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Preserving the integrity of Indian corn

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In southern Mexico, the place where corn was born, this original gift of Indian America is now in danger of extinction. Genetically modified corn imported from the United States is rapidly blending with indigenous corn varieties. It carries high potential for destroying the local strains and threatens to obliterate the central source of food for millions of Indian agriculturalists.

The problem lies not only in Mexico. Indian farmers in the United States and organic farmers in Canada have raised the alarm on this serious problem of genetically modified plants contaminating natural varieties of local and regional farming cultures.

The contamination in Mexico appears to be in its beginning stages, but for many people it is an aberration of nature and cause for extreme concern. In the remote mountains of the southern state of Oaxaca, transgenic strains were found in 15 of 22 villages examined. Three to 10 percent of plants were contaminated in the fields tested. Scientists from the University of California at Berkeley last November used DNA testing to confirm that the plants in question were genetically modified.

Local farmers first began to notice the new "wild" corn about three years ago. The new corn, which they assert came in government trucks to be sold at community stores, would grow anywhere, even through cracks on sidewalks. The government has denied bringing in the new corn but locals can tell the difference. They say the modified corn kernels are larger and have a lighter color. The Native varieties are also sweeter.

Although it is illegal since 1998 to cultivate genetically modified corn in Mexico, the source of the contamination appears to be from U.S. exports brought in for human consumption. Some 6 million tons of corn are imported by Mexico each year. Diconsa, the national subsidized food program, distributes corn to some 23,000 stores nationwide. Apparently many people have unwittingly planted the genetically modified corn.

Local activists are demanding that the Mexican government stop imports of the suspect corn. They accuse Diconsa of dispersing the transgenic varieties. Officials at the national program deny it, but activists and farmers can easily identify the modified corn. Furthermore, laboratories at an agricultural research center in La Trinidad (Oaxaca) confirmed that transgenic strains are found in samples of corn sold at the Diconsa stores.

Those who planted the new corn reported good results, at first. For one thing, it yielded two or three ears per plant, compared to one ear by their own strains. It also seemed to spring up anywhere. As the plants matured and ripened, however, they showed themselves susceptible to local plagues. Local strains have been selected over generations to resist plagues and diseases found in the area. The new corn is a weak corn, tampered with for reasons not amenable to cultures that sustain and consume foodstuffs as a fundamental social value.

Corn is a central staple of the diet for Mexican village farmers. Farmers take scrupulous care in safeguarding their seeds (germ plasm), and consider corn to be an actual relative. As the Mexican scholar Arturo Warman has put it: "What the Europeans found in the Americas was not only a plant, it was a cultural invention, the product of the initiative of millions of people for thousands of years that produced a treasury of genetic knowledge." The potential contamination of their principal source of food and culture came as a surprise and has become a serious cause for worry in a region where nearly every house and even many government offices and businesses are flanked by fields of corn.

Even scientists admit they don't know the ultimate impacts of transgenics on the environment. It is still an unknown quantity. But certainly, the immediate impact of contamination of natural varieties planted and consumed by millions of indigenous and other small farmers throughout the world portends serious problems for millions of people.

Just last month, organic farmers in Saskatchewan concerned over the same problem have filed suit against the two giant biotechnology conglomerates, Monsanto and Aventis SA, whose genetically modified varieties are contaminating crops in Western Canada. In their case, the complaint concerns genetically modified canola, a crop often staggered with wheat. In the lawsuit filed in January, the organic farmers charge that the genetically modified varieties are invading their fields and denying their right to the "organic" designation that provides them their primary market. The suit has kept Monsanto from commercially releasing genetically modified wheat until a decision is reached by the courts.

This week, two major events touching on the issue take place. In Montreal, hundreds of delegates from the Convention on Biological Diversity's 182 parties, other governments, indigenous and local community organizations and various institutions are gathering to explore how indigenous and local communities' knowledge and practices can help conserve the world's highly threatened species. The use of traditional indigenous knowledge is a focus of discussion in the search for solutions. Most indigenous and local communities are located in areas where the majority of the world's plant genetic resources are found. Conference organizers recognize that the skills and techniques of indigenous peoples, as cultivators who have used biological diversity in a sustainable way for thousands of years, provide valuable information to the global community and are a useful model for biodiversity policies.

Another event, a day of awareness and prayer called "Safeguarding the Sacred" involves concerned agriculturalists from Pueblo communities. They are calling on grain exporters and the U.S. government to protect corn biodiversity and to honor the global treaty on biodiversity (the Bio-safety Protocol signed in Cartagena, Colombia, February 2000) by ending the dumping of U.S. taxpayer subsidized genetically engineered corn in Mexico.

New Mexico writer Robin Seydel points out that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency itself maintains that genetically engineered organisms must not be planted in regions that are home to wild relatives, where the results of genetic contamination could be disastrous. "With over 60 wild relatives of corn, including what is believed to be corn's ancient ancestor, the wild grass, teosinte, growing throughout Mexico, genetic contamination of these ancestor species could affect corn farmers and backyard gardeners here in New Mexico and nationwide." The indigenous Mexican corn varieties go back at least ten thousand years.

Last year, under NAFTA, Mexico imported 6 million tons of corn from the U.S., a quarter of which is genetically engineered. This corn is grown for human and animal consumption in government stores throughout the region. It is now widely believed that when people ran short of their locally produced seed, they planted it, unknowingly violating their government's ban on genetically modified cultivation.

Public outrage and international alarm has been such that the Mexican Congress, which had not yet banned the importation of genetically engineered corn for human consumption, has now called for a ban on the import of genetically modified corn.

This is a most serious problem. As with so many issues raised by globalization, it affects local, land-based and indigenous populations. The growing infection of natural and organic varieties easily becomes a source of outrage and hostility. The wanton impact on peoples' foods and, as importantly, on the central, living source of their spiritual traditions, is not easily forgotten or forgiven.

Says Clayton Brascoup?, program director for the Traditional Native American Farmers Association (Tesuque, N.M.): "Generally Indian and Hispanic communities grow open pollinated varieties of corn. What I can see happening is our landrace varieties becoming contaminated by this genetic pollution. The contamination will sever a major tie with our culture. For us corn is not just food, it is "medicine." If it becomes contaminated it would make the practice of our religious beliefs very difficult. It might even make it impossible."