Photo: CIMMYT

Sit-in and Hunger-Strike in Mexico City Against GMO Corn Plantations

On Wednesday, January 23rd, regional leaders from a nation-wide peasant organization converged on the Angel of Independence Monument in Mexico City. They were there to begin a sit-in and hunger strike to protest two industrial corn plantation projects that have been proposed by U.S. based multinational agribusiness corporations Monsanto and Pioneer.

The companies have asked the Mexican government to issue permits allowing the planting of genetically modified (GMO) corn crops on at least one million hectares of land in the states of Sinaloa and Tamaulipas. In spite of being granted permission to stage the action at the Angel of Independence, the peasant leaders from the National Union of Autonomous Regional Peasant Organizations (UNORCA) were met by anti-riot police who had roped off the area, forcing hundreds of smallholder farmers to set up camp nearby.

In a letter issued Thursday by UNORCA’s affiliate, La Via Campesina (The Farmer’s Way), an international organization of peasants and small farmers advocating for food sovereignty, condemned the police barricade at the Angel of Independence, calling the action a betrayal of the peasants in the interest of foreign multinationals. UNORCA has vowed to continue the sit-in and hunger strike until their demands are met. The farmers were joined by a solidarity march on the monument on Thursday of last week.

When the hunger strike was initiated, UNORCA issued a statement explaining their actions. The statement, titled The Maize Manifesto, was released to the press and public on La Via Campesina’s website. The Manifesto expresses outrage at the previous administration’s gradual liberalization of industrialized transgenic agriculture under Felipe Calderón, the former president of Mexico.1 They are calling on new president, Enrique Nieto, to prevent all new permits allowing the use of GMOs in Mexico’s agricultural system.

Maize Manifesto: Demanding the prioritization of peasant interests

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According to the official statement by UNORCA, the Calderón administration issued the first permits allowing open-field GMO corn plantings. There are now 177 approved permits for experimental-scale and pilot-scale plantings. Fifteen of these authorizations occurred in 2012. UNORCA is opposed to these permits claiming that “there is not a single technological, economic, or ethical reason in benefit of the Mexican population nor of the majority of rural producers that justifies the imminent authorization of commercial planting of GMOmaize in Mexico.”

In particular, UNORCA – joined by La Via Campesina and given solidarity by international environmental and development organizations like Greenpeace and Grassroots International – is demanding that two permits submitted by Monsanto and Pioneer Hi-Bred International, a subsidiary of DuPont Chemical Company, be denied.

The Monsanto permit was submitted on September 7th 2012 and would give permission to the company to plant 700,000 hectares in Sinaloa with the transgenic corn varieties known as MON89034-3, MON88017-3, and MON-00603-6. The permit submitted by Pioneer asks for permission to plant more than 350,000 hectares in Tamaulipas with the varieties DAS015507-2, DAS-01507-1, MON00603-6, and MON00603-7.

The most well known of these transgenic crops are the MON-603 variations, known to most as “Roundup-Ready” corn. Proponents of GMO agriculture believe that genetic modifications can be used to increase yields or solve other problems like creating crop strains that store longer. They believe that the right modifications could help end hunger and increase economic growth. Roundup-ready corn is designed to allow the widespread application of Monsanto’s best-selling pesticide, Roundup, without damaging the crop.

The Birthplace of Corn

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Critics of GMO food have highlighted risks of using GMO seeds to the environment, to public health, to food sovereignty, and to the livelihoods of small-farmer producers. While UNORCA highlights some of these concerns in their Manifesto, they seem most concerned with the potential damage that GMO corn can have on the global diversity of the genetic stock of corn. At issue is the cultural significance of maize to the farmers, who call themselves the People of Corn, as Mexico is the birthplace for corn, one the world’s most important grains. The statement issued by UNORCA reads:

“The proposed liberalization of GMO maize presents immense dangers to human health, biodiversity, culture, and to our national sovereignty. . . The key to increasing food production in the countryside, reducing poverty and ending hunger does not lie with GMOs. This is an extremely costly technology, which does not increase yields, causes more dependence on imported seeds and farm chemicals, and provides no advantage to confronting the challenges of climate change . . . Mexico’s agro-food crisis is not of technological origin but rather is a product of an economic model, where hunger is not a result of scarcity, but rather of lack of adequate income to access food.”

It goes on to state:

“In our country there are more than 60 native species and thousands of local varieties of maize which . . . carry important virtues thanks to their selection and adaptation by indigenous peoples over more than seven thousand years . . . The imposition of transnational frankenseeds would mean an end to this richness and the loss of the ancestral Milpa tradition as a sustainable system of maize production and symbol of the Mesoamerican cultural inheritance.”

The major concern is the potential for the GMO corn to lead to the genetic contamination of native and organic varieties of corn. UNORCA believes that there is “a grave risk that transgenes could contaminate our criole and native varieties of this grain, especially because there are no barriers to the wind and the insects that are responsible for cross-pollination.” This could result in a loss of diversity in corn varieties.

Writing on the issue, Aleira Lara, the Campaign Coordinator for Sustainable Agriculture at Greenpeace Mexico, explains, “Mexico is the birthplace of corn, what is known as the ‘center of origin’ where the original genetic pool of worldwide corn is preserved and should be protected from genetic contamination… If current corn varieties planted on a large scale around the world were affected by a fatal disease, it is essential to be able to go back to the center of origin and find a variety resistant to that disease.”

As Scientific America reported earlier this month, the current global corn crop is becoming increasingly susceptible to a fungus that is highly carcinogenic and can poison and kill people and livestock. The fungus, aspergillus, causes aflatoxicosis, a condition in which victims are fatally poisoned; this is expected to become more prevalent as a result of climate change. There is to date no conclusive evidence that a traditional corn variety could be more resistant to the fungus than a genetically engineered one, but the fungal infection is just one of many possible reasons to preserve the biodiversity of global seed-stocks as one of these varieties could prove to be resistant. Fungus contamination is a true threat, having destroyed half of the corn crop of Missouri last year, up from last year, when it destroyed eight percent of the state’s corn crop.

The Commission for Environmental Cooperation of North America, a tri-national secretariat formed by the North American Free Trade Agreement, has released a report demonstrating that the risk of transgenic contamination is real and that it has already been documented in Mexico.4 The report recommends that, “until adequate research and risk/benefit assessments of the effects of gene flow from transgenic maize to landraces… have been conducted… the current moratorium on planting commercial transgenic maize in Mexico should be enforced.” The report also says that the moratorium should not apply to carefully planned, contained experimental planting used for scientific research.

GM corn a risk to environmental and public health?

UNORCA explains that maize is the main food product consumed in Mexico, accounting for 39 percent of protein and 53 percent of calories in the country. They claim that the public health effects of “transgenic tortillas” have not been adequately researched and that the precautionary principle should apply.

The precautionary principle says that there should be clear proof that something is not harmful to public health or the environment before it be allowed. They cite a study carried out at the University of Caen in France that found that laboratory animals that were fed Monsanto’s MON 603 genetic varieties – precisely the varieties planned for widespread commercial planting in Sinaloa and Tamaulipas – developed tumors more often and quicker than control groups.5 The tested animals were fed transgenic corn for two years and died early 2-3 times more often than the control group. The scientific community has yet to demonstrate clearly that the corn variety is or is not a threat to public health, as most industry studies claim that GM corn is safe. These studies typically use feeding tests that last 90 days instead of two years.

Genetically-modified corn may also contain secondary environmental risks beyond contamination of nonGMO corn varieties. Since Roundup-Ready corn is designed to allow for large scale application of the pesticide, which kills other plants including non-GMO corn and eradicates the need for weeding, environmentalists believe that its use will dramatically increase the amount of pesticides in the natural environment. A biologist at the University of Michigan, John Vandermeer writes in a guest blog for Food First, an international food policy institute, that the active chemical ingredient in Roundup, glyphosate, causes disruption of the endocrine system which can cause birth defects and cancer. He explains that Roundup also contains a surfactant that causes the pesticide to stick to plants and that has been shown to kill amphibians.

Vandermeer goes on to write that, “According to an extensive review of GMOs by the Union of Concerned Scientists, there is scant evidence that production increases with the use of GMOs.” He makes the accusation that, “what Monsanto actually wanted was 1) control of the supply of seed and 2) sales of their major product, Roundup.”

Both Monsanto and Pioneer have not responded to requests to comment on the safety of their proposed GMOcorn plantations in Mexico.

The hunger strike at the Angel of Independence continues today as UNORCA’s peasant leaders have been joined by a march hosting thousands of supporters. The Nieto administration will continue to consider whether or not to approve the permits and continue the policies of the previous administration under Calderón. UNORCA has vowed to continue the strike until a decision is made.

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