Thursday 11 December 2008
by: Joëlle Stolz, Le Monde
Researchers who conducted a study confirming the presence of transgenes in Mexico's traditional corn varieties worry about the possible loss of corn as a food. (Photo: STRINGER Mexico / Reuters)
Raise the alarm for Mexican corn's biosecurity: a molecular study conducted by Mexican, American and Dutch researchers demonstrates the presence of genes from genetically modified organisms (GMO) among the varieties of traditional corn cultivated in the remote regions of Oaxaca State in the southern part of the country, even though the Mexican government has always maintained a moratorium on the use of transgenic seed.
The results of this study incite the experts to demand much more restrictive protective measures. "Old time" agriculture as practiced in Mexico - where wind-blown pollination of corn is the norm and where peasants are in the habit of exchanging their seed - seems to aggravate the risk of rapid GMO contamination.
An article that details their conclusions should be published in the next edition of the review, "Molecular Ecology." It was written by Elena Alvarez-Buylla of the Institute for Ecology of the Autonomous National University of Mexico (UNAM), with the collaboration of a dozen other scientists.
Their work could relaunch the controversy that was unleashed in 2001 by a highly controversial article in the magazine, "Nature," the authors of which, biologists David Quist and Ignacio Chapela from the University of California at Berkeley, revealed that criollos (traditional) corn from the Oaxaca region - one of the cradles of that cereal - were contaminated by Roundup Ready (RR) and Bt genes, property of the American company Monsanto.
In her book, "The World According to Monsanto," (due for release in March 2009 and already available for pre-order at Amazon.com), Marie-Monique Robin related how Mr. Chapela became a victim of "media lynching" at that time at the instigation of the dominant company in the GMO market. "Nature" ended up publishing a disclaimer, deeming that the two biologists' article was insufficiently backed up.
However, seven years later, the work Mrs. Alvarez-Buylla directed broadly confirms their conclusions, as a report published in the November 13 "Nature" emphasizes. The researchers have discovered transgenes in three of the twenty-three fields of Oaxaca's northern sierra where samples were taken in 2001, then in two places sampled in 2004.
American Allison Snow, of the University of California and author in 2005 of a preliminary study that seemed to undermine Ignacio Chapela and David Quist's discoveries (and which were then immediately exploited by GMO partisans), is publishing an additional complimentary note in the same issue of "Molecular Ecology," in which she judges the molecular analysis conducted by the UNAM team to be "very good," bringing to light "the positive evidence of transgenes."
This acknowledgement did not come without difficulty. "We battled for two years to get the results of our study published," declares Mrs. Alvarez-Buylla. "In the course of my entire career, I have never encountered so many difficulties! There were efforts to stop the publication of this scientific data!" Biologist José Sarukhan, a UNAM researcher and member of the United States National Academy of Science, had recommended the article for publication by that organization's review. The latter rejected the article in March, with the justification that it risked provoking "excessive media attention for political or environmentally-related reasons ..."
How - in spite of the moratorium - have GMO transgenes migrated to the far depths of Oaxaca's mountains, and also to Sinaloa State in the north, the biggest producer of corn for human consumption, and to Milpa Alta, a district on the periphery of Mexico? They are found in one percent of the plots analyzed, which is a lot in the Mexican context, where 75 percent of the corn planted comes from seeds selected by peasants from their own harvest.
The first hypothesis is that some farmers are illegally importing transgenic seeds. Strong suspicions surround the company Pioneer, a big supplier of hybrid corn seeds purchased by Mexico from the United States and distributed to small farmers through government aid programs.
Preliminary data indicate that a third of Pioneer's seeds are contaminated by GMO, any distinctive labeling of which Monsanto has succeeded in preventing.
The study's authors call for a strengthening of "biosecurity measures" to preserve native corn varieties, especially in Mexico, corn's "center of origin." They say Mexico must set up truly independent laboratories and adapt criteria of molecular analysis to the Mexican reality, rather than trusting "methods used in countries such as the United States which have an agricultural system entirely different from our own."
But their greatest concern at present involves planned pharmaceutical trusts which want to make a profit on corn biomass and use it as a bioreactor in order, for example, to express vaccines and anti-coagulants. "Given the incidents that have already occurred in the United States where they have trouble separating bioreactors from GMO, we may fear that corn could turn into the garbage bin of the pharmaceutical industry, at the expense of its purpose as food," fears Mrs. Alvarez-Buylla. "What shall we do when anti-coagulants arrive in Mexicans' tortilla?"
Translation: Truthout French language editor Leslie Thatcher.