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Genetically Altered Maize Contamination in Mexico - 2 years later

Twenty-five months after the first scientific evidence became public, the Mexican government and the scientific community have acknowledged that Mexico's traditional maize crop is contaminated with DNA from genetically modified maize despite a government prohibition on the planting of GM seeds in Mexico.
Maize Rage in Mexico
GM maize contamination in Mexico - 2 years later

Twenty-five months after the first scientific evidence became public,
the Mexican government and the scientific community have acknowledged
that Mexico's traditional maize crop is contaminated with DNA from
genetically modified (GM) maize despite a government prohibition on
the planting of GM seeds in Mexico. Mexico is the centre of origin
for maize - one of the world's most important food crops.

Yesterday, peasant farmers and indigenous communities along with
civil society organizations in Mexico publicly released the results
of their own testing that found GM contamination of native maize in
at least nine states - far more serious and widespread than
previously assumed. (1) For a detailed report of their findings see:
 http://www.etcgroup.org/article.asp?newsid=407 and
 http://www.etcgroup.org/article.asp?newsid=408 (The report will soon
be available in English.)

No fewer than four government-sponsored studies have been undertaken
in Mexico over the past two years to determine whether or not
transgenes are present in native maize (see details below). Although
none of the studies has yet been published, each study found varying
levels of contamination in two or more states. But acknowledgment of
gene flow has not come with a clear plan of action to address
contamination and to prevent it from continuing. Neither is there a
plan to protect vital national and international collections of crop
germplasm stored in gene banks in Mexico and elsewhere.

Given the appalling lack of action and follow-through by the Mexican
government, international plant breeding institutes and the
multinational Gene Giants, the true creators and custodians of maize
decided to take matters into their own hands. At a news conference
yesterday in Mexico City, indigenous and peasant farmer communities
in Mexico joined with civil society organizations, including ETC
Group, to announce the results of genetic testing of maize grown by
traditional farmers in 138 communities. The results show that
contamination has spread to farmers' fields in nine states, including
Chihuahua, Morelos, Durango, Estado de Mexico, Puebla, Oaxaca, San
Luis Potosi, Tlaxcala and Veracruz.

Of 2,000 maize plants tested, samples from 33 communities in nine
Mexican states tested positive for contamination. In some cases as
many as four GM traits, all patented by multinational Gene Giants,
were found in a single plant. The organizations were especially
alarmed to find traces of the insecticidal toxin (Cry9c), the
engineered trait found in StarLink maize (formerly sold by Aventis
CropScience). StarLink was never approved by the US government for
human consumption because of concerns it could trigger allergic
reactions. Illegal traces of StarLink were found in US food products
in 2000. Following a massive recall of tainted food products in the
US, Aventis withdrew StarLink from the market. Apparently, StarLink
sought asylum in Mexico.

Baldemar Mendoza, an indigenous farmer from Oaxaca, said at
yesterday's news conference that people had come to his community to
tell them that they needn't worry about GM contamination because
transgenic crops have been available in some countries for six or
seven years and there is no evidence that GM crops are harmful to
health. "But we have our own evidence," asserts Mendoza. "We have
10,000 years of evidence that our maize is good for our health. To
contaminate it with transgenics is a crime against all indigenous
peoples and farming communities who have safeguarded maize over
millennia for the benefit of humankind."

The coalition of indigenous communities, farmer and civil society
organizations demanded that the Mexican government make public the
results of all studies on GM contamination, stop all imports of
transgenic maize, continue its moratorium on the cultivation of
transgenic maize, and scrap the flawed "biosafety" bill crafted by
biotech proponents, which is now under discussion in Congress.

Safe Contamination? At events leading up to today's news conference,
many Mexican government officials and scientists acknowledged
contamination, but insisted that it wasn't a problem.

On September 7th Mexico's newly-appointed Minister of the
Environment, Alberto C·rdenas told the Global Biodiversity Forum in
Canc™n that there is no doubt that GM contamination in Mexico is real
but he insisted there is no harm to native maize biodiversity or to
public health. The Minister offered no specific information on
contamination levels, nor did he provide evidence supporting his
claim that public health and the environment had not been compromised.

At a conference held September 29-30 in Mexico City, academics, and
government officials confirmed -and even Gene Giant corporations
accepted- that there has been a "flow" (contamination) of GM traits
into traditional maize varieties in at least two states. The
conference, titled "Gene Flow: What Does It Mean for Biodiversity and
Centers of Origin," was organized by the Pew Initiative on Food and
Biotechnology (PIFB) and the U.S.-Mexico Foundation for Science
(FUMEC). www.maizegeneflow.org.

At the conference, Klaus Amman, Director of the University of Bern's
Botanical Garden (Switzerland), argued that there are no known
environmental impacts of transgenic gene flow. Amman cited data from
Novartis (one of the Gene Giants - now Syngenta) showing that under
field conditions genetically engineered Bt maize posed minimal risk
to Monarch butterflies in the United States. Jorge SoberŪn, the
director of Mexico's National Commission on Biodiversity (CONABIO)
pointed out that a comparison between field conditions in the US and
those in mega-diverse Mexico may not be relevant. He noted that the
USA has around 60 butterfly species whereas Mexico has more than
2,000. In the meeting, SoberŪn called for a strict application of the
precautionary principle.

A representative of the Mexican Ministry of Agriculture, Dr. Victor
Villalobos, recently described the GM contamination in Oaxaca as "a
natural laboratory" to study the effects of gene flow, and he
complacently urged that the moratorium on the planting of GM maize be
lifted. (2)

"It is exasperating that many scientists refused to take action on
gene flow for more than two years, insisting that they required
stronger scientific evidence," said Silvia Ribeiro of ETC Group. "Now
those same scientists admit gene flow but are claiming - in the total
absence of scientific proof - that gene flow poses no threat to
biodiversity or to people. Using Mexico and its people as guinea pigs
is good science?"

Studies Concur: According to Ezequiel Ezcurra, the director of
Mexico's National Institute of Ecology of the Secretariat of
Environment and Natural Resources, four government-sponsored studies
have been undertaken in the past two years to determine whether or
not transgenes are present in maize in Mexico. Although none of the
studies has yet been published, Ezcurra stated that each study found
varying levels of contamination in two or more states:

* The National Institute of Ecology, an agency that operates under
Mexico's Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources, conducted
an initial study that was released in September 2001.
* The National Institute of Ecology (INE) and the National Commission
for the Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity (CONABIO) jointly sponsored
a study that was conducted by scientists at the National Autonomous
University of Mexico (UNAM) and the Center for Research and Advanced
Studies of the National Polytechnic Institute (CINVESTAV). The
results of this study were announced in December 2002.
* The Secretariat of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries (SAGARPA)
conducted a study that was commissioned by the Intersecretarial
Commission for Biosafety and Genetically Modified Organisms
(CIBIOGEM). The results of this study have not been made public.
* The National Institute for Agriculture and Forestry Research
(INIFAP). The results have not been made public.

The studies corroborate the independent findings of two University of
California (Berkeley) researchers who first reported their
conclusions in Nature in September 2001. In an unprecedented move,
the editor of Nature later disavowed the Berkeley scientists'
peer-reviewed report in his own journal.

Traveling transgenes are a global problem, not one confined to maize
in Mexico. Among others, GM contamination of traditional varieties of
cotton in Greece,(3) canola (rapeseed) in Canada,(4) soy in Italy,(5)
papaya in Hawaii have been reported.(6)

International Action Needed: In February 2002 La Via Campesina (the
international organization of small farmers) and several hundred
other civil society organizations worldwide joined forces to call
upon the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and CGIAR
(Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research) to
address the issue. Although FAO has expressed concern, it has only
been in touch with CIMMYT (International Maize and Wheat Improvement
Centre), the CGIAR institute in Mexico, which has global
responsibility for maize breeding and for the world's most important
maize gene bank. CGIAR has refused to take decisive action until they
are convinced there is solid scientific proof of contamination.
However, CIMMYT did decide to halt its maize collection program in
the region for fear that it could inadvertently introduce GM traits
into its gene bank, and began to test for the presence of transgenes
in its seed collection.

At yesterday's press conference in Mexico City, indigenous people and
small farmers described CIMMYT's failure to acknowledge and take
action on the contamination of traditional maize as "deplorable," and
urged that responsibility for the CIMMYT gene bank as well as other
banks in the CGIAR network be surrendered to an intergovernmental
body such as FAO, under conditions that will make it more responsive
to the concerns of small farmers and indigenous people. The group
also condemned the Convention on Biological Diversity for its failure
to effectively address GM contamination in centers of genetic
diversity.

Next Steps:

The long-term impacts of GM contamination on crop genetic diversity
are not known. Neither governments nor international institutions
have taken action to stop GM contamination and to protect farmers and
indigenous peoples' livelihoods. In February 2002 hundreds of civil
society organizations called for a moratorium on the shipment of GM
seed or grain in countries or regions that form part of the center of
genetic diversity for the species. The communities and CSOs meeting
yesterday in Mexico City repeated demands for a global moratorium.

ETC Group believes that a number of issues urgently require further
study. Most obviously, studies are needed to determine the impact of
GM contamination on traditional maize varieties in Mexico, not only
looking at the traits that are currently contaminating the crop but
also consider future introductions that might include traits for
industrial or pharmaceutical compounds. Most importantly, we need to
understand not only how to prevent further contamination but whether
or not it is possible to de-contaminate without further harming
diversity. Peasant farmers throughout the world, those who hold
intimate knowledge of local farming systems and crop diversity, are
the only ones capable of undertaking the task, but must have the
support of the international community in this process. Globally,
there is a pressing need to study more broadly the impacts of gene
flow, which are already affecting other crops and regions. Most
urgently, FAO and CGIAR need a specific strategy and pr!
ocedure to ensure that gene bank accessions are protected from
contamination and that the vitally important exchange of genetic
resources between gene banks and breeders is not imperiled by
concerns about contamination. Because all GM traits are patented,
the intellectual property implications of accidental contamination
and dissemination should also be studied. Until the studies can be
completed and evaluated by farmers' organizations and the
international community, existing national moratoria on GM crops
should remain in place. These issues should be discussed at the next
meeting of the FAO Commission on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and
Agriculture and at the FAO Conference in November.

Silvia Ribeiro, ETC Group (Mexico)  silvia@etcgroup.org -- +52 55 55 632 664
Hope Shand or Kathy Jo Wetter, ETC Group (USA)  hope@etcgroup.org --
+919 960-5223
Jim Thomas, ETC Group (UK)  jim@etcgroup.org -- +44 (0)18652 07818
Pat Mooney, ETC Group (Canada)  etc@etcgroup.org -- +204 453-5259

The Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration, formerly
RAFI, is an international civil society organization headquartered in
Canada. The ETC group is dedicated to the advancement of cultural and
ecological diversity and human rights. www.etcgroup.org. The ETC
group is also a member of the Community Biodiversity Development and
Conservation Programme (CBDC). The CBDC is a collaborative
experimental initiative involving civil society organizations and
public research institutions in 14 countries. The CBDC is dedicated
to the exploration of community-directed programmes to strengthen the
conservation and enhancement of agricultural biodiversity. The CBDC
website is www.cbdcprogram.org .