if a few pollen grains
strayed, siring transgenic seeds that entered the U.S. food supply, the
concentration of such compounds would likely be too low to be of
consequence or to even be detected.

Because more than 99 percent of American farmers grow hybrid varieties,
which are sterile, and thus buy new seed every year, it would be close to
impossible for the frequency of such genes (and their unwanted products)
to increase in farmers' fields or the U.S. food supply.

It's different for Mexico. Some Mexican farmers use hybrid varieties and
do not replant seed. But thousands of others plant saved seed from a
previous harvest, often experimenting with seed from their neighbors or
taken from a bag of grain distributed for human or animal consumption.
Bags of grain for consumption have come increasingly from Mexico's NAFTA

Consider the worst-case scenario.

Assume a tiny fraction of corn seed imported into Mexico contains a
transgene that creates a chemical that would have serious health effects
in sufficiently high concentrations. Then assume a farmer experimenting
with imported seeds plants one with the chemical-producing transgene.
Finally, assume that gene confers an advantage to plants that bear it,
resulting in more seeds or more pollen.

Then, the conditions are right for the gene to evolve, increasing in
frequency, undetected, generation by generation. The chemical also
increases in concentration in the food supply until it eventually has
serious effects on the health of those eat it.

Sound far-fetched?

Although this scenario is unlikely, each separate step has already
happened. For example, both the USDA and the Environmental Protection
Agency have reported compliance violations in the United States involving
seed- and pollen-mediated escape of pharmaceutical-producing corn genes.
Luckily, the violations were caught in time, and crop products were destroyed.

The limited planting of pharm corn (a couple of hundred acres) at this
time makes international leakage extremely unlikely. But the popularity
of pharm crops and the hazard posed by the "worst-case scenario" make
clear that now is the time for Mexico to start managing and monitoring
the inflow of corn transgenes, as the Commission for Environmental
Cooperation suggests.

Managing and monitoring

Gene flow could be managed by treating seeds in some way that prevents
germination. Monitoring could be facilitated by requiring that transgenic
seed be genetically marked, say, with a seed color trait.

Some have criticized the commission's report as flawed and unscientific.

Yet its scientific basis is sound. Agricultural biotechnology has
potential for great benefits. But like any new technology, with potential
benefits come potential risks. Like other modern technologies, from
electrification to the automobile, the wise use of science maximizes
benefits while minimizing risks.


Norman C. Ellstrand is director of the Biotechnology Impacts Center at
the University of California, Riverside, and author of "Dangerous
Liaisons? When Cultivated Plants Mate with Their Wild Relatives."

                                  PART II
-------------------------------- GENET-news -------------------------------

TITLE:  MEXICO, MAIZE AND MONSANTO - Genetic colonialism
        CRADLE OF CORN'S BIODIVERSITY - Don't mess with maize--and respect
SOURCE: Chicago Tribue, USA, by Don S. Doering
DATE:   3 Apr 2005

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Genetic colonialism

Don't mess with maize --and respect neighbor

It is sound policy for the U.S. and Mexico to prevent the planting of
fertile genetically engineered corn in Mexico until Mexico has put a
regulatory system in place.

In the case of corn, doing so protects the environment, protects U.S.
interests in expanding commodity markets, balances social and economic
concerns, and respects Mexico's sovereignty.

Controversy erupted several years ago when engineered genes were found in
native corn of indigenous Mexican peoples, despite the ban on planting
genetically engineered corn in Mexico.

The Commission for Environmental Cooperation, the three-nation panel that
addresses environmental impacts of NAFTA trade, was petitioned to study
the situation by Mexican farmers and environmentalists furious about
transgenes in their native corn.

They view this "contamination" from American GE corn as a real risk to
their culture, political rights, livelihoods and personal safety.

The CEC report concluded that genetically engineered genes found in
Mexico's traditional species of corn were unlikely to have any major
effect on Mexico's biodiversity. At the same time, the panel recommended
reducing the likelihood that imported GE corn is planted in Mexico.

There is no contradiction here in recommending safeguards, though risks
appear to be low.

Wisdom dictates care in Mexico, the cradle of corn's biodiversity, and
prudence in the face of social protests. The issues look quite different
from the southern side of our border.

To some in Mexico, corn alone symbolizes as much as Mom and apple pie,
wrapped together in "The Star-Spangled Banner."

You don't mess with Texas in America and you don't mess with maize in Oaxaca.

Immediately at stake for the U.S. is about $1 billion in corn exports to
Mexico but also confidence in the worldwide export of American GE crops.
The U.S. exports almost 8 million tons of corn--known there as maize--to
Mexico each year, mostly for animal feed and processing. The imports
include 5 million tons of plantable corn, about one-third of which is
genetically engineered with a gene to tolerate herbicide applications or
a gene for a natural insecticide.

The transgenes found in Mexico probably came from the unlabeled American
GE corn, both intentionally and accidentally planted in mating proximity
to native corn species.

The CEC panel concluded that those engineered genes are not likely to
have any greater effect on biodiversity than do genes of non-GE corn
varieties. However, no one knows that for certain because there has not
been thorough study in Mexico's own environment. Similarly, there is no
expected human health risk, but this has not been studied in Mexico,
whose citizens eat 10 times more corn than do Americans.

The cost of stopping the Mexico-U.S. corn trade is much too high, but any
risks from planting GE corn in Mexico should be reduced out of respect
for Mexico's sovereign right to regulate GE crops and respect for the
Mexicans who perceive a direct threat.

The CEC group recommended reducing the chance that unapproved GE corn
will be planted in Mexico before a national regulatory policy is
implemented by: educating farmers, labeling the corn and milling the corn
or directing it to a specifically certified end use.

Such a program of stewardship and end-use certification could build
regulatory capability in Mexico and restrict fertile GE corn to livestock
feeding and away from corn's center of biodiversity.

Milling or cracking may raise some costs, but it would hardly be a
barrier to trade if most milling occurs in Mexico, where it may create
jobs and new industry. Fully 30 percent of U.S. corn exports to Mexico
are already cracked corn, and Mexican consumers aren't likely to see an
increase in meat or tortilla prices from milling and stewardship of feed corn.

Mexican law, and the international treaties to which it is a party,
permit the country to protect the socioeconomic interests of its citizens
and to exercise precaution in regulating biotechnology imports.

Even allowing for Mexico's historical racial and political tensions, the
communities that petitioned the CEC can legitimately complain of being
sidelined in the development of biotechnology regulations. Considering
the cultural and religious connections between corn and Mexican rural
life, Mexico's biotechnology policy may weigh social considerations more
seriously than does the U.S.

The CEC's report does not deny the benefits of agricultural biotechnology
to American and Canadian farmers and the potential of agricultural
biotechnology to improve agriculture. The report supports scientific
investigation of GE crops and is a vote for the right of nations to
assess biotechnology in the context of their own consumption patterns,
culture, socioeconomic concerns and heritage of biodiversity.

The U.S. can recognize its own long-term interest in investing in
innovations to increase the safety and value of GE crops and in helping
Mexico build fair regulations.

New technologies and policy precedents for controlling fertile GE seed
may open international markets for U.S. crops. The Mexican case is a
forerunner of future cases: rice in Asia, potatoes in South America or
millet and sorghum in Africa.

The U.S. must remember that risks and benefits are in the eye of the
importer and that each nation's case may entail a particular balance of
scientific certainty with socioeconomic priorities. Respecting our
important trading partner of Mexico will better position the U.S. for
future tests in the World Trade Organization, the European Union, and in
developing nations in need of American food donations and improved crops
with higher yield, better nutrition and resistance to pests and drought.

For its part, Mexico should implement a functioning biotechnology
regulatory policy.


Don S. Doering is a member of the maize advisory group of the North
American Commission for Environmental Cooperation and author of the new
report "Designing Genes."

                                  PART III
-------------------------------- GENET-news -------------------------------

TITLE:  MEXICO, MAIZE AND MONSANTO - Genetic colonialism
        'THE MONSANTO LAW' - Mexico and the corn law--and degrees of caution
SOURCE: Chicago Tribune, USA, by Hugh Dellios
DATE:   3 Apr 2005

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Genetic colonialism

Mexico and the corn law --and degrees of caution

Environmentalists rappelled into the hall of Congress to protest.
Outside, dressed like devils, they held up banners condemning what they
call "the Monsanto law."

That was the welcome received by a new Mexican law that proponents say
could help the country develop biotechnology to battle its own peculiar
farm plagues, improve its food output and clean up soil contaminated by
oil spills.

The Law of Biosecurity for Genetically Modified Organisms, signed
recently by President Vicente Fox, is the latest flash point of
contention over the idea of lab-altered food, crops and medicine.

While the issue raises health concerns in other parts of the world, it is
an especially sensitive topic in Mexico because of fears about the impact
of altered genes on the world's original corn species.

While Mexico had enforced a moratorium on genetically altered products,
the new law puts in place a system to approve and regulate them. That,
proponents say, will spur experiments and allow Mexico to better
understand and take advantage of one of the world's most promising

Critics, including Greenpeace, condemn the new law as a sellout to
profit-minded industry groups, such as St. Louis-based Monsanto, the
agricultural technology developer, without proper safeguards to protect
consumers and farmers from unknown risks.

At bottom is the definition of the word "caution."

Nearly all sides agree humanity should proceed cautiously with
development of "transgenics," or the transfer of genes from one organism
to another, but few agree on how cautiously.

The "cautionary principle" is the basis for the Cartagena Protocol on
Biosafety, a 2000 international treaty prescribing how nations should
develop and trade in transgenic materials. It has been ratified by 118
countries, including Mexico, although not the U.S., by far the largest
manufacturer and user of transgenic crops and other products.

The "cautionary principle" supposedly underlies the new Mexican law, as
well as a recent report by the North American Commission for
Environmental Cooperation over the potential impact of lab-altered corn,
millions of dollars of which is imported into Mexico from the U.S. each year.

While the CEC panel found no evidence of harm or benefit from altered
corn genes in Mexico, it warned of risks from unforeseen future genetic
experiments. It suggested that, until Mexico develops its own regulatory
system, it should take precautionary steps, such as grinding up the
imported corn so the kernels can't be planted.

That was way too cautious for industry groups, and for the Bush
administration, which criticized the panel's recommendations as
"fundamentally flawed and unscientific." The critics also questioned the
panel's report for considering sociocultural aspects, such as rural
Mexican farmers' fear of the new technology.

"Greenpeace and other groups want to see [the principle of caution] as
the principle of cancellation," said Francisco Bolivar Zapata, a
biogenetic researcher and chairman of the Biotechnology Committee of the
Mexican Academy of Sciences, which endorsed the new law.

Bolivar said the law will allow the government to examine the proposed
uses of transgenics on a case-by-case, step-by-step basis. He said that,
with time, the country would begin to learn about the benefits, just as
Brazil adjusted and now produces soybeans that are 30 percent altered to
resist bugs, cost less to produce and use less pesticide.

"Not all transgenics are good, but not all transgenics are bad. We have
to analyze them case by case," Bolivar said. "This technology is more
natural and more respectful of biodiversity than what we are using now
with chemical pesticides."

The law's opponents say it reflects the principle of promotion rather
than caution. They don't trust the government, which has consistently
endorsed biotechnology, nor many of the scientists who backed the law,
some of whom have patents and stand to profit.

"The mechanisms to go step by step and case by case are really weak,"
said Areli Carreon, coordinator of Greenpeace's consumer protection
campaign in Mexico. "This doesn't guarantee us access to food that's free
from this technology that is being patented" by biochemical companies.

Under the new law, a government ministry would be charged with analyzing
and testing each transgenic product to be marketed. It promotes education
about transgenics and sets up a process to designate transgenic "free zones."

The opponents had wanted the new law to set out penalties for transgenics
producers who "contaminate" farmers' crops without their permission. They
also wanted the law to demand that all transgenic products be labeled for

As is, the law requires only some labeling. The law's proponents argued
that the approval process made it unnecessary and that it would unfairly
mark the products while increasing the price for consumers.

"We have to understand that corn in particular has a special situation in
Mexico, but we have to create possibilities for other crops," Bolivar
said. "We're going to have to go on winning the battles one by one, case
by case."


European NGO Network on Genetic Engineering

Hartmut MEYER (Mr)
In den Steinäckern 13
D - 38116 Braunschweig

P: +49-531-5168746
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