Genetically modified corn is trickling into Mexico after overcoming years of legal barriers, but where some farmers see the promise of reduced imports, others see a threat to their heritage.
Mexico, widely believed to be the birthplace of corn, has long been hesitant to adopt transgenic maize seeds. But the country is also a major food importer and finds itself outpaced by exporting giants such as the U. S. and Brazil when it comes to yields.
So last year, after a decade of political wrangling, Mexico completed a package of laws to allow for controlled experiments with the genetically engineered seeds, designed to resist certain pests or herbicides, reduce costs, and increase yields. In small, isolated fields in three states in northern Mexico, Monsanto and Pioneer Hi-Bred recently completed the tests with positive results.
It is the first time GM corn seeds have been allowed to take root in Mexican soil since 1998 when the government put a moratorium on studies until a legal framework was in place to regulate the crops.
“We have to recover lost time. Mexico should be using 21st century technology so we can compete and not be an importing country,” said Fabrice Salamanca, who heads the group AgroBIO that represents biotech companies participating in the trials.
Companies with experiments verified as safe are aiming to subsidize farmers to launch pilot projects in larger areas next year in the northern states of Sinaloa and Tamaulipas, Salamanca said. The pilot fields would not exceed around 250 acres (100 hectares), a tiny fraction of Mexico’s 20 million corn acres. Biotech companies hope to eventually see five million acres planted with GM corn. But that be years away. GM cotton plants, less controversial than corn, are only now being grown commercially after 15 years of experimental plantings because of bureaucratic red tape holding up permits, Salamanca said.
The Mexican farmers interested in GM seeds are major producers who see unfair competition from the United States where the bulk of corn is genetically modified. Mexico is self-sufficient in white corn used to make the daily staple tortillas, but the country imports around 10 million tonnes of GM yellow corn a year for animal feed.
But small producers are worried. Indigenous groups say corn, revered in pre-colonial Mexico by the Mayans and the Aztecs as a god, has sustained generations of farmers who save their red, blue, white and multi-coloured corn seeds using techniques passed down for generations.
And while the GM test fields are isolated from other corn crops by 2,000 feet (600 metres) and planting dates are staggered to avoid crossing, there are fears cross-pollination could contaminate the dozens of corn varieties only found in Mexico.
“My grandparents taught my family the process of saving seeds … (The worry is) we will lose our native corn,” Alejandro Nevarez, a Tarahumara agronomist in Chihuahuaha state where there have been some GM experiments.
Nevarez said some Tarahumara people, who live in poverty in the craggy mountains of the picturesque Copper Canyon, have refused government handouts of seeds fearing they are part of the GM tests.
…thecountryisalsoa majorfoodimporter andfindsitself
outpacedbyexporting giantssuchastheU.S. andBrazilwhenit comestoyields.