Transgenic Corn Growing in Mesoamerica
By Diego Cevallos*
Two thousand hectares of genetically modified corn are planted in Honduras with government approval. In the rest of the region -- birthplace of this grain -- there are reports that local varieties have been contaminated by transgenic corn.
MEXICO CITY - In Mesoamerica, where maize was domesticated some nine thousand years ago, Honduras is the only country that permits the commercial cultivation of transgenic corn varieties.
Officials there say that those who oppose genetically modified corn are misinformed, and that there are some who believe transgenics are related to "witchcraft".
But the battery of arguments against transgenic crops is much more complex, and includes scientific grounds about the risks they pose for ecosystems, food security and the region's cultures.
Transgenic corn varieties "have only generated benefits" for Honduras, Francisco Gómez, a spokesman for the state-run Institute for Agricultural Information, told Tierramérica. The Institute authorized the commercial planting of genetically modified corn in Honduras in 2003.
Approximately 2,000 of the 350,000 hectares dedicated to maize in Honduras are planted with transgenic varieties.
Opposition to these crops is due to misinformation, says Gómez. "And many people believe that transgenic crops are related to witchcraft... (but) all we are doing is accelerating and improving production."
In Mexico, where there is broad and intense debate about this issue, "witchcraft" has not emerged among the arguments wielded by either side.
The controversy in Mexico has been heating up since 2001 when it was reported that transgenic corn -- which a 1999 law states cannot be grown commercially -- genetically contaminated its "natural" relatives.
For most of the people in Mesoamerica, a region extending from southern Mexico through Central America, this grain is a main part of their diet, and pre-Hispanic tradition states that the gods used corn to create the first human.
Around eight million hectares are planted with corn in Mexico each year, 60 percent by small farmers who grow the crop for their own families' consumption.
The North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) considers genetic contamination a serious matter, and decided in 2002 to undertake an extensive investigation, with the results expected to be ready in June.
However, it is not known if the governments behind the CEC -- Canada, Mexico and United States -- will make the conclusions public. These three countries are partners in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The CEC was created to prevent potential trade and environmental conflicts, and complements the treaty's environmental provisions.
According to the commission's preliminary reports, the problem of introducing transgenic varieties in genetically diverse regions is that their genetic information can spread to the local varieties that the small farmers produce, and could dilute the natural sustainability of those strains.
Another element to consider is that genetically modified corn has been created to produce toxins that repel pests, and could be disseminated through the food chain to insects, bringing with it serious implications for the natural biological controls in cultivated fields, says the CEC.
The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) has taken the Mexican corn issue into account in its Global Environmental Outlook (GEO) report for Latin America and the Caribbean 2003, citing the "potential environmental consequences of transgenic contamination."
According to the transnational corporations that produce genetically modified seed, their use will enrich the native varieties of corn without affecting the environment.
One of the issues of greatest concern to the environmentalists is that the patents for transgenic corn and other genetically modified crops developed for commercial purposes belong to a handful of transnationals, who the farmers must pay for the seeds and the right to use the patented crop.
Small farm production in Latin America supplies 40 percent of domestic consumption and is responsible for 51 percent of maize output, 77 percent of beans and 61 percent of potatoes.
Guatemala, which along with Mexico is considered the birthplace of maize, since 1998 has banned experimentation, planting and imports of genetically modified varieties.
"The prohibition is justified because through pollination a transgenic plant can be crossed with native varieties" and create a "difficult situation", Salvador Sandoval, agronomist with the Guatemalan Agriculture Ministry's health regulation division, told Tierramérica.
Sixty thousand hectares are planted with corn in Guatemala, not enough to meet domestic demand, so the country imports around 11.5 million tons of the grain each year. Similar situations can be found throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.
The region purchases about 90 percent of corn exports from the United States, the world's leading producer, and a third of U.S. corn is genetically modified, but reaches Latin America with lo labeling to indicate it as such to the consumers.
Mexican studies show that the genetic contamination of native corn varieties could be the result of accidental pollination -- something that could also be happening in the other Mesoamerican countries.
Maize is a freely pollinating crop, and it is known that the transfer of genetic material occurs easily among plants within short distances of each other. For centuries, farmers have taken advantage of this fact to cross domesticated corn with wild varieties.
In Costa Rica, where the production of genetically modified corn seed has been permitted since the 1990s exclusively for export, there is no evidence of genetic contamination, Alex May, of the Agriculture Ministry's National Biosafety Commission, told Tierramérica.
Costa Rica dedicates some 18,000 hectares to corn production, and imports around 70,000 tons of the grain from the United States each year.
Mexican scientist Luis Herrera, who is considered one of the founders of biogenetics, maintains that despite the debate on transgsenics under way, the introduction of these varieties in agriculture worldwide is irreversible.
In his opinion, what countries need to do is control, use and develop their own transgenic varieties, but while also promoting traditional crop development technologies.
* Diego Cevallos is an IPS correspondent. With reporting by Jorge A. Grochembake in Guatemala and José Eduardo Mora in Costa Rica.