For nearly two decades the transnational corporation that manufactures the pesticides used across the planet has been trying to take over the global seed market with genetically modified (GM) seed. If successful, most of the food we grow and eat would have to be purchased annually as seed from Monsanto. The mutant plants would grow up addicted to Monsanto herbicides. Local varieties would disappear, and in their place standardized, genetically modified food–doused with chemicals–would fill supermarket shelves and corner stores.
More than 60,000 farmers and supporters from workers’ and environmental organizations marched through Mexico City on Jan. 31 to avoid this fate. It was one of the largest mobilizations to date to reject the Monsanto game plan, and it’s no coincidence that it took place in the heart of the Aztec Empire.
Olegario Carrillo, president of Mexican small farm organization UNORCA, addressed the crowd in the central plaza, “During the last 30 years, successive governments have tried to wipe us out. They’ve promoted measures to take away our lands, our water, our seeds, plant and animal varieties, traditional knowledge, markets. But we refuse to disappear.”
“For peasant farmers, GMOs represent looting and control,” he stated.
With tens of thousands of people shouting “No genetically modified corn in Mexico!” and “Monsanto get out!”, the march showed the muscle of an unusual grassroots movement to protect small farmers and consumers. It also revealed the remarkable success of decades of public education and organizing on an issue that Monsanto and other major biotech firms hoped would slide under the radar of the people most affected by it.
Monsanto–along with Pioneer, Dow and other chemical/biotech firms–have been pushing hard to take over production of the world’s third major staple crop: corn. Small farmers in the U.S. have long experienced the pressure exerted to move them out of the way. Monsanto predicts that its corn seed will be planted on 96 million acres in the United States this year. But the key to its plans to conquer the market lies south of the border.
The powerful corporation, the largest seed seller in the world, desperately wants permission for unrestricted planting of its GM corn in Mexico. If GM corn is planted in Mexico, it will accelerate the transfer of acreage and water rights from small farmers to corporate GM corn cultivation, thus transferring control of the national food supply as well. Widespread open planting of GM corn will lead to contamination of native varieties. This is a scientific fact.
Mexico has already detected many native cornfields contaminated by GM corn during the period when open planting was prohibited—a strong indication of the impossibility of controlling open pollination between native and GM varieties.
This has huge implications.
Mexico is the center of origin of corn, and the home of hundreds of varieties developed by indigenous communities over centuries. To lose in situ preservation of these varieties is to lose a wealth of agro-diversity that has major importance for sustainable food production, and to eventually become dependent on Monsanto and other large corporations to feed ourselves.
Gene-splicing and the laboratory land grab
For years, Monsanto, Pioneer-Dupont and Dow and other companies in the biotech business have insisted that genetic modification is just like nature, only better. Their claim is that genetic mutations happen in natural settings so making them happen in a lab setting is just giving nature a nudge in the right direction.
They try not to mention that genetic modification of plants uses genes from animal and other foreign species that would never end up in the plant (or our food) on their own. They also do everything possible to bury studies on the negative health impacts of GM foods, including cancer.
And what they really hoped would never come up, is the plan to conquer the world–or at least its food systems–conveyed in a tiny Trojan seed.
If GM corn were planted in Mexico and widely promoted, access to native seed would dwindle, as fewer farmers planted or saved it. Legal offensives based on hyper patent laws contained in free trade agreements are even trying to make seed-saving illegal. Although some countries ban cultivation of certain types of GM crops, these crops already cover nearly 10 percent of the arable surface of the world.
For the communities that refuse to give up using native seed, the final assault is genetic contamination. GM corn contaminates nearby fields. The irony of this invasion is that once native corn is shown to have been contaminated (and thus ruined) by GM corn, Monsanto can come in with lawsuits claiming that its product is being used without required usage fees.
Mexico’s new government led by President Enrique Pena Nieto now finds itself wedged between the biotech offensive to release commercial planting permits and the thousands of small farmers and their allies fighting to defend the food supply. So far, it is reluctant to risk citizens’ ire by granting Monsanto use of Mexican soil for its GM corn expansion.
The campaign has gone international as food rights groups from around the world supported Mexico’s farm leaders in the week-long fast that preceded the march.
More than corn is at stake here—it’s a question of recognition and respect. A “Maize Manifesto” released by the farmers’ organizations states,
“We reject that the government sacrifices consumers and small farmers to support transnational corporations that produce GM seed and agro-toxins. We the farmers, not the transnationals, are the ones who feed the population.”
The Mexican government first legalized GM plantings through what has come to be known as the 2005 “Monsanto Law”, which the farmers are demanding be revoked. It then began issuing permits, first for experimental plantings. Having passed that phase, Monsanto has now requested permits to begin all-out commercial production. It has filed to sow some 700,000 hectares of genetically modified corn in the state of Sinaloa alone.
But Mexico could be Monsanto’s Waterloo. Thousands of small farmers, many in indigenous communities—Nahuatl, Maya and Mixteco–are fighting back. Stubborn in the face of a government clearly allied with the transnationals and corporations determined to wear down their resistance, the farmers are defending their right to use the traditional maize seed that their ancestors developed over millennia. They are also defending their way of life and, ultimately, global access to safe and affordable food.