Tackling New Threats

Mexican Farmers Stop GM Corn

The role of corn in Mexican history and culture

For the past twenty years, corn has been the earth’s most produced grain. Modern corn comes from teosinte, a tiny wild grain native to southern Mexico that was domesticated by Mexican farmers about 8,000 years ago. Mexico plants over seventeen million acres of corn each year, mostly for human consumption in foods such as tortillas, the country’s staple.

The ancient Maya believed the gods made the first humans out of corn, after rejecting earlier clay and wood forms. The forty-nine landraces of corn (distinct strains improved over time by traditional methods), and thousands of individual varieties of corn, are often tied to specific indigenous groups and religious ceremonies.

GM corn comes to Mexico

The Mexican government is being asked to allow genetically modified (GM) strains of corn into the country’s fields. With Mexican output falling short of demand, firms such as Monsanto, Dow Chemical, and DuPont are seeking to plant 2.5 million acres of land in northern Mexico- an area roughly the size of Rwanda- with GM corn. Proponents of GM corn say studies show that production would rise, and costly inputs such as pesticides and fertilizers would fall. Before permits can be issued, the agriculture ministry must first finish designating the “centers of origin” where GM corn farming would be banned, and establish other safety regulations. The issue has sparked a huge controversy, given the importance of native corn in the history and culture of Mexico.

A legal challenge to the planting of GM corn

In 2009, changes to Mexican law allowed biotech crop developers for the first time to experiment with GM corn trials in approved regions of Mexico. Since then, dozens of pilot permits have tested GM corn strains for their tolerance to herbicides and their resistance to insects and drought.

A lawsuit challenging the government’s process for permitting planting of GM corn was filed in 2013 by a coalition of dozens of farming groups, scientists, and NGOs. They fear that large-scale GM plantings will contaminate native corn strains and harm biodiversity, and point to toxins that protect GM corn against pests but may be linked to elevated insect mortality, which could undermine pollination. Opponents are further concerned that agribusinesses’ development of proprietary seeds will essentially privatize corn production and threaten age-old farming practices by forcing farmers to buy new GM seeds rather than harvest them from Mexico’s current crops. EDLC is providing several forms of assistance to the public interest law team that has brought the case.

Couple with corn

A court injunction

A federal court judge in Mexico City issued a decision in late 2013 enjoining the government from proceeding with the permitting process, nation-wide, citing the imminent risk of harm to the environment. While a full trial on the merits has not taken place, the judge’s decision represents an extraordinary victory for opponents of GM corn.

As expected, the companies have launched a vigorous defense. By the end of 2014, a lawsuit filed by a Mexican government agency that has been working closely with the multinational agribusinesses marked the ninetieth legal challenge to the original lawsuit. Around the same time, another challenge, filed by Syngenta and pursued through three different chambers in the court system, was rejected by one of Mexico’s courts of appeal, as have several other attempts to defeat the lawsuit. In late 2015, another judge vacated the injunction in effect since 2013, but an appeals court stayed his order. Trial on the merits should be completed in late 2016 or in 2017.

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