Political Ecology of GMOs

A Middlebury blog

Genetically Modified Maize in Mexico

Luis Fernando Sandoval Jimenez

Positionality Statement:

I am from a campesino family that grows mostly corn in rural central Mexico. We do not grow our produce organically, and we do not knowingly use GM seeds. I deeply care about issues of environmental justice, recognizing that as humans we contribute to, and are affected by environmental degradation in different degrees. I advocate for a symbiotic relationship between humans and the earth’s systems, a relationship that is inclusive of all peoples and considers them equal. I am also pragmatic and acknowledge that working within the systems that perpetuate socio-environmental issues can create sustainable solutions. I presently believe that GMOs have the potential to be both a challenge and an opportunity towards achieving a more just and sustainable world.


Genetically Modified Maize in Mexico: Modes of Production and Issues of Biodiversity at a Time of Significant Change

The Mexican government is about to decide whether to allow genetically modified maize (GMM) to be grown commercially in open fields. The forthcoming decision will have significant repercussions for the country and for the world, and both the potential benefits and negative consequences are in dispute. As a Mexican citizen, I found myself utterly uninformed and unable to decide whether to support or oppose the approval. Although plenty of news articles and scholarly works about GMM in Mexico are easily available online, it took me a several hours of research just to figure out what the current state of regulations is. I then went on to investigate what the potential changes will be, should the measure pass. In found that both the public and the academic debate are mainly about changes to the mode production and impact on the environment, and biodiversity in specific. With this essay I intend to give a brief overview of the present regulations for GMM in Mexico, the events that lead to them and the impending changes. I will then discuss the potential repercussions of changes to the modes of production and how this could affect biodiversity. The aim is to create an accessible account of the current state of affairs and an assessment of two salient issues in the face of change. 2

Since the 1960’s the Mexican government made efforts to integrate the country’s agriculture into the international market, and in 1982, upon defaulting on foreign debt, it adopted a neoliberal economic policy framework (Preibisch et al., 2002). Reforms in the Salinas administration (1988-1994) stopped most food and agricultural subsidies, reduced credit and technical assistance to farmers and allowed the privatization of communal agricultural land (DeWalt et al. 1994). Mexico joined NAFTA in 1994, and although maize enjoyed a special status that allowed for a quota on imports and tariffs beyond the quota, by 1996 imports exceeded the quota and the tariff was not paid (de Ita, 1999). Most of the imported maize came from the US, meant for feed grain for livestock and for processed foods (McAfee, 2008). Today 30% of the maize consumed in Mexico is imported from the US and is most likely GM (Katovich, 2012).

Although GMM imports were allowed, Mexico had a de facto moratorium in place until 2009 on planting it (Antal et al. 2007). In 2005 Mexico passed the biosafety law for GMOs (LBOGM) which legalized planting of GMOs on experimental, pilot and commercial plots; however, these had to be approved on a case by case basis (Government of Mexico 2005). The LBOGM defines that experimental releases must have contention, pilot releases may or may not have contention, and commercial releases do not have any means of contention. A special protection scheme for maize, required in LBOGM, was drafted and passed into law in 2009 (Government of Mexico 2009). That same year 34 permissions were given for experimental and pilot growing and 117 more have been given since (Government of Mexico, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012). In 2012 petitions for commercial growing from Monsanto, Pioneer and Dow totaled nearly an area of 1.1 million hectares, and in March 2013 Monsanto alone petitioned for almost 12 million more (Government of Mexico 2012, 2013). The available documents show that none of these petitions has been approved or rejected as of May 6th 2013. GMM is already present in landraces (different regional strains of maize) in Mexico (3)(CEC, 2004), but approving any of the petitions to grow GMM commercially would mean the first large scale and open air cultivation without measures to prevent crosspollination beyond the proposed zones.

The Mexican government has not officially stated their views on GMOs but its behavior suggests that they favor the interests of multinational corporations (Cevallos, 2006) and the appropriation of genetic biodiversity by capital (Brand and Gorge, 2003; McAfee 2008). This is consistent with the trends to liberalize the economy and integrate its markets to global market that Preibisch et al. described. An unofficial comment by a deputy agriculture secretary suggests that the incoming government of Enrique Peña Nieto is supportive of growing GMM domestically (Reuters 2012). In my research I found only one entity that publically supports growing GMM in Mexico, the National Confederation of Maize Producers of Mexico (CNPAMM) (Vanguardia 2013), which has a stronger presence in the north of Mexico and is composed of mostly large-scale growers. The premise that GMM could help boost domestic production, thereby increasing national food security, seems to be another reason for support.

Concerns over cultivation of GMM include that cross pollination will lead to loss of biodiversity, which would be exacerbated if GMM replaces, intentionally or not, landraces in campesino communities. Biodiversity here refers to maize diversity, biodiversity within agricultural micro ecosystems and the ecosystems surrounding maize fields. In the second case, as McAfee (2008) explains, the concern is are that Bt resistant maize will affect non-target insects too and change the existing ecosystems. In the first case the concern is that GMM will outcompete local landraces and teosintes and decrease the diversity of maize currently existing in Mexico (CEC, 2004; McAfee, 2008). This is a particularly salient issue because Mexico, as the center of origin, contains the highest diversity of maize varieties (Wise 2007). As part of the LBOGM the government is supposed (4) to identify areas “of origin” from which GMM must be strictly kept away. But no such areas have been identified, which puts diversity at risk and compromises Mexico’s commitment to the Cartagena Protocol on biosafety.

Some opponents of GMOs contend that GMMis exogenously framed as the only salvation for rural Mexico (AMUCSS et al. 2004) not taking into account that “maize has significant cultural, symbolic, and spiritual values for most Mexicans” (CEC, p. 23, 2004) which is not the case in in the US or Canada. The meaning maize is attached to the practices and knowledge of campesinos (McAfee, 2008), which in turn dictate the selective reproduction mechanisms that sustain maize diversity, making it susceptible to the introduction of GMM (Cleveland et al., 2005). A study Preibisch et al. (2002) shows that maize provides campesino families with security, and that they prefer the taste of the maize they grow. There is also evidence that campesinos in southern Mexico see “GMM as a direct threat to political autonomy, cultural identity, personal safety and biodiversity” (CEC, p. 23, 2004).

Current IPR regulations in Mexico allow farmers who buy patented seeds to reuse the resulting seed, to reproduce them and inter-breed them with other seeds, and to sell them, so long as the sold seeds are not identical to the patent (Government of Mexico, 1996). Changes to this law and interest from agribusiness to do so or to enforce it seem unlikely (Leger, 2005). However, the political and biological nature of GMM is enough to change the mode of production among campesinos, given their relationship to maize and their perceptions of its GM equivalent.

Mexican maize producers are not a monolithic group (see Brush, 2004), and although the literature I present here does not represent all producers, it seems that a two-tiered regulation approach could satisfy the goals of those who want to grow GMM and appease the concerns of those who (5) want to keep it away from their fields. First, it is important to recognize the GMM is already present in the national grain market, and that lack of labeling and segregation undermine the benefits that not planting it in Mexico could bring (CEC, 2004). Growing GMM in Mexico could be the equivalent of importing it, for biosafety purposes, if cross pollination is controlled and if this maize is segregated within the market. The literature presented suggests that most of those against GMM and that most maize biodiversity are concentrated in central and southern Mexico, while those interested in growing GMM as well as all the petitions for commercial release are concentrated in northern states. I would suggest that the government drew a line across the country, south of which GMM would not be allowed to grow, and north of which it would with high regulations. The flat and arid regions of northern Mexico allow for greater isolation and control of GMM fields and are also more conducive to large-scale, mechanized agriculture. Should regulations be duly enforced, this might be a better protection to biodiversity than the status quo, and it would give campesinos greater freedom to determine the mode of production they presser. However, as a citizen of Mexico, with my biases and political inclinations, I am dubious of the intentions of the government and its capacity to enforce regulations. Thus, in the current state of affairs, I would personally advocate for the total ban on imports and production of genetically modified maize. 6 7


Annotated Bibliography 

I included Brant and Görg (2003) because they give a detailed description of the politics of biodiversity in Mexico. They describe how the state has played a significant role in creating a stable political-institutional framework for the valorization, commodification and ultimate commercialization of biodiversity. They also highlight inconsistencies among regulatory agencies at different scales, which results from the interactions that each has with external actors. They also give a good account of Mexico’s biodiversity and its significance.

Brush (2004) presents an extensive and nuanced description of the maize production system in Mexico and the potential social and cultural effects of GMM production. This assessment was the precursor of the findings and recommendations made by the CEC in regard to sociocultural matters, which is the section that got more criticisms from the EPA. I found it particularly useful and interesting because it challenges the discourse of safety surrounding the use of GMOs, introducing a different perspective to measure risks and benefits.

The report from Commission on Environmental Cooperation (CEC) (2004) is relevant because it adopted a broad framework of risk assessment that went beyond the discourse of ‘sound science’ as proof. It included the risks to biodiversity, health and sociocultural matters, acknowledging the agency of the seed and how it affects the human ecology of agricultural communities. A close inspection of the response from the EPA showcases that it is the assumptions of this institution about the safety and desirability of biotechnology that forced it to reject the recommendations from the CEC.

McAfee (2008) gives a clear account of how the negative effects of NAFTA in rural communities helped shape anti-GMO sentiments and social movements. She also provides a clear overview of the CEC study, including its findings, framework, process and reactions to it. She ties in accounts from different authors to demonstrate that the Mexican government supports biotechnology even while there is a strong public opposition. McAfee connects all these ideas to explain why food sovereignty has gained prominence in the discourse of resistance against GMOs.

Preibisch et al. (2002) present a case study from an indigenous community in the Mexican highlands, describing how economic liberalization and rural restructuring affected their livelihoods and labor relations. Although it does not explicitly relate to GMM, I found this article very useful in exemplifying how the corn, as a non-human actor, has meanings to the community that maize growers in the US, for instance, do not have. This helps to explain why the reforms did not yield the expected results. Additionally, the article shows how gender shapes the agrarian environment in the face of change. 8

 Full list of the Political Ecology of GMOs annotated sources from all papers


AMUCSS et al. 2004. “Porque el campo no aguanta más: posición en cuanto al proyecto de la ley de biodiversidad y organismos genéticamente modificados.” In McAfee (2008). Document obtained by MacAfee in Oaxaca, Mexico, March 2004.

Antal, E., L. Baker, and G. Verschoor. 2007. “Maize and Biosecurity in Mexico: Debate and Practice.” Cuadernos del Cedla. Centre for Latin American Studies and Documentation. Amsterdam, Netherlands.

Brand. U., and C. Görg. 2003. “The state and the regulation of biodiversity. International biopolitics and the case of Mexico.” Geoforum 34: 221–233

Brush, S. 2004. “Assessment of social and cultural effects associated with transgenic maize production.” Chapter prepared for “Maize and Biodiversity: The Effects of Transgenic Maize in Mexico.” North America Commission on Environmental cooperation (CEC), Mexico City.

CEC (North American Comission oin Environmental Cooperation). 2004. “Maize and Biodiversity: The Effects of Transgenic Maize in Mexico: Key Findings and Recommendations.” http://cec.org/Storage/56/4837_Maize-and-Biodiversity_en.pdf (April 15, 2013)

Cevallos, D. 2006. “Monsanto Stands Firm on GM Maize in Mexico.” Interpress Service News Agency. http://ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=35440 (April 15, 2013)

Cleveland, D.A., D. Soleri, F. Aragón Cuevas, J. Crossa, P. Gepts. 2005. “Detecting (trans)gene flow to landraces in centers of crop origin; Lessons from the case of maize in Mexico.” Environmental Biosafety Research 4, 197–208.

de Ita, A. 1999. “Las divisas nunca llegaron al campo: Tratado antiagrícola.”La Jornada. Masiosare supplement. Mexico City. http://www.jornada.unam.mx/1999/07/19/mas-tratado.html (May 1, 2013)

DeWalt, B.R., Rees, M.W., and Murphy, A.D. 1994. “The end of agrarian reform in Mexico: Past lessons, future prospects”. Ejido Reform Research Project. Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, University of California, San Diego.

Government of Mexico. 1996. “LEY Federal de Variedades Vegetales” Diario Oficial de la Federación. Mexico City. http://dof.gob.mx/nota_detalle.php?codigo=4903746&fecha=25/10/1996 (April 14th, 2013)

Government of Mexico. 2005. “LEY de Bioseguridad de Organismos Genéticamente Modificados.” Diario Oficial de la Federación. Mexico City. http://dof.gob.mx/nota_detalle.php?codigo=790545&fecha=18/03/2005 (April 14th, 2013)(9)

Government of Mexico. 2008. “Estatus General de Solicitudes 2008”. Estatus de Solicitudes de Permisos de Liberación al Ambiente de Organismos Genéticamente Modificados. SENASICA. Mexico City. http://www.senasica.gob.mx/?id=4443 (April 14th, 2013)

Government of Mexico. 2008. “Estatus General de Solicitudes 2008”. Estatus de Solicitudes de Permisos de Liberación al Ambiente de Organismos Genéticamente Modificados. SENASICA. Mexico City. http://www.senasica.gob.mx/?id=4443 (April 14th, 2013)

Government of Mexico. 2009. “DECRETO por el que se reforman, adicionan y derogan diversas disposiciones del Reglamento de la Ley de Bioseguridad de Organismos Genéticamente Modificados.” Diario Oficial de la Federación. Mexico City. http://dof.gob.mx/nota_detalle.php?codigo=5082871&fecha=06/03/2009 (April 14th, 2013)

Government of Mexico. 2009. “Estatus General de Solicitudes 2009”. Estatus de Solicitudes de Permisos de Liberación al Ambiente de Organismos Genéticamente Modificados. SENASICA. Mexico City. http://www.senasica.gob.mx/?id=4443 (April 14th, 2013)

Government of Mexico. 2010. “Estatus General de Solicitudes 2010”. Estatus de Solicitudes de Permisos de Liberación al Ambiente de Organismos Genéticamente Modificados. SENASICA. Mexico City. http://www.senasica.gob.mx/?id=4443 (April 14th, 2013)

Government of Mexico. 2011. “Estatus General de Solicitudes 2011”. Estatus de Solicitudes de Permisos de Liberación al Ambiente de Organismos Genéticamente Modificados. SENASICA. Mexico City. http://www.senasica.gob.mx/?id=4443 (April 14th, 2013)

Government of Mexico. 2012. “Estatus General de Solicitudes 2012”. Estatus de Solicitudes de Permisos de Liberación al Ambiente de Organismos Genéticamente Modificados. SENASICA. Mexico City. http://www.senasica.gob.mx/?id=4443 (April 14th, 2013)

in Rural Mexico.” Human Organization. 61: 68-79

Katovich, E. 2012. “The Regulation of Genetically Modified Organisms in Latin America:Policy Implications for Trade, Biosafety, and Development.” Department of Applied Economics, University of Minnesota- Twin Cities. http://conservancy.umn.edu/bitstream/140920/1/Katovich.pdf (April 15, 2013)

Leger, A. 2005. “Intellectual property rights in Mexico: Do they play a role?” World Development. 33:1865-1879.

McAfee, K. 2008. “Beyond techno-science: Transgenic maize in fight over Mexico’s future.” Geoforum 39:148-160.

Preibisch, K.L., Rivera Herrejón, G., and Wiggins, S.L. 2002. “Defending Food Security in a Free-Market Economy: The Gendered Dimensions of Restructuring 10

Reuters (Garcia, D.A., and A. Barrera). 2012. “Mexico postpones approval of large-scale GM corn fields.” Mexico City. http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/11/23/us-mexico-corn-idUSBRE8AM00O20121123 (April 20, 2013)

Vanguardia. 2013. “Monsanto pide sembrar maíz transgénico en Chihuahua, Coahuila y Durango.” Coahulia, Mexico http://www.vanguardia.com.mx/monsantopidesembrarmaiztransgenicoenchihuahuacoahuilaydurango-1707679.html (April 20, 2013)

Wise, T. A., 2007. “Policy Space for Mexican Maize: Protecting Agro-biodiversity by Promoting Rural Livelihoods.” Global Development and Environment Institute, Tufts University, Working Paper no. 07-01.

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