On September 4, 2001 Mexican officials admitted that an alarming number of genetically engineered (GE) corn plants have been detected growing alongside traditional corn varieties over a widespread area inthe state of Oaxaca. For millennia corn has been sacred to the Mayaand other native people of Mexico. Over centuries small farmers have carefully bred and preserved thousands of different traditional varieties of corn, called land races, which are specific to each geographical region, soil type, and micro-climate of the country. Corn, or maize as it is called traditionally, remains today the most important crop for a quarter of the nation's 10 million indigenous and small farmers. Corn tortillas play a major role in the diet of Mexico's 100 million people. Critics have warned that GE corn should never be imported into Mexico, the most important world center of biodiversity for corn, since the gene pool of the nation's 20,000 cornvarieties and plant relatives, including the progenitor species of corn, called teosinte, could be irreversibly damaged by "genetic pollution" from the genetically engineered (herbicide-resistant orBt-spliced) maize being aggressively marketed by Monsanto, Syngenta (formerly called Novartis), and other agbiotech transnationals.
Under pressure to protect the nation's corn biodiversity, Mexican authorities have proclaimed a moratorium on domestic cultivation of GEcorn. Meanwhile, they have ignored the massive dumping of millions oftons of cheap (US taxpayer-subsidized) GE corn by corporations suchArcher Daniels Midland (ADM) and Cargill. Agronomists and environmentalists fear that Mexican farmers have now, perhaps unknowingly, spread this imported Frankencorn into most of thecorn-growing regions of the country, by planting GE corn from the USwhich was supposed to be sold for human food consumption only. Since impoverished Mexican farmers are looking for the cheapest corn seed possible to plant, they are increasingly choosing to buy the importedGE-tainted corn from the US, since it is considerably cheaper thannon-subsidized Mexican varieties.
CORN DUMPING: COLLATERAL DAMAGE
Compounding Mexico's genetic pollution problem is the fact that major overseas buyers of corn (Europe, Japan, Korea) are stubbornly refusing to buy gene-altered corn. Consequently North American exporters are finding it necessary to dump increasing amounts of GE-tainted maize oncaptive markets such as Mexico, China, Egypt, Colombia, Malaysia, andBrazil. Nineteen percent of the US corn, 14 million acres, is now genetically engineered, although GE acreage is down 30% from two years ago, mainly due to global resistance against Frankenfoods.
Corn dumping in Mexico has accelerated since the advent of the 1994North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Under the relentless pressure of globalization, Mexico has been transformed from being amajor producer of corn (producing 98% of its needs for example in1994) to a major importer, ranking third in the world (after Japan and Korea) in terms of imports from the US and Canada. The reason for thisis simple. Corn costs essentially $3.40 a bushel for family-sized farmers in the US and Canada to produce, and even more for a smallfarmer in Mexico. Yet Cargill and ADM, due to their monopoly controlof the market, pay US farmers less than $2.00 a bushel, with the UStaxpayer picking up the remainder of the tab. This enormous subsidy inturn gets reimbursed to farmers, although large corporate farms getthe lion's share of the US's annual $20-30 billion in farm pricesupport payments. Even with enormous taxpayer subsidies, most years USfarmers have trouble even recuperating their costs of corn production-leading to demands by family farmers for a breakup ofCargill and ADM's grain monopoly. Only organic corn farmers, operating outside ADM and Cargill's cartel, are receiving a fair price for their harvest. And of course North American organic corn growers are increasingly alarmed over the fact that "genetic pollution" or gene flow from GE corn fields are starting to contaminate their valuable crops.
Long standing Mexican government regulation of corn supply and prices,support for small corn growers, and price subsidies for corn tortillasfor Mexican consumers have been eliminated, all at the behest of Cargill, ADM, and ADM's powerful Mexican partner, Gruma/Maseca. Theend result of this globalization process is that small andmedium-sized farmers, both North and South of the border, can't make aliving, while ADM and Cargill (and their preferred customers such asMcDonald's, Wal-Mart, Tyson, Smithfield) make a killing. Meanwhile,consumers, who have been promised that Free Trade would result inlower prices, are paying more for food every year. Corn tortillas, the main staple of the Mexican diet, have risen in price 300% since NAFTAcame into effect.
SOUTHERN CORN BLIGHT: A CAUTIONARY TALE
As botanists and plant breeders warn, contaminating Mexico's irreplaceable corn land races and germplasm pool could be "catastrophic" for farmers and consumers. For example in 1970,millions of acres of the US corn crop were devastated by a Southerncorn leaf blight which destroyed 15% of the total US harvest (50% ofall corn in some areas), leading to over $1 billion in losses, not tomention marketplace shortages. By going to the "germplasm" bank ofthousands of traditional varieties cultivated in Mexico, and withdrawing several varieties which were resistant to the Southern corn blight, plant breeders were able to use conventional cross-breeding and come up with a single blight-resistant hybrid variety which was planted in 1971-thereby saving billions of dollars in losses and maintaining global food security.
Underlining the central importance of corn biodiversity and preserving traditional varieties or landraces, researchers have also found inrecent years that a perennial variety of corn's original parent,teosinte, found in Mexico, contains genes that can protect plants from seven of the nine principle viruses that infect corn crops in the US.
Of course if herbicide-resistant and Bt corn had already been polluting Mexico's centers of corn biodiversity before 1970, no one knows if the traditional variety resistant to Southern corn blight would still have been around to save the day. Likewise no one can predict the impact of Frankencorn pollution on virus-resistant teosinte varieties and other corn plant relatives. But one thing is certain, if globalization continues to drive several million Mexican farmers from the land, and forces traditional growers to shift to growing non-corn export crops, most of the nation's heirloom cornvarieties or landraces will be lost forever, since centralized seedbanks (which typically store rather than cultivate their thousands ofdifferent varieties) cannot properly preserve landraces which are nolonger being cultivated in their native areas. Analysts estimate thatalmost a million small farmers-primary breeders and stewards of thousands of corn and other crop landraces--already have been driven from their cornfields and communal lands (ejidos) since Mexico essentially turned over control of its agricultural sector to Cargill,ADM, and other North American food giants.
Even US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) scientists have previously warned that genetically engineered crops should not begrown where wild relatives exist (prohibiting for example GE cotton from being grown in parts of southern Florida, where wild relatives ofcotton exist), much less in biological centers of diversity such asthe maize-growing areas of Mexico. Of course this concern over geneticpollution didn't prevent the EPA in October 2001 from giving the greenlight to allow Bt corn to continue to be grown for seven more years inthe US, ignoring environmental and public health concerns voiced byscientists and consumer groups--knowing full well that millions oftons of GE-tainted corn continue to be exported by US corporations tocenters of corn biodiversity such as Mexico, Central America, SouthAmerica, and the Caribbean.
Genetic engineering of agricultural crops and corn dumping not onlypose a serious threat to Mexico (and Central America's) cornbiodiversity, but also pose a threat to c ontinental peace into effect, local and regionalmarkets for indigenous and small farmers in the region have been undermined and destroyed. Farmers are finding it increasingly difficult to sell their corn, beans, coffee, or other crops. Rural poverty and hunger have increased, forcing millions of campesinos to migrate to the US. Mounting desperation has also spawned widespread,at times violent, agrarian conflicts in Mexican states such as Chiapas, Oaxaca, and Guerrero and threatens to reignite armed struggle across Central America.
FRANKENCORN: ADDITIONAL ENVIRONMENTAL HAZARDS
The threat to thousands of traditional varieties of corn in Mexico isjust one of the environmental hazards of genetically engineered corn.Other environmental dangers include:
FRANKENCORN: HUMAN HEALTH HAZARDS
Bt corn is designed to punch holes in the intestines of certaininsects and kill them. But what does it do to the gut, immune system,and other vital organs of humans and animals? A good question,especially since the biotech industry, EPA, and other government officials have never bothered to look at this public health issue,despite growing concerns expressed by a broad cross-section ofscientists and public interest consumer groups. Everyone by now has heard about the StarLink corn fiasco 18 months ago, when an illegaland likely allergenic variety of Bt corn contaminated 10% of the UScorn crop and forced a billion dollar recall of 300 brand name products, including Kraft Taco Bell shells. But what about the other varieties of Bt corn, the stuff you're likely eating every time youbite into a corn product which is not labeled "organic?"
The Gene Giants claim that Bt corn is chemically "substantially equivalent" to conventional corn, and that eating it, therefore, will have exactly the same physiological impact as consuming regular corn.Well-respected experts such as Dr. Michael Hansen from the Consumers Union point out that this is not true. The Bt endotoxin and proteins expressed in every cell of genetically engineered corn are different from what humans and animals have ever eaten before. The haphazard insertion of a "genetic cassette" (including promoters, vectors, and antibiotic resistance marker genes) into the corn host genome is essentially random since scientists don't know if or when the foreigngene will be spliced into the plant's DNA, which of hundreds or even thousands of proteins will be expressed or generated, or even how manycopies of the gene will be produced. Bt, the naturally occurring soilbacteria, is not the same as Syngenta or Monsanto's patented andgene-altered Bt forcefully injected into GE corn. Although there's alot we don't know yet about the potential hazards of eating GE corn,in terms of toxins, allergies, and impacts on the human gut anddigestive system, there are enough danger signs already to give uspause for thought. Mounting evidence includes the following:
FRANKENCORN AND MICE: ANOTHER CAUTIONARY TALE
Concerned that industry and government have failed to carry out proper scientific studies on the safety of GE corn and other Frankenfoods, ayoung Dutch science student, Hinze Hogendoorn, recently decided totake matters into his own hands. Dr. Mae Wan-Ho, a British geneticist and world renowned critic of biotechnology, reported the results ofthis simple, yet remarkable animal-feeding experiment on her website www.i-sis.org in December 2001. Here are excerpts from Dr. Ho'sreport:
"A Dutch farmer left two piles of maize in a barn infested with mice,one pile GM (genetically modified), the other non-GM. The GM pile was untouched, while the non-GM pile was completely eaten up. Incredible!Young undergraduate Hinze Hogendoorn, from University College, Utrecht devised his own laboratory tests and confirmed the finding, and more.An activist group (Jongeren Milieu Aktief) presented the report Hinzehas written to the Dutch parliament on December 11, 2001 and isfeaturing it on their new website (www.talk2000.nl).
Hinze couldn't find a single scientific report on animals being testedfor preference of GM versus non GM food on the web when he began. One extending his search to effects of GM foods on animals, he came across reports from companies developing GM foods, all declaring there wereno adverse impacts. But he also came across independent researchers who have reported harmful effects, including Dr. Arpad Pusztai, who found GM potatoes damaged the kidney, thymus, spleen and gut of young rats.
Hinze was stumped at first, because he would have needed to gothrough a lot of bureaucracy to experiment on animals. However, hemanaged to rescue 30 female six-week old mice bred to feed snakes froma herpetology centre. [Hinze gave] them a staple food along with thetwo foods [GM and non-GE corn and soya] that were to be compared, sothey could really show their preference without being starved.
Large cages were used so the mice had plenty of room to move around.At the beginning, all the mice were weighed before they were put intothe cage[s].The mice had not eaten for some time, but amazingly, they[immediately] showed very definite food preferences [preferring thenon GM corn and soya]. For the next [nine] week[s], Hinze continued to give the mice GM and non GM maize or soya chunks. the mice consumed 61% non GM and 39% GM food when given free choice.
For the next experiment, Hinze tested for the [health] effects of GM food. Over the next 10 days, he kept track of the amount of food thatthe two groups consumed each day, and weighed the mice, halfway through and at the end of the experiments.
The group fed GM ate more, probably because they were slightly heavier on average to begin with, but they gained less weight. By the end, they actually lost weight. In contrast, the group fed non GM ate less and gained more weight, continuing to gain weight until the end of the experiment. The re sults were statistically significant.
That was not the only difference observed. There were marked behavioral differences. The mice fed GM food "seemed less active whilein their cages."
The most striking difference was when the mice were weighed at the endof the experiment. The mice fed GM food were "more distressed" thanthe other mice. "Many were running round and round the basket, scrabbling desperately in the sawdust, and even frantically jumping upthe sides, something I'd never seen before." They were clearly morenervous than the mice from the other cage. "For me this was the most disconcerting evidence that GM food is not quite normal."
Another "interesting result" is that one of the mice in the GM cage was found dead at the end of the experiment. Hinze concluded, "At the end of everything, I must admit that the experiment has done nothing to soothe my qualms concerning genetically enhanced food."
FRANKENCORN OR PESTICIDES: CHOOSE YOUR POISON
The hazards of genetically engineered corn, and other GE foods, are frightening. But even if global resistance were able to drive GE corn off the market tomorrow, we would still be left with a highly toxic,chemical-intensive, industrial-style system of corn production whichis depleting soil fertility, poisoning municipal water supplies, andquickly turning indigenous people and family farmers into an endangered species. Even without Frankencrops, we would still befacing an out-of-control globalization process, which is drivingmillions of farmers off the land and forcing desperate peasants tochop down remaining forests--in the process driving hundreds ofthousands of landraces and traditional varieties of plants,microorganisms, (and animals) into extinction.
Syngenta's conventional (non-GE) corn and pesticides are just as scary as their Frankencorn. Syngenta profits by selling corn farmers eithergene-altered Bt corn or its conventional (fertilizer andpesticide-intensive) hybrids, along with its super toxic weed killer,Atrazine, a known carcinogen. Unfortunately Atrazine not only kills weeds, but also ends up as a dangerous residue in the meat and dairy products of animals that have eaten Atrazine-sprayed corn. Atrazine,along with its companion pesticides, have also polluted wells anddrinking water in 97% of the communities in the US Corn Belt. What'smore dangerous, eating Bt corn, consuming pesticide residues in yourBig Mac or non-organic dairy products, or drinking the tap water thatcomes out of your faucet?
Similarly, Monsanto is in the business of selling toxic pesticides andherbicides, whether it is to farmers growing GE crops, farmers growing non-GE hybrid crops, Round up-spraying drug warriors in Colombia or California, or suburbanites trying to get that perfectly green lawn.After 100 years of poisoning the public with substances like PCBs andAgent Orange, Monsanto tells us that their latest toxic chemicals suchas Roundup, or their latest seed varieties, such as Roundup Ready cornare perfectly safe. Should we believe them? Or what about Cargill? They're happy to sell their chemical nitrate fertilizers (which also end up in most Americans' drinking water) to farmers, whether they areplanting GE Frankencrops or just conventional industrial hybrids. OrADM, who are happy to sell you either GE corn or non-GE corn, as longas they can drive the prices down which they pay to farmers, and drive the prices up to their "enemy," the consumer.
The solution of course to all this is to buy and eat organic food, and to buy from local and regional farmers and companies, rather than the transnational corporations when ever possible. Mexicans can protect their health and preserve their biodiversity by boycotting gringo GE-tainted corn and buying organic corn produced by Mexican farmers cultivating traditional varieties. US consumers similarly can protecttheir health, their drinking water, and their children by buying organic and local. Fortunately this is what more and more people are doing everyday, not only in the USA but across the world. Farmers in 130 nations are now producing certified organic food for a booming market of orga nic consumers, making organic the fasting growing component of world agriculture. Thirty million Americans are nowbuying organic food and the numbers are rising every month. SinceSeptember 11, sales of organic and natural food have increased 8%.
RAISE HELL N OT FRANKENCORN
Beyond voting with our consumer dollars and our knives and forks for asustainable and organic future, organic consumers also need toorganize ourselves into a potent political force. As the labor populist Mother Jo nes told rural Americans 100 years ago: "It's timeto raise less corn and raise more hell." Instead of letting the politicians raise our taxes in order to subsidize the profits of the Gene Giants and corporate agribusiness, we should be raising hell in Washington and in our state capitals to raise corporate taxes tosubsidize healthy food and a healthy environment. Instead ofsubsidizing GE corn, pesticide-intensive corn, and industrial-sizedfarms, our billions of dollars in farm subsidies should be promoting organic agriculture, saving family farms, and promoting Fair Trade,not Free Trade, among nations.
The OCA, is organizing, along with our allies in the Genetically Engineered Food Alert a national day of protest against genetically engineered corn on February 6. We will betar geting the largest food corporation in the US, Kraft/PhillipMorris, as well as other companies and supermarket chains to remove GEcorn from US consumer products. On this day we will also be tellingthe government to take Bt corn off the market, unless it can be provensafe for human consumption and the environment (which of course it cannot). At the same time we are calling on grain exporters and the US government to protect corn biodiversity and to honor the global treatyon Biodiversity (the Biosasfety Protocol signed in Cartagena, Colombia, Feb. 2000) by ending the dumping of taxpayer subsidized GEcorn in Mexico and other nations.
Written by: Organic Consumers Association
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