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GM corn spreads in Mexico

(Thursday, Oct. 16 , 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Stephen Leahy, IPS news, 10/14/03 : BROOKLIN, Canada -- Contamination of Mexico's corn by genetically modified (GM) varieties, including the banned StarLink, is much more widespread than previously reported, according to a new study sponsored by a coalition of indigenous and farmer groups.

"Now we see that the contamination has spread at least to the south, central and northern regions of the country," Ana de Ita of the Center for Studies on Rural Change in Mexico (CECCAM) said in a statement late last week.

The study also found that some plants contained two, three and four different GM types, all patented by transnational biotechnology corporations.

The first scientific proof that Mexico's traditional corn crop is contaminated with DNA from GM corn was released two years ago by U.S. scientists.

Mexico prohibits planting of GM corn anywhere in the country in a bid to protect the plant that originated in the country, and which has become one of the world's most important food crops.

The contamination is likely the result of farmers planting some of the five to six million tonnes of U.S. corn bought by Mexico or sent as food aid, according to Silvia Ribeiro of the environmental non-governmental organization (NGO) ETC Group, from her office in Cancun, Mexico.

"It has been very dry in some areas of the country and farmers who don't have any of their own seed left use the U.S. corn," she told IPS in an interview.

And because Asia and Europe refuse to take GM corn, 50 or 60 percent of the U.S. corn sent to Mexico is genetically modified, she added.

The coalition used commercially available GM test kits on some 2,000 plants (in 411 groups of samples), from 138 farming and indigenous communities.

Working with biologists from the National Autonomous University of Mexico, they found the presence of transgenes in native corn in 33 communities (24 percent of the total samples) from nine states: Chihuahua, Morelos, Durango, Estado de Mexico, Puebla, Oaxaca, San Luis Potosi, Tlaxcala and Veracruz.

In a second round of analysis, the results show contamination that ran from 1.5 percent to 33.3 percent of the corn samples.

In those same nine states, some of the corn plants contained traces of the insecticidal toxin (Cry9c), the engineered trait found in a variety of the crop known as StarLink, which is prohibited for human consumption in the United States.

Made by Aventis, the U.S. division of France's pharmaceutical conglomerate Aventis SA, StarLink uses a protein to produce toxins to kill insects known as European corn borers. It was approved in the United States in 1998 for use only in animal feed because of concerns the protein might set off allergies in humans.

But traces of StarLink were found in U.S. food products in 2000, prompting Aventis to withdraw it from the market.

While the presence of StarLink may surprise the Mexican government, officials do know that GM contamination is spreading in the country.

Four government-sponsored studies have been done in the past two years to determine whether transgenes are present in native corn. Although none of them has been published, each study found varying levels of contamination in two or more states, says Ribeiro.

"The government has done nothing to stop it. Meanwhile, more GM corn comes pouring in from the U.S."

At the end of September an international conference to assess the impact of GM crops on biodiversity was held in Mexico City. Organized by the U.S.-based Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, academics and government officials confirmed "gene flow" -- contamination -- of GM traits into traditional corn.

But that apparently worried few in attendance. According to ETC Group, a representative of the Mexican Ministry of Agriculture suggested that the ban against planting GM corn in Mexico be lifted.

Many of the scientists that attended are now claiming -- in the total absence of scientific proof -- that gene flow poses no threat to biodiversity or to people, says Ribeiro.

At a press conference in Mexico City last week, indigenous and farming communities demanded a halt to all corn imports. The heavily subsidized U.S. corn is sold below the local cost of production and is forcing farmers to stop planting native varieties.

Baldemar Mendoza, an indigenous farmer from Oaxaca, told reporters that deformed plants with GM traits have been found in Oaxaca and other states.

"We have seen many deformities in corn, but never like this. One deformed plant in Oaxaca that we saved tested positive for three different transgenes. The old people of the communities say they have never seen these kinds of deformities," Mendoza was quoted as saying.

He also stated that government representatives visited his community and told him not to worry about contamination, because GM crops have been available in some countries for five or six years and there is no evidence they harm health.

"But we have our own evidence," asserted Mendoza. "We have 10,000 years of evidence that our corn is good for our health. To contaminate it with genetically modified corn is a crime against all indigenous peoples and farming communities who have been cultivating and improving corn over millennia for the benefit of humankind."