Mexico: Genetically altered corn eyed with suspicion

by Pilar Franco

Mexico City, Jul 16 (IPS) -- Genetically modified corn can be found in Mexico's enormous corn imports, warn scientists and environmentalists as the government tries to prevent the risks associated with such modified food products.

Last year the government banned genetically modified corn experiments in laboratories and greenhouses in an attempt to prevent its potential threats to wild corn species.

Corn is a staple food of the Mexican population's diet.

Some 50 species and more than 10,000 samples of the grain - which was grown by Mesoamerican indigenous peoples as long as 6,000 years ago - are safe-guarded by the prestigious International Centre for Improved Corn and Wheat.

Mexico's recently created National Bio-Diversity Commission (Conabio) states that the only effective way to prevent risks to human health and the environment is through "an intense research and monitoring effort on the potential effects" of the genetically altered organisms.

"The lack of evidence on environmental effects should not be interpreted as the non-existence of risks," according to Conabio, which is responsible for studying genetic modification - organisms into which foreign genes have been introduced.

Scientists from Conabio and from the National Commission on Science and Technology warned that, in addition to suspending tests on genetically modified corn, control over corn imports from the United States must be reinforced.

A joint study by the two organisations concluded that the introduction of genetically altered corn into Mexican fields is a major threat to their unique corn varieties.

In 1998, Mexico imported five million tonnes of U.S. corn, which was sold without separating out the genetically altered grain and faced the strong protests of national and international environmental groups, such as Greenpeace.

Last year in Mexico, 8.4 million hectares were cultivated with corn, 15 percent of which was planted with improved seeds - hybrids of the same species whose genetic changes were achieved using conventional methods.

The use of improved seed varieties is expected to increase yields from 2.3 tonnes per hectare to 18 tonnes, which could bring about serious environmental consequences, according to a Conabio study titled "The Biological Diversity of Mexico."

After 25 years of research, the Centre for Improved Corn and Wheat developed what it calls high-protein corn, a new hybrid with nearly double the nutritional content of what a normal corn variety supplies.

By the year 2001, 2.5 million hectares are expected to be planted with the "super-corn" for the commercial use in Mexico, while in Ghana, Brazil and China, a half million hectares have already been planted.

The cultivation of genetically modified seeds would alter the balance between wild and commercial corn varieties, a genetic resource in Mexico which includes hundreds of native varieties, such as Teocintle, said the Mexican scientists.

They say that Teocintle, if it were to receive genes that are resistant to herbicides "could become a super-weed that is impossible to control."

Mexico, with its considerable bio-diversity, is home to more than 40,000 of the 250,000 species that make up the world's wealth of higher plants.

"If we experiment carefully before introducing modified plants into the fields, it could be possible to solve some of the next century's problems, such as producing enough food for the growing population," Michel Chauvet of the Metropolitan Autonomous University told IPS.

The researcher said it is essential for the scientific community and Mexican society "to consider the risks and benefits of using genetically modified organisms and to create regulations for their use."

In nutritional terms, genetically altered foods are healthier because they require fewer chemicals in their production. However, "there is uncertainty as to the effects that unregulated consumption of modified foods would have on human health," she said.

What is still unknown about "genetic and molecular engineering and their consequences on the environment, with its infinite number of variables, means that bio-technology laboratories must use more reliable technology even if it is more expensive," added Chauvet.

Currently in Mexico, genetically modified cotton and tomatoes are cultivated, and a third of the tomatoes consumed by the Mexican population are genetically altered, according to rural organisations.

The U.S. corporation Monsanto announced that it is conducting tests on 12 different genetically modified food crops, which could ultimately be introduced in Mexico.

"Bio-technology can provide benefits in terms of health, but at the same time it represents a threat to species and ecosystems," warned Conabio.

The above article by the Inter Press Service appeared in the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS).