The Battle of Mexican Traditional Corn vs. GM Corn
This week, Mexico raised its voice to say no to genetically modified food crops by holding numerous protests against genetically modified seed giant, Monsanto Corporation. The movement in Mexico is growing as local people- not just the agri-business sector- are challenging the introduction of Monsanto corn in the crop’s historic birthplace, Mexico. Those speaking out do so out of concern for what genetically altered seeds could mean for Mexican traditional cultures, local diets, and the biodiversity of the broader environment.
In late April, world renowned Indian ‘seed activist’ Vandana Shiva travelled to the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca to join a gathering of Mexican farmers, indigenous leaders and environmentalists, fighting to protect Mexico’s native corn crops against the imposition of genetically modified alternatives.
Many Mexicans are adamantly opposed to genetically modified corn, their fears are being drowned out by Carlos Slim, the Gates Foundation and Monsanto who argue that GMO technology will feed the world’s poor. Many locals deem the imposition of transgenic crops a serious threat to the native varieties of corn that have been at the core of rural Mexican cultures for millennia.
Corn is more than just a staple in the Mexican diet. Archaeological research shows that corn was already being cultivated in Mexico 9000 years ago. It is believed that it made a huge impact on the ancient civilizations that developed in the region around southern Mexico and South America. This is particularly evident from the remnants of Mayan culture, where a corn cult was highly developed. Infants had their heads squeezed between chopping boards, so that they could take on the ideal shape of a corn cob!
Beyond its prevalence in local cooking, corn is a symbol at the heart of countless indigenous traditions and holds great spiritual significance even in the 21st century. An indigenous Nahuatl man from the state of Hidalgo explained that his community hosts a festival to celebrate corn every year in which ‘we dance with the corn and we celebrate the Earth Mother.’ So if genetically modified corn becomes the dominate crop, will the annual festivals stop or just become a homage to American corporations?
As political writer, Jen Wilson, reported: “A woman from an organization representing indigenous communities in the southeast of Mexico and Guatemala said, ‘When we care for and cultivate our cornfields, God is with us. He gives us the food that we need. He works with us and he rests with us… The corn that God gives us, lives with us, sings and dances with us, and in certain moments corn also cries with us.” Many Mexican farmers believe that it is their duty to continue using natural Mexican corn seed.
Did you know that according to Reuters: “Mexico now plants 7.2 million hectares of corn annually to grow mostly white corn, which is used for human consumption, including the country’s food staple, tortillas. Last year Mexican farmers produced some 21 million tons of corn, or about 3 percent of global production. But the country consumed roughly 30 million tons, making up the difference with U.S. imports. Surprisingly, Mexico already imports tens of thousands of tons of GMO yellow corn each year, largely for animal feed, and permits planting of other GMO crops, mainly cotton and soybeans.”
While the controversy rages on the news and among politicians, the backstory of Mexican natural corn versus corporate produced transgenic corn is a cultural issue. As early as 2007 a nationwide campaign began in Mexico called ‘Sin Maíz, no hay país’ (Without corn, there is no country). ‘Corn is the life of the towns,’ said Neftalí Reyes Mendez, of the Oaxacan Collective in an interview following an anti GM rally. ‘Corn is the base of life; it is the base of resistance for the people of Oaxaca.’
Some Mexicans fear Peña Nieto’s government will follow a recent USA move that passed a law, ‘The Monsanto Protection Act’. If the Mexican government approves the widespread commercial planting of GM corn, or makes seed sharing illegal, it will become far harder for farmers to maintain non-GMO-contaminated varieties of corn.
Dr Alejandro Espinosa Calderón, a nationally recognized expert on GMO corn in Mexico, echoed this fear, stating emphatically, ‘The Mexican government does not defend Mexicans, the government defends Monsanto.’ Of course the genetically modified seed has a high price as it must be purchased by from the US company. Monsanto states, “We are the creators. [of genetically modified seed.] We made it, we are the inventers. We own it, we have the patent. It is our intellectual property so we receive the payment.”
But the environmentalists have another view. They feel that government forcing farmers to use GM corn is ignoring the responsibility for the impact of this crop on the environment, health and socio-economic well-being of Mexican communities. Activist Shiva sums up the issue saying, “Now is the time for a citizen’s movement for seed freedom, to say no to transgenics, to say no to patents, to say no to Monsanto’s empire that will destroy the planet, our lives, and our food systems just for a profit!’
As you can see from the map of corn crop production by Mexican state, the issue of natural versus GM corn is an important economic and cultural issue. Maize/corn has been raised by indigenous Mexican people for thousands of years. But corn is much more than just human food.
By 2000, the relative amount of Mexican corn grown to feed livestock had decreased to 60 percent, 22 percent was exported, 6 percent was used for High-Fructose Corn Sweetener, 6 percent was processed for ethanol, and 6 percent went into other products.
Some of the industrial uses of corn include filler for plastics, packing materials, insulating materials, adhesives, chemicals, explosives, paint, paste, abrasives, dyes, insecticides, pharmaceuticals, organic acids, solvents, rayon, antifreeze, soaps, and many more. The demand and economic scope of corn production is huge.
Some things stand the test of time because it doesn’t need improvement. Will GMO corn still exist a hundred years from now or is it just an agricultural fad? As intertwined as corn is with the history, culture, and economics of Mexico it will be interesting to see whose voice is the loudest: the lowly workers or the corporate owners? Will GM corn become the next Mexican monopoly like Pemex and Telmex?