Guadalajara Conference considers impact of GMO Corn

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La Jornada reported today that over 190 delegate members of the United Nations Organization for Food and Agriculture met in Guadalajara, Mexico to attend the Conference ‘GMOs: Stealing Our Future.’

Voices of concern were heard loudest, with experts opening the conference expressing deep worry about Mexico’s pending decision to expand planting of genetically modified corn on a massive scale within the country’s farmland. Contamination, and the health impact of massive human consumption of GMO corn given maize’s role in the Mexican diet, are considered real threats.

Many may already know that maize was first cultivated in Mexico over 7,000 years ago, evolved by farmers from its start as ‘teosinte’ into the corn we know today. Maize seeds were gifted and traded among indigenous relations, and eventually traveled far and wide to become one of the world’s largest food crops. GMO’s developed roughly 20 years ago, adding a new dimension to corn, and is distinguished from heritage corn, or maize which originate in the land race region, the region of Puebla and Oaxaca, Mexico, where the oldest remains of maize have been found.

Mexicans, and particularly, Mexicans with little other resources, have been rich in Maize. Many have long relied on maize and its staple tortilla that accompanies practically every meal, with its nutritious protein to quell hungry stomachs, often the staple providing the energy to survive chronic national financial challenges.

Mexico is also where the seed research on maize originates, with major foundations and companies long involved in seed storage and research of Mexican maize. The establishment of the Improvement of Wheat and Maize Institute set the stage for advanced research, and was the place where the prominent Nobel Prize winning scientist Norman Borlaug conducted some of his most important research.

On the first day of the conference, Antonio Turrent Fernández, the President of the Union of Concerned Scientists for Society, and a specialist in soil science with the Mexican National Forest, Agriculture and Livestock Institute (INIFAP), pointed to the standing he believes Mexico can legitimately use to protect its genetic maize heritage, citing how many countries have refused to allow genetically modified food staples to be grown where the country is a land race or vital producer of the crop.

In fact, Turrent Fernández cites specifically how the United States and Canada do not allow massive grows of GMO wheat and have worked hard to ensure only non-GMO wheat enters the human food chain, while Japan has similarly protected rice. It’s precisely the integral role that rice and wheat play in the human food security of these nations, not to mention the cultural fabric of their people, that has lead to the emotional responses of those industries and representatives of those countries.

So, Turrent Fernández asks, why can’t Mexicans expect similar protection?

The question is a good one. Consider that Mexico produces over 20 million tons of corn a year. Consumption in the country exceeds production by 10 million tons. The difference is imported, most often from the U.S.

The North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation, NACEC, effectively the NAFTA Tri-lateral Environmental Commission, determined that inspections at the border of corn imported from the U.S. to ensure GMO kernels were separated from the human food chain was too onerously expensive for the companies, and, its not clear just how far GMO corn has already entered the Mexican human food chain. Turrent Fernández asks, how can Mexico protect its food supply and land race if GMO corn is grown massively in the country?

Contamination of seed stock is documented by the NACEC, confirming, in fact, expanding the areas of contamination first brought to light by the then-controversial study by Ignacio Chapela, biology professor at U.C. Berkeley.

The big back and forth over contamination seems silly in retrospect, as farmers in the U.S. and Canada were, and still are, prosecuted for patented seed theft caused by drift. So, when reports by maize campesinos in Chiapas described the signs nailed to trees along roads, threatening farmers if caught with patent seeds, whether deliberate or not, one wonders if contamination is not in fact a business model.

Contamination is still very much an unsolved problem. Sadly, any whiff of inquiry in a way deemed oppositional to the position of GMO companies is quickly snuffed out where instead public policy demands an even deeper inquiry, not a trial, inquiry – since this is exactly how we describe what scientists do, inquire.

As Mexico considers whether to allow massive production of GMO corn on its soil, Turrent Fernández really asks the country to consider the human experiment that could unfold given so many unanswered questions about drift and the impact of GMO on the public health of citizens who rely heavily on maize in their diet, particularly his country’s most vulnerable citizens, poor people already food insecure with little access to health care, research facilities and food security protections.

If the U.S. itself is short on food inspectors, can you imagine how many Mexico inspectors there are to protect the country’s genetic heritage corn from GMO corn imported from the U.S. or massive fields of patented seeds?

GMO issues are always complex, and often, emotionally challenging because we, after all, are talking about food. Food security is our most basic question as humans. For many, security comes from GMO’s, yet for many others, GMO’s represent an utter insecure system with little protections in place, and indeed, one would say, a bit of trickery given that farmers in the land where corn originated are being asked to now pay for the ancient knowledge they instilled over thousands of years into those seeds.

Ultimately, Turrent Fernández is asking a vital question: Why allow in Mexico what neither the U.S. and Canada, Mexico’s NAFTA partners, will do?

Defenders of GMO food often say GMO gets a bad rap. Just take a look at the title of the conference – its strong and clear – there is a feeling of theft, of threat, of life or death. That’s not a bad rap, its a feeling, a feeling that something very wrong is happening. In light of the facts that Turrent points out about the U.S. and Canada protecting their staple crop, maybe a dose of fairness can bring the possibility of moving beyond emotions to real science.

Turrent Fernández makes the point that Mexico could experience a catastrophic public health situation, and asks that, before moving forward on approving massive GMO planting in Mexico, more thought must go into protecting the ancient food supply, and the Mexicans inhabiting the country now.

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