Timothy Wise: Anti-GMO activists in Mexico score a major, if tentative, victory.
I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.
A judge in Mexico recently approved a temporary injunction against the approval of any new genetically modified food permits for experimental or commercial corn planting until pending lawsuits alleging environmental dangers are resolved. The move does not stop current trials that were previously approved.
In other GMO news, this year’s World Food Prize went to three biotech engineers that work with genetically modified food. And this move’s been met with wide criticism.
Now joining us to discuss this is Timothy Wise, research and policy director of the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University.
Thank you so much for joining us.
TIMOTHY A. WISE, DIR. RESEARCH AND POLICY PROGRAM GDAE, TUFTS UNIVERSITY: Pleasure to be here.
NOOR: So, can you break down exactly what this ruling means in Mexico? It’s been hard to find any real substantive reporting about what the ruling was and the significance of it.
WISE: Sure. It was a major breakthrough, I think, for those who have been calling for precaution in the adoption and introduction of genetically modified corn in Mexico, because it for the first time recognizes citizens’ legitimate complaints that have come in the form of civil suits to try to stop the experimental and then commercial planting of GM corn in Mexico.
This has a long history in the country. The biotech giants have been pushing for authorization to plant in Mexico. It’s one of the biggest markets that they’re unable to get into in terms of growing corn. And they’ve gotten it with friendly governments in Mexico’s White House. They’ve gotten it to the phase of experimental planting. So this comes at a time when I think many feared the government would be–was going to approve commercial planting on a massive scale, and this really slows that down.
NOOR: So, can you talk a little more about the history of GMO corn in Mexico? Not many people might be aware that the controversy there goes back several years.
WISE: It does. There was–I mean, GM corn came into the United States without much attention or fanfare, because that’s very much the way that the biotech companies wanted it back in the mid ’90s. In Mexico, though–I mean, the United States, we mainly grow on large monoculture farms. There’s very few, if any, native varieties of corn that are still grown in the country.
In Mexico, it’s completely different. There are still 3 million farmers growing corn using all different kinds of technologies and all different kinds of native varieties of corn. Mexico is the center where corn was first domesticated. And so it’s a very important center of agricultural biodiversity. It makes Mexico a much more sensitive place for the introduction of GM crops.
And it has been–there was a moratorium on any such planting of GM corn in Mexico until about 2005. But despite that, there was a documented case of contamination or gene flow. And that happened in the early 2000’s. It was discovered by University of California Berkeley researchers. And what was alarming about it was that it showed that genetically modified traits could introgress or enter the genetic makeup of traditional varieties of corn. So that was one of the unknowns about transgenic technology. This showed that, yes, it could happen, and it prompted a huge study under NAFTA’s environmental commission into the implications of this in the early 2000s.
NOOR: And along with corn, soybeans, another–is a key crop in Mexico. Can you talk about the significance the ruling may have as far as the soybean crops go?
WISE: At this point it’s not–it doesn’t relate to soybeans. This is really just an injunction related to corn plantings. And corn plantings are the real sensitive issue. Soybean plantings have actually been going on on a commercial scale. So Mexico has by no means been a GM-free zone.
But corn has a particular place in Mexican culture. Mexicans call themselves the people of corn. The mythology from the Mayans highlights humans as having been made from corn. It has huge cultural significance. It’s still an enormous share of the nutritional intake, particularly for poor Mexicans, and usually coming in the form of white corn tortillas tortillas made from other varieties of native corn. So the cultural significance is high. The dietary importance and nutritional importance is critical. And the diversity of the crop in–particularly in–well, throughout the country, but particularly in southeastern parts of Mexico and in indigenous parts of Mexico, makes it a particularly sensitive subject to have this, to have transgenic corn grown in Mexico.
And the contamination event, which was, again, by this NAFTA commission well documented, studied by–really was the most prominent study of gene flow from transgenics into traditional crops that had ever taken place, and the NAFTA-related commission actually came up with very strong recommendations on precaution, calling for–saying the science–it was a new technology–the science was still–the jury was still out on effects on human health, effects on the environment, effects on biodiversity, and therefore precaution was warranted. And they even went so far as to recommend then that any corn that was exported from the United States not be exported as kernels that could be planted, but only should be ground before it was distributed. Unfortunately, those recommendations from this NAFTA panel were ignored and Mexico quickly passed a biosafety law and then moved to this approval process for experimental planting, moving toward commercial planting. That’s where this injunction comes in.
NOOR: And, Timothy Wise, we also wanted to ask you about this year’s World Food Prize. You were in attendance. Three scientists who work with genetically modified foods were given prizes there. Can you talk about the criticism that’s been levied against these awards?
WISE: Sure. It was hugely controversial, and for, I think, obvious reasons. You know, I mean, the argument that genetically modified crops have contributed to solving world hunger is widely disputed. There’s very little evidence that they’ve contributed, the existing genetically modified crops, such as herbicide-tolerant crops of soybeans and corn or pesticide crops that have pesticide built into them, that they’ve increased yield at all. So even just on the argument that they’ve increased productivity, there’s–the evidence is mixed. So saying that these biotech engineers, one from Monsanto, one from Syngenta, have contributed to even increased production of food is already questionable.
Whether it’s contributed to reducing hunger is even more questionable, given that these are largely used on large industrialized farms in the Global North or in huge agribusiness industry industries in places like Brazil. They have not proven to be very useful for smaller farmers, who are the–represent 70 percent of those who are hungry in the world today. So it was hugely controversial. It was protested outside. And I have to say there was a tone of defensiveness inside about all of the criticism levied at the technology. They very clearly viewed winning this food prize as the potential to break down the barriers to the exports of these products to places like Europe, which now restricts the import of GM foods.
NOOR: Timothy Wise, thank you so much for joining us.
WISE: My pleasure.
NOOR: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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