[translations idioma=”ES” url=”https://archives.rgnn.org/2013/12/02/sin-maiz-no-hay-pais”]
MEXICO. The mission of Sin maíz no hay país, a Mexican popular movement launched in 2007, is to “defend national food sovereignty and revitalize the countryside”, all by way of a single crop: maize. Maize, known as “corn” in several English-speaking countries, has been cultivated as part of the staple Mesoamerican diet for up to 10,000 years and still occupies a central role in contemporary Mexican culture and lifestyle. Its long history of both natural evolution and cultivation by indigenous peoples has produced the 59 native landraces currently used in Mexico today, a genetic diversity so vast that it is considered fundamental to world food security.

In 2009, therefore, when the Mexican government lifted the 1998 de facto moratorium on all Mexican production of genetically modified or “transgenic” (from the Spanish “transgenico”) crops, controversy erupted about the anticipated environmental, social and cultural effects of introducing transgenic maize in Mexico. Despite widespread claims that the use of transgenic seeds increases both yields and climate change resilience, most studies on the use of transgenic maize in Mexico do not exhibit increased yields or prove more resilient to Mexico’s dry climate than conventionally bred varieties. Moreover, evidence indicates that, in Mexico, the native varieties could not coexist with commercial-scale planting of transgenic maize without accumulating its DNA. As the genetic diversity of native maize varieties is expected to be a crucial defense against climate change, especially for smaller producers who cultivate maize for subsistence, scaling up the planting of transgenic crops in Mexico may result in greater climate change vulnerability for those who can least afford it. Loss of native landraces would also affect Mexican food culture – maize is used in over 600 distinct preparations in Mexico, each of which relies on a specific native maize variety.

Antonio Turrent Fernández, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Mexico chapter and maize expert, believes that native maize varieties can achieve the same yield increases as transgenic maize. Currently, Mexico produces about 22.7 million tons of maize each year about 90% white maize destined for human consumption and 10% yellow maize used as animal feed. To satisfy its maize consumption, Mexico imports another 8-10 million tons of corn each year, mostly from the US. Based on thousands of field trials on soil fertility, Turrent Fernandez estimates that certain improvements in agricultural productivity could increase Mexico’s annual maize production to 33 million tons, enough to cover its maize import bill, using native maize varieties only. Moreover, Turrent Fernandez estimates that Mexico could increase its annual maize production to 57 million tons if it integrated maize production into 3 million hectares of extensive grazing land, and invested significantly in irrigation.

It was not until March of 2011 that the Mexican Ministry of Agriculture granted the first permit for a transgenic maize pilot planting, to Monsanto – the pilot was a yellow maize variety called MON 603, and it was planted on less than 1 hectare of land in Tamaulipas. Since then, almost 4,000 hectares more have been approved for pilot plantings, and applications for commercial plantings have been submitted on about 13 million hectares, almost all by Monsanto.

As of August 2013, none of the permits for commercial planting has been approved yet. Given the danger of forever contaminating native landraces with transgenic DNA, it would be prudent for the Mexican Ministry of Agriculture to rule out other options before granting commercial transgenic plantings. Turrent Fernández’s model of increased agricultural productivity using native landraces is one such option, and it deserves government funding for at least one large-scale study to examine its effect on yields. But as pressure mounts, both from agricultural biotechnology corporations and from the poverty and nutrition concerns associated with Mexico’s mediocre yields, the Ministry of Agriculture may decide to risk maize – and with it, according to Sin maíz no hay país, the country.