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.


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.


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.


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: