GM contamination spreads in Mexico

By Nick Miles
Monday, June 13, 2011

Political leaders and academics begin a three day meeting in Rome on
Monday to discuss issues surrounding global food security.

The United Nations World Food Summit will be looking at the spread of
genetically modified crop strains as well as the immediate problem of
famine in parts of southern Africa.

Recent reports from Mexico suggest that despite a moratorium on
planting GM corn strains, the genetic home of the crop, with thousands
of strains, has been contaminated with GM strains.

The most heavily contaminated area is in Oaxaca, where in some areas
up to a quarter of corn samples have tested positive for GM.

GM contamination

The area is home to thousands of small subsistance farmers. High up in
the central mountains of the state one such farmer, Olga Maldonado, is
weeding her tiny plantation of corn. It's just forty metres square and
barely provides enough food for her and her family.

"Corn is our way of life," she told me, as she worked under the harsh
tropical sun. "Most of what we eat like tortillas and thick soups come
from the crop."

But six months ago Olga got a shock. Tests showed that her field had
been contaminated with genetically modified corn. Now she says she's
worried about the possible effects on her childrens' health.

"I'm concerned because our children eat corn all the time. We don't
know whether it's safe to eat or not. The government has told us
nothing about these GM plants. Absolutely nothing."

Just ten miles away down a dirt track in the incongruous setting of
rural mexico white coated workers at a hi-tech laboratory are testing
samples of corn from across the country. The hum of electrical
stirrers fills the air as the corn goes though the rigorous testing
procedures.

This privately funded work has found widespread GM contamination in
corn samples from across Mexico.

"Despite the moratorium on GM crop growing four years ago many GM
strains have slipped through the net" says Juan Martin, who's in
charge at the lab.

"Our best guess is that the Mexican corn harvests have been
contaminated by imported corn from the United States," he says.

"That corn was supposed to be for human consumption but farmers
weren't aware of that and they sowed it in their fields."

Genie released

It's difficult to assess the Mexican government's stance on the issue.
State and federal governments seem to contradict each other on the
significance and even the very existance of GM contamination.

"If there is GM contamination then it's not because of any government
failure," says Victor Arambula spokesman for the Mexican agriculture
ministry.

"We've had a number of different campaigns aimed at telling farmers
not to use imported corn as seed.

"Over the last four years we've made it perfectly clear to farmers
that this contamination might happen"

However it happened, the GM genie is now out of the bottle. And many
people are worried.

Whilst there is no universally accepted research proving any health
risks from eating GM crops, environmentalists say that many GM strains
encourage pests to become tolerant to insecticides.

"There will also be a drastic reduction in the variety of corn strains
in Mexico, "Boone Hallberg told me. Mr Hallberg, a sprightly 79 year
old US educated botanist, has been working with Mexican corn growers
for almost four decades.

"Until now, when there's been a virus in other parts of the world,
people have been able to come here to find strains resistant to the
virus," he tells me as we walk through his organic corn fields.

"GM contamination will change all that. The thousands of varieties
here will be lost forever, threatening food security around the
world."

Meanwhile for small farmers like Olga the concerns are more immediate.
Every mealtime is now a worrying time for her. She has to feed her
children corn tortillas made from her now genetically modified crops
by a farmer who unwittingly tainted her own land.

"I feel misled by the government," she says as she ladles some
steaming corn drink into a bowl. "As usual in Mexico the needs of the
farmers here have been overlooked".