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Mexico’s GMO Corn Ban and Glyphosate Cancer Findings

Movements and organizations in Mexico continue to strive to defend the battered biodiversity and food sovereignty.

Corn drying in Cusarare, Chihuahua, Mexico. (Photo: Ted McGrath/Flickr)

The CIP Americas Program has been accompanying the grassroots movement of campesinos, indigenous communities, consumers and scientists to maintain the ban on genetically modified corn for over a decade. The pushback from Monsanto and other biotech companies has been constant, but cross-sector organization has succeeded in protecting Mexico’s native corn and campesino livelihoods from the threat. This report describes the latest developments.

Twenty-two months ago, Mexico became a GM maize-free territory, when a Federal Judge issued the precautionary measure that suspended authorizations to plant any genetically modified seeds of this grain, a staple food in the country, essential to its culture.

The temporary suspension reinstated in fact the moratorium on GM maize that had been breached by the federal government in 2009, when it started approving the growth of GM crops in experimental and pilot stages, continuing to do so until 2013. In September that year, just as Monsanto and other multinational corporations turned commercial planting up a notch, the precautionary measure was issued in response to the collective lawsuit filed by a group of organizations and citizens advocating for the human right to biodiversity and a healthy environment.

On July 5 last, the collective lawsuit that stopped GM maize from being planted in the center of corn origin and diversity entered its second year after a number of outstanding victories: the collective presenting the legal actions was granted favorable ruling in all 22 appeals and other contestations, which amount to nearly a hundred of legal remedies used by the government and multinational corporations.

The evil duo is not happy. Unspeakable excesses have been undertaken by the federal government: the legal system (financed with tax money) was put to the service of corporations to argue in favor of GM maize, against the national interest. It went as far as hiding information affecting the interests of multinational corporations in the trial.

Monsanto’s deceit has reached the courts of the judiciary, claiming that its transgenic technology reduces the use of pesticides and increases the productivity of crops for the benefit of farmers. Several studies reviewed during trial show just the opposite. The defendants are compelled to show that not planting GM maize is more harmful than planting it. Failure to do so means the precautionary measure will remain in force.

Movements and organizations have striven to defend the battered biodiversity and food sovereignty, with the support of a team of young lawyers that has so far kept the multimillionaire legal team of the corporations and the government, at bay.

In a press conference, renowned lawyer Bernardo Bátiz highlighted the work of attorney René Sánchez Galindo, “who has borne the legal burden that has managed to put a halt to Monsanto’s strategy.”

Sánchez Galindo has stated that they are now pursuing a permanent suspension of GM maize cultivation while in-depth definition of the process is carried out, but he refused to estimate how long will it take. “Every time we have made predictions, they were wrong”, he said. “We would not give a blank check to the judiciary, but so far they have implemented the collective rights contained in the law and international treaties on this topic signed by Mexico.”

The attorney briefly summarized court appearances: Monsanto was compelled to acknowledge that all its GM crop applications involve the use of glyphosate and it conceded that there is genetic flow between crops. Syngenta recognized seed exchange as source of transgene dissemination. SAGARPA admitted that transgenics do not increase yield. CIBIOGEM conceded that GM crops are more expensive. The Ministry of Finance (Secretaría de Hacienda) reported that maize imports decreased over the past year. And the Ministry of Health (Secretaría de Salud) confessed to not conducting any study to assess the impact on human health of GM maize consumption.

“The lawsuit has sown seeds of hope allowing us to create closer links and strengthen our long-standing fight for the defense of our maize”, as expressed by Argelia Arriaga, pharmacobiological chemist and historian from the Autonomous University of Puebla and one of the plaintiffs in the collective lawsuit. She also highlighted the involvement of organizations from the productive sector (such as ANEC and the Vicente Guerrero farmers organization, from Tlaxcala), which would be the first to be struck by the introduction of GM technology.

Adelita San Vicente, from the organization Semillas de Vida (seeds of life) and representative of the collective group, said: “we are not just some scattered environmentalists in this fight, we have been joined by many people and organizations, such as UNORCA”, which has presented an amicus curiae brief requesting the Twelfth District Judge for Civil Matters of the First Circuit hearing the case, “to grant permanent status to the precautionary measure that has suspended authorizations to plant any GM maize in Mexico.”

Although the lawsuit was filed on July 5, 2013, and the precautionary measure issued on September 17, the trial has just started because it has taken these two years to attend the legal challenges lodged by Monsanto, Syngenta, and other corporations along with the federal government, to overturn the resolution of the court, but to no avail.

Given the immeasurable value of what is at stake for the nation and humanity, the eyes of the world are now on Mexico.

Right to Biodiversity

The collective lawsuit was pioneered by 53 people exercising their civil rights, and 20 civil organizations engaged in activities related to production and consumption of maize landraces, all of them advocating for the human right to a healthy environment for their development and wellbeing. The lawsuit has faced 93 legal challenges in 17 federal courts.

The legal strategy of plaintiffs, leaded by Sánchez Galindo, focuses on showing the triple threat looming over Mexico: biodiversity of maize landraces could go from being a common good to become private property of a handful of corporations; such biodiversity could be lost, resulting in the end of a thousand-year-old culture; all this would jeopardize the health of the Mexican population that, in contrast to the rest of the world, consumes maize directly and in vast amounts.

Therefore, the plaintiffs are seeking a statement issued by the judge declaring that there is GM maize in unauthorized locations, as well as unauthorized activities. Furthermore, that this presence undermines the human right to conservation, participation, and sustainable use of the biological diversity of maize landraces, and that with the release of GM maize, biological diversity will be all the more affected.

Sustainable use is understood as benefiting from the components of biodiversity in ways and at a pace that do not result in its depletion in the long run, enabling current and future generations to fulfill their needs and aspirations.

The Ultimate Lie

At the end of 2014, after a year with no experimental cultivation nor authorization for commercial plantings, Monsanto blew off the dust from its arsenal of lies and relaunched its campaign promoting GM maize based on the untenable argument of the reduction in pesticide use. It aimed at generating favorable public opinion and influence trial proceedings, for the duration of which, and depending on the verdict, are keeping GM maize off the field.

In November, Luis González de Alba in an article published by Milenio, “Mexico, cradle of corn and a very poor producer”, endorses the lies of corporations. In his text, the writer and commentator ignores the disastrous consequences of the North American Free Trade Agreement over the Mexican territory, he yearns for the latifundio – or “the large plantations” – and explains the failure of national production as a result of land distribution and the minifundio (small estate).

Gonzáles de Alba argues that the lack of GM maize varieties undermines “the delivery of solutions to the inefficient Mexican farmlands.” He gathers misleading statements from a news release by the Entomological Society of America (ESA) claiming that GM maize yield per hectare in the US is three times higher than in Mexican farmlands. The trick is averaging seasonal-crop yields of corn fields from the greater part of the national territory (where GM technology would not work) with irrigated-crop yields from the northwest of Mexico, where non-GM hybrids produce yields higher than o equal to those observed in the neighboring country.

ESA discusses a study – some of whose authors work for multinational food and agribusiness corporations – which attributes low yield in Mexico to pests that reduce maize production, and concludes that the greatest obstacle for implementing integrated pest management programs is “the diversity of growing conditions” observed in the minifundio. According to calculations made by the authors, three thousand tons of organophosphate pesticides are sold annually in Mexico, only to control fall armyworm (Spodoptera frugiperda) in maize, with severe impacts to the environment and public health. But there is nothing to worry about: Monsanto and crew have the solution with their insect-resistant GM maize seeds.

The problem is that – Gonzáles de Alba quotes entomologist Guadalupe Pellegaud – “unfortunately, people who oppose the introduction of this technology in Mexico do not seem to realize that a far greater environmental impact is done by applying more than 3,000 tons of insecticide active ingredient each year.”

The same quote and news release have been used in an article from Muy Interesante, a magazine published by Televisa, on January (Anti-insect Corn), which reiterates that “if maize varieties genetically modified to express proteins from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis – currently planted in 90% of cornfields in the US – were to be adopted, yields of (Mexican) farmlands would triple.”

The truth is that GMOs do not have higher yields and, regarding the use and abuse of chemical pesticides, Monsanto’s cure is worse than the disease. Contrary to what corporate propaganda claims, GM crops have increased the application of toxic agricultural chemicals. This has led to an unprecedented rise in the use of increasingly more toxic herbicides and insecticides, creating serious problems for the environment and public health. In the case of Monsanto’s maize, the purpose of the genetic modification is indeed to obtain a plant resistant to the herbicide formulated by the very company (Roundup) – a perfect business.

The Benbrook scientific report, published in 2012, documents the use of toxic agricultural chemicals in the US in GM maize, soy, and cotton from 1996 to 2011, and it shows that genetically engineered crops increased the use of toxic agricultural chemicals by an estimated 183 million kilograms during that period.

Since the US is the largest and oldest producer of GMOs, its performance data may be extrapolated to the rest of the world. In that country, a phenomenon derived from natural selection (artificial in this case) has already become evident: since evolution takes its course, insects and weeds develop resistance and super-pests emerge, demanding an increase in the volume and toxicity of pesticides in an endless range of poisoning levels. This is a fact acknowledged by the US Department of Agriculture itself.

Privatizing Seeds

GM maize was designed to monopolize the cultivation of this staple crop and it does not increase yields. The adoption of seed that has to be purchased at the start of each cropping cycle paying royalties to the patent owner, creates dependence and increases costs. For many corn producers in Mexico, this is reason enough to end discussions. GM maize is of no use to them. On the contrary, it would only worsen their deteriorated economy, and be a further cog in the wheel of a new slave system represented by the placement of agriculture in the hands of corporations.

The agricultural biotech industry is controlled by six multinational corporations (Monsanto, Syngenta, DuPont, Dow AgroSciences, Bayer y BASF) that hold the monopoly on seeds by means of patent protection on the most important crops for humanity. With their vast capacity for lobbying and corrupting governments, they are privatizing biodiversity in widening the scope of patents to cover living beings (such as seeds) and not only the technological processes.

But that is not all: if the federal government were to authorize commercial growing of GM maize in Mexico (whose entire territory is the center of corn origin and diversity) an enormous agro-genetic and cultural wealth – represented by nearly 60 Mexican landraces adapted to almost every climate and soil in the country – would be lost. Such biodiversity, resulting from the work of thousands of generations, is the best defense against the ravages of the climate crisis already reducing the yields of several grains in different parts of the country.

Perhaps worse, GM maize and its inextricably related package of toxic agricultural chemicals (mainly glyphosate, whose use has consequently increased) causes damage to the environment and human health.

Each of these statements is backed by the experience of farmers from Mexico and other countries, as well as by serious studies conducted by reputable institutions aroud the world. Some of the studies are cited below.

Poor Crop Performance

Research conducted by the University of Canterbury compared maize 50‑year yields in the US and Europe, showing greater increases in the Old Continent in contrast to our neighbor to the north. This in spite of the fact that the European Union grows very little GM varieties, while in the US they represent more than 80% of maize varieties grown. The study turns out to be more significant when taking into account that it is comparing areas with the same technological development level and at similar latitudes.

Even in the US, where GM maize has been commercially grown for two decades, according to a report from the Union of Concerned Scientists, agricultural developments based on GMOs have failed to increase yields after some thirty years of experiments and nearly twenty years of being put on the market.

The study finds that the propaganda carried out by biotech corporations, such as Monsanto, lacks support when it states that genetic engineering is necessary to increase productivity, in the context of food price increases and food shortage in some regions.

The research concludes that none of the GM technologies under assessment offers an increase in productivity over alternative crops, while it encourages scientific research oriented to other approaches proven to increase yield, such as “sustainable and organic farming, and other sophisticated farming practices that do not require farmers to pay significant upfront costs.”

Rescuing landraces and native seeds as well as an optimal use of seeds improved through national non-transgenic technologies remain the key to increase yields and face the challenges of climate change in the field, as shown by research conducted by Mexican scientists, such as Dr. Antonio Turrent, from the National Institute for Forestry, Agriculture and Animal Husbandry Research (INIFAP, its Spanish acronym) and president of the Union of Scientists Committed to Society.

The corporate defense strategy in the trial is based on a lie, claiming that GM maize produces a higher yield than conventional maize; and that if it were grown commercially, it would solve the country’s dependence on this grain, since Mexico is currently importing 30% of its maize consumption from the US. The truth, as shown by Turrent and others, is that Mexico has a potential to produce 57 million tons annually (nearly three times its current production) without the need of GM maize, using only landrace seeds and hybrids, adding some 3 million hectares to the extent of land under cultivation in the southern-south-eastern region, within the frame of a State policy to regain food sovereignty.

The author states that GM crops are faced with a dead-end future in which the Mexican government has invested valuable resources, but to no avail. Modern agricultural science is creating new paths towards food sufficiency based on the cultivation of perennial varieties of staple grains to replace current annual crops.

“When planting perennial varieties of maize, wheat, rice, sorghum, millets, and several legumes, the land will be ploughed and planted only once every five or six years. The system will be more environmentally friendly, and food production more stable,” he stated. He also points out two reasons why corporate biotech can expect to have an expiration date: the seed market will be brought to a fifth of its size and the complex inheritance of the permanent trait will distance it from finding a solution by engineering a handful of genes.

Attack on the Center of Origin

The whole Mexican territory is the center of corn origin and diversity, thus no cultivation of GM maize should be allowed within the national territory, since the openly crossed-pollination that characterizes this plant would endanger the continuity of landraces and native varieties. Coexistence of maize varieties resulting from conventional crossings and those genetically engineered, contrary to what government and corporations are trying to prove during the trial, is impossible. Transgenic pollen would contaminate everything.

As early as 2000, Ignacio Chapela and David Quist, researchers at Berkeley University, detected transgene contamination in native maize in communities of the Sierra de Oaxaca. Subsequent investigations confirmed the data, and such contamination was also found in other states. This happened while there was a moratorium on GM experiments, we can easily imagine what would happen, if commercial growing of GM maize were approved, i.e. planting in large open-air extensions of land with no restrictions.

In 2009, UNAM, UACM, Colegio de Posgraduados and CONABIO published the book “Origen y diversificación del maíz, una investigación bibliográfica analítica” (Origin and Diversification of Maize, an Analytic Review) covering 150 years of published literature on the topic. In the foreword, José Sarukhán Kermez, director of CONABIO, wrote:

“Mexico and the Mesoamerican region are the center of corn origin and diversification into more than 50 landraces recognized in our territory. Where, precisely, when and how did corn originate in Mexico are questions that cannot be accurately answered. What seems to be clear is that the process occurred simultaneously in several regions and it spread throughout the national territory inhabited by hundreds of indigenous peoples that constitute the historical roots of what our country presently is.” [Translated]

In the Executive Summary, the text reads: “Approximately 60 races are catalogued in Mexico which are distributed through out the country.”

The authors conclude that in the light of scientific evidence and systematized information, definitions and articles related to centers of origin and diversity, and – especially – the special regime for the protection of maize from the Law on Biosafety and Genetically Modified Organisms will have to be amended because “they do not comply with their commitment to protect and safeguard native maize germplasm and its wild relatives in Mexico.”

Poison à la Carte

One of the two GM maize varieties (Roundup Ready, the most widely used) was designed to resist massive applications of glyphosate, the active ingredient of Roundup or Faena. Lying again, the industry claimed that it is not toxic to humans, but in 2013 – to cite an example – a study revealed something very different:

Glyphosate, the most widely used herbicide around the world, is highly toxic to mammals and residues have been found in the main components of the western diet, such sugar, corn, soybean, and wheat. It inhibits enzymes that play a crucial role in the proper functioning of organisms and interferes in the synthesis of amino acids in the intestine, causing several diseases ranging from gastrointestinal problems, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, depression, autism, and infertility to cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.

The study was conducted by an independent scientist and a researcher from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and published in the journal Entropy. The authors reviewed nearly 300 research studies.

In addition, a group of scientists from Caen University in France, led by Eric Séralini, published the results of the most extensive study of laboratory mammals fed with GM corn (NK603, the same variety Monsanto wants to plant in Sinaloa) and a glyphosate formulation that had a concentration lower than the permitted levels in drinking water in the European Union.

The study summarizes:

“The health effects of genetically modified (GM) maize cultivated with or without Roundup application” were only assessed for two years in rats. “In females, all treatment groups showed a two- to threefold increase in mortality, and deaths were earlier than control groups” (…) “Females developed large mammary tumors more frequently and before controls.” (…) “[T]he sex hormonal balance was modified.” “In treated males, liver congestions and necrosis were 2.5 to 5.5 times higher.” (…) There were also “marked and severe nephropathies.” “Males presented up to four times more large palpable tumors starting 600 days earlier.”

Séralini’s team concludes that such disorders can be explained by the non-linear endocrine-disrupting effects of glyphosate, but also by the overexpression of GM maize transgenes and other metabolic consequences.

The report caused quite a global commotion and aroused the anger of Monsanto and other multinational corporations. Due to the pressure exerted by the industry, the editor of Food and Chemical Toxicology withdrew the publication, between the debate on science independence and the rejoicing of biotechnologists advocating for GM seeds. The study was republished last year without any modifications by the journal Environmental Sciences Europe.

In addition to glyphosate teratogenic effects documented by Andrés Carrasco in South America and published in 2009, last year Nancy L. Swanson published a study in which she searched US government databases for GM crop data, applications of Monsanto’s herbicide commercialized since 1974, and epidemiological data of diseases such as thyroid cancer, liver cancer, bladder cancer, pancreatic cancer, kidney cancer, as well as diabetes, strokes, autism, and hypertension.

The highly significant correlation coefficients observed between glyphosate, GM crops and the increase in the incidence of chronic diseases in the US in the last 20 years, led her to conclude that the topic must be studied in greater depth.

Once again, the World Health Organization reacted too late. It was only on March 20, through the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), that it included glyphosate in the list of substances “probably carcinogenic to humans” (IARC Group 2A.)

By an official statement IARC indicated: “For the herbicide glyphosate, there was limited evidence of carcinogenicity in humans for non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The evidence in humans is from studies of exposures, mostly agricultural, in the USA, Canada, and Sweden published since 2001. In addition, there is convincing evidence that glyphosate also can cause cancer in laboratory animals.”

After the WHO announcement, France banned over-the-counter sale of glyphosate some weeks ago, while Colombia decided to eradicate its use as a coca defoliant. Ecuador and Peru expressed their intentions to make progress in the fight against pesticides.

Poisons sold by corporations are components of the upcoming horror-show that Mexico is currently facing in court. The battle is already being recognized as the most relevant legal challenge against GM crops around the world having significant global implications, due to the importance of maize in the diet of the peoples and in world economy.

Translated by Andrea Maldonado

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