Will GMOs Spell the End of Mexican Maize?

The reedy grass testione bears little resemblance to the towering stalks of corn that blanket so much farmland in the Midwest. The former, however, is the wild ancestor of domesticated maize, one of the world’s most widely planted grains.

Both plants are native to Mexico, a country where corn is both a dietary staple and a significant marker of cultural identity. But pending permits would allow extensive tracts of Mexican land to be planted with genetically modified corn for the first time. Granting the permits would bring a decidedly American bent to maize farming in the crop’s native land.

The combination of a 10,000-year-long history of domesticated corn and an agricultural sector largely comprised of small farms (the average Mexican farm in 2007 was 20 acres, versus an average of 418 acres in the U.S.) has resulted in a uniquely diverse pool of corn varieties in Mexico.

So-called campesinos—defined in a 2007 report (.pdf) issued by the Center for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) as farmers working less than five hectares—are the heart of corn growing in Mexico: They account for more than two-thirds of maize production in the country, according the same report.

Steve Sando, owner of the Mexican-food importer Rancho Gordo, knows a thing or two about campesinos and their myriad maize varieties. When he began asking his bean farmers in the Mexican states of Hidalgo, Michoacán and Guerrero if they would sell him corn as well, he was initially met with resistance. Sando told TakePart that the responses were all shades of “We can’t sell it to you, because what will we eat?”

The corn grown on these family farms is not only a primary part of the owners’ diets, but is an heirloom crop in the truest sense: The open-pollinated seeds have been saved and replanted, and saved and replanted, for generations. This seed-saving approach makes the varieties grown on each farm not just unique to the family, but particularly well suited to the surrounding soil and climate. Sando has attempted to grow some of these criollo corn varieties in California, but the differences in the weather have caused the crops to fail.

Sando says that the idea of GMO corn being planted in Mexico, “Makes me sick to my stomach.” He worries that the farmers he works with will not only be at risk of having their family varieties cross with GMO corn, but they will also face financial setback from closed-pollinated hybrids, which cannot be propagated from the prior year’s seeds.

The government has long protected Mexico’s corn legacy, even as other genetically engineered crops, like cotton and tomatoes, have taken root. Still, transgene corn has been trickling into the country over the years, a presence the same CEC report attributed to both grain imports and seeds carried back from the United States by migrant workers.

That trickle has surely increased as the percentage of GMO corn planted in America has risen, according to the USDA, from 73 percent in 2007 to 88 percent in 2012. But the presence of transgene corn in Mexico would surge into an unprecedented flood if Monsanto and subsidiaries of DuPont and Dow Chemical were given the green light to plant a total of 2.5 million hectares with GMO corn seed.

It had been expected that former president Felipe Calderón would announce a decision on the GMO corn issue in the final weeks of his administration. But Reuters reported on November 22 that Mariano Ruiz, a deputy agriculture secretary, said that Calderón’s successor, President Enrique Peña Nieto, would address the issue next spring.

Ruiz and others who support allowing GMO corn into Mexico cite increased yields and disease-resistance as benefits for farmers, and point to the significant distance between the proposed farms and the government-designated “centers of origin” for maize as significant protection against genetic drift.

Mexico’s Union of Concerned Scientists (UCCS) would beg to differ. In a November statement the group declared that the government’s deliberation has “not been transparent and has lacked a truly public or scientific discussion, or consideration by the affected sectors of society (peasants, farmers, consumers).”

The UCCS argues that adopting corn-farming culture of other countries, “where corn production is controlled by corporations and maize is used mainly as feed and as an industrial raw material,” makes no sense for Mexico, where “thousands of different varieties of open-pollinated landraces are cultivated by millions of indigenous and campesino families.”

Those thousands of “landraces” may be culturally valued more in Mexico than in America, but such diversity is attractive to the U.S. federal government and international seed companies too.

The Latin American Maize Project, funded by Pioneer and administer by the USDA, undertook an extensive analysis of some 12,000 different maize varieties in the 1980s and ’90s. It’s successor, Iowa State University’s Germplasm Enhancement of Maize project, and similar research institutes, like Cornell’s Buckler Lab for Maize and Genetic Diversity, are dedicated to studying uncommon corn varieties in order to find heartier, more productive, disease-resistant strains. The means are more Darwinist than developing new varieties through scientific modification of genes, but the end goal is the same.

With the U.S. Corn Belt reeling after the past summer’s historic droughts and subsequent crop losses—and the 500-year-flood of 2008 a too recent memory—climate change is becoming an increasingly real problem for the industry. Lessons learned from, say, corn that has adapted to the climate in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas—which receives half as much annual rainfall as Iowa—could prove vital. But if Monsanto plants significant amounts of GMO corn in that state, those lessons could be obscured.  

Sando has seen an increasing interest in the Mexican corn Rancho Gordo imports, especially since he partnered with La Palma Mexicatessen in San Francisco to make tortillas from his farmers’ criollo maize. He jokingly hopes that if he shows campesinos how “gringos are paying twice as much for these [native] varieties,” the choice for the farmers will be clear: “Why grow the hybrids?”

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Willy Blackmore is the food editor at TakePart. He has also written about food, art, and agriculture for such publications as Los Angeles Magazine, The Awl, GOODLA Weekly, The New Inquiry, and BlackBook. Email Willy | TakePart.com