Safeguarding Sacred Corn

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. ? Genetic engineering of sacred foods and medicines presents unnecessary risks for Native communities and must stopped, said organizers of a recent event held to inform consumers about the dangers of genetically engineered foods.

Speaking at a press conference at La Montanita Co-op, a local health food store, Clayton Brascoupe, director of the Traditional Native American Farmers Association, said, "Very few Native people know about genetically modified foods and how they might affect our people. We're eating these foods in our schools, restaurants and hospitals and we don't even know it. We need to demand labeling on these GE foods so that consumers have a choice if they want to eat them or not."

Genetic engineering (GE) allows scientists to break the natural boundaries that exist between species to produce new life forms that will produce a variety of desired traits. For example, genes from salmon can be spliced into tomatoes to make them more resistant to cold weather, thereby yielding a larger crop. The process can manipulate genes from animals, plants bacteria, viruses and even humans.

But when species are crossed and new life forms are introduced, what impact will they have on the natural world in the long-term? Critics say scientists are playing God by creating life forms that don't occur in nature and they point to profits as the driving force behind plans by corporations and big agri-business to introduce yet more GE foods into the food supply.

The most popular GE crops in the U.S. are corn, cotton, canola and soybeans. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 68 percent of all soybeans and 26 percent of all corn is genetically engineered in the U.S. Other crops include tomatoes, potatoes, rice, cantaloupe, sugar beets, squash and papaya.

There are already some 50 million acres of genetically engineered crops growing in the United States, including farmlands near Indian country in North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska, Arizona and New Mexico.

While many traditional Indian and organic farmers choose not to plant GE seeds, they are now learning that drift pollution may contaminate their crops when the wind, and insects carry pollen from GE plants to their natural crops.

"When I first heard about the corruption of the genes of our Corn Mother, it frightened me because corn is at the heart of our survival as Indigenous peoples of North, South and Central America, said Brascoupe, a member of the Mohawk Nation and Tesuque Pueblo.

"Corn is our Mother. She nourishes us and takes care of us. Our Creator gave it to us as a gift and instructed us on how to care for the corn so that it will care for us. It is our first medicine, and our people and corn are one in the same. Our mother is being corrupted by scientists and corporations, and if we don't stop it, she won't have the ability to heal us any longer."

Corn is a central part of the origin stories of many tribes including the Navajo, Apache, Hopi, Zuni, Acoma, Laguna and Isleta Pueblos. The Navajo and Apache peoples have long used the pollen from corn in their daily prayers and in puberty and marriage ceremonies. For Pueblo tribes, corn is a symbol of life, and it carries a culturally embedded sense of caring for all life.

Brascoupe was one of several speakers who warned consumers that genetically engineered seeds and crops have not been fully tested for safety and in the long-term will have unforeseen impacts on human health and the natural world.

He and others worried about the contamination of Indigenous corn varieties by genetically engineered seeds. In addition to wind pollution, seeds travel and change hands as Native people from the North travel to indigenous communities in the South, he said.

The Organic Consumers Association warns consumers that hazards of GE crops include food allergies, antibiotic resistance, increased pesticide residues, increased cancer risks and damage to soil fertility. They also charge that GE crops that produce their own pesticides present another dangerous problem ? the creation of "superweeds" and "superpests."

Joran Viers, director of the New Mexico Organic Commodities Commission, said, "The most direct effect on growers is the potential for an ever-widening pool of genetic contamination. It raises many issues about control and regulation. As the head of a state regulatory agency this is a concern. Our organic farmers now have to test to ensure that their crops are not contaminated."

Viers said they see this science "as unnecessary," noting that other methods for improving crops can be used that are less controversial, less unknown, and less subject to hazardous fallout.

"GE crops are grown for the benefit of corporations, not for the benefit of farmers or consumers," he said. "We demand that in this country labeling of GE foods has to happen. Eighty percent of people polled want to know ? we have a right to know about what we eat."

Mexico banned the import of genetically modified seed in 1998 and the Mexican Congress passed a resolution against genetically engineered corn in December.

But last year, under NAFTA agreements, the U.S. shipped 6 million tons of corn to Mexico, a quarter of which is genetically engineered.

Activists and indigenous peoples in rural communities say they are alarmed by the spread of GE corn among their natural crops and complained that there was no labeling of GE corn.

Likewise, at the international level, Europe, Japan, Latin America and several Asian countries have rejected GE products. Consumer resistance in the U.S. is growing, but has not reached major proportions. However, recent surveys revealed some 80 percent of U.S. consumers want GE foods labeled.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, has championed the effort to label GE foods in Congress without much success. Since 2000, he has introduced three bills relating to genetically engineered food regulations and all but one has failed. His amendment to the Farm Security Act of 2001 to safeguard against the unknown impacts of GE foods triples the research on the negative impacts of GE crops.

In Indian country, Navajo Agricultural Products Industries, an enterprise of the Navajo Nation, planted a 10-acre test crop four years ago, but ultimately discontinued it because of consumer demands.

"We planted a test crop on about 10 acres just to see how it would do, but we found out our buyers did not want genetically modified products, " said Albert Etsitty, corn crop manager. "Consumers were not educated about it and we let it go."

Brascoupe said they will continue efforts to educate Native consumers about the dangers of GE crops, especially corn.

"GE corn is not made by the Creator and may have negative forces in its pollen because it was produced with toxins in it and it was produced for profit. We have to think about this issue very carefully and get our communities informed. We must be conscious of what these corps are doing to our Mother Corn."