| MEXICO CITY
MEXICO CITY Nov 12 After pioneering the
cultivation of corn thousands of years ago, Mexico must overcome
the weight of history to give the go-ahead to allow genetically
modified strains into its fields.
Religion, culture and science are competing for primacy in
the debate on how acceptable corn produced by genetically
modified organisms (GMO) is in a country where farmers first
domesticated maize about 8,000 years ago.
Last month a federal judge in Mexico City created a stir by
ordering a temporary halt to any new GMO corn permits, accepting
a lawsuit brought by opponents of the crop.
It was widely interpreted as a definitive ban on the
commercial use of GMO corn in Mexico, but experts say it will
likely just delay any resolution into 2014 or beyond.
With Mexican output falling short of demand, GMO backers are
keen to open the door to firms such as Monsanto, which
have applications pending to plant some 2.5 million hectares of
GMO corn, an area roughly the size of Rwanda.
The agriculture ministry must first finish designating the
"centers of origin" where GMO corn farming would be banned, and
set other safety regulations before permits can be issued.
And it must also wait until the legal wrangling has been
settled since the federal judge sided with opponents, finding
that GMO corn has already been planted illegally in Mexico.
"It's a very controversial topic," Agriculture Minister
Enrique Martinez said recently. "This will have a final
resolution that adheres to what the scientists decide."
The science is hotly disputed. Proponents of GMO corn say
studies show that production will rise, and costly inputs such
as pesticides and fertilizers would fall. They add that GMO
crops have proven safe for human consumption.
Opponents, meanwhile, contend that large scale GMO plantings
will contaminate native strains of the grain and harm
biodiversity. They also point to toxins that protect GMO corn
against pests that may be linked to elevated insect mortality,
which could undermine pollination.
Mariano Ruiz, a deputy agriculture minister in the previous
government who backs GMO corn, said the case will likely reach
Mexico's Supreme Court and cause at least a year's delay.
Although President Enrique Pena Nieto's administration has
avoided taking a firm position on its commercial use, Ruiz
believes it supports GMO corn. And in his view, there was no
question about the legitimacy of large-scale planting.
"There isn't a legal vacuum, there's a delay in the
application of the law," he told Reuters.
BORN OF CORN
Despite its humble origins, corn is by far the planet's most
produced grain, dwarfing both wheat and rice output.
Mexico now plants 7.2 million hectares of corn annually to
grow mostly white corn, which is used for human consumption,
including the country's staple tortillas.
Last year its farmers produced some 21 million tonnes of
corn, or about 3 percent of global production. But the country
consumed roughly 30 million tonnes, making up the difference
with U.S. imports.
Mexico already imports tens of thousands of tonnes of GMO
yellow corn each year, largely for animal feed, and permits
planting of other GMO crops, mainly cotton and soybeans.
Supporters of GMO corn like Mexico's corn farmers'
federation argue it can boost yields by up to 15 percent.
Their peers in the United States, Brazil and Argentina - the
world's top three corn exporters - are already producing large
quantities of GMO corn.
But the crop has a unique place in Mexico. The 49 landraces
of corn, or distinct strains improved over time by traditional
methods, and thousands of individual varieties, are often tied
to specific indigenous groups and religious ceremonies.
Scientists say modern corn comes from teosinte, a tiny wild
grain native to southern Mexico.
The ancient Maya believed the gods made the first humans out
of corn, after rejecting earlier clay and wood forms.
"The women and men of corn saw as much as the gods," reads
the Popol Vuh, the sacred text of the Maya, who still live in
Mexico. "Their glance ranged over the whole world."
In 2009, during the previous administration of President
Felipe Calderon, changes to Mexico's bio-safety law allowed
biotech crop developers for the first time to experiment with
GMO corn trials in approved regions of Mexico.
Since then, dozens of pilot permits have tested GMO corn
strains for their tolerance to herbicides as well as resistance
to insects and drought. But Calderon left office without
approving large-scale GMO corn plantings.
Those corn permits could have been approved as early as
February, but the change of government led to a delay.
GMO corn backers like Alejandro Monteagudo of industry lobby
AgroBIO, argue Mexico has no reason to fear tinkering with DNA
in search of larger yields and hardier plants.
"The government's biosecurity measures allow us to be calm
that (commercial GMO corn plantings) are done legally and with
no impact on the environment or biodiversity," he said.
But opponents say Monsanto's proprietary seeds essentially
privatize corn production and threaten age-old farming practices
by making farmers buy new GMO seeds rather than harvest them
from Mexico's current crops.
Unsurprisingly, they applaud the judge's ruling last month.
"This decision is unprecedented," said Aleira Lara, the head
of Greenpeace Mexico's sustainable agriculture campaign.
Greenpeace, which is not a party to the case, will
immediately file a separate suit if the agriculture ministry
approves any permits as the court case proceeds, Lara said.
The extended political and legal fight leaves five
applications for commercial-scale GMO corn fields in limbo.
Monsanto has submitted two applications, both of which seek
700,000 hectares for GMO corn in the northwestern state of
Sinaloa, the country's largest corn producing area.
The Mexican unit of Pioneer Hi-Bred International, part of
DuPont, has three bids, each of which would cover about
350,000 hectares in northeastern Tamaulipas state.
Meanwhile, Dow AgroSciences de Mexico, part of Dow Chemical
, has one application for 40,000 hectares in Tamaulipas.
(Additional reporting by Adriana Barrera; Editing by Dave
Graham and Leslie Gevirtz)