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In Context #9 (Spring, 2003, pp. 3-5); copyright 2003 by The Nature Institute

The Case of Mexican Maize
Johannes Wirz

In November, 2001, scientists David Quist and Ignacio Chapela published a much-cited article in the journal Nature (Quist and Chapela 2001). Investigating the sixty native varieties ("landraces") of cultivated maize in the remote mountains of the Oaxaca Valley of Mexico, they encountered contamination by pollen from genetically modified corn. The GM-corn, originating in the U.S., had in all likelihood been planted illegally in Mexico, which has had a moratorium on GM-corn since 1998. The ecological and agricultural consequences of such contamination are worrisome. But just as unsettling is the way in which this study and its findings have been handled in the scientific and popular press. It's evident that the commercial interests of multinational companies are influencing what is supposed to be a scientific discussion.

Until now an international consensus has held that the areas of origin of domesticated plants must be protected from exposure to GM-crops in order to preserve this rich genetic heritage for the future. The Oaxaca Valley in Mexico is the heartland of maize diversity, and one might have expected that those companies that sell GM-corn to growers would have been disconcerted by the publication of this article. But not at all. Arthur Einsele, public relations chief for the biotech company "Syngenta," stated that the mixing of foreign genes with the land varieties was not a concern. He even suggested that the mixing could contribute usefully to the diversification of domestic plants (quoted in Dreesmann 2001).

Then, in the spring of 2002, Nature published letters by well-known scientists who questioned the validity of Quist and Chapela's research. With criticism and pressure coming from many sides, Nature took an unprecedented step: for the first time in the 133-year history of this highly respected journal, the editor announced that it should not have published the article in the first place due to insufficient evidence. (See the letters and editorial note in the April 11, 2002 issue of Nature, pp. 600-1.) Like all other Nature articles, the original Quist and Chapela manuscript had gone through a rigorous peer review before publication.

Soon after Nature's announcement, it became clear that the harsh reactions of several of the scientists was not merely science-based. These scientists worked at the University of California at Berkeley, where Quist and Chapela also worked. Berkeley has a unique—and very controversial—$25-million "strategic alliance" with the biotech company Syngenta through which much research is funded. Quist and Chapela are among those Berkeley scientists who opposed this alliance, since they believed it compromised academic freedom. Johannes Fütterer, who authored one of the critical letters to the editor, was a strong proponent of the alliance. Although such critics tried to maintain the guise of scientific objectivity, it's hard not to see an ideological component in their campaign against Quist and Chapela.

This suspicion is solidified when one looks at the Internet attacks against Quist and Chapela. An article in the British newspaper, The Guardian, describes how a PR firm, The Bivings Group, made postings to a pro-biotech Internet list, AgBioWorld (Monbiot 2002). The postings, which were submitted under the names of private individuals, portrayed Chapela, among other things, as an activist who colludes with environmentalists. This smear campaign by The Bivings Group, which works for Monsanto (and other biotech companies), was only uncovered by ardent investigative reporting.

Bivings, it turned out, has a strategy it calls "viral marketing." The Guardian article quotes the Bivings website about this strategy:

There are some campaigns where it would be undesirable or even disastrous to let the audience know that your organization is directly involved ... it is possible to make postings to these outlets that present your position as an uninvolved third party ... Perhaps the greatest advantage of viral marketing is that your message is placed into a context where it is more likely to be considered seriously.
(Interestingly, a recent view of the webpage does not contain the first two sentences of the above quote; at the end of the text one finds the statement: "recently edited for clarification." Read: we removed the sentences that too openly state what we're really trying to do.)

One has to ask how much of the attempt to discredit Quist and Chapela's research was owing to biotech companies and their proponents, who saw the research as an attack against the commercial cultivation of GM-crops.

The Culture of Corn

Last fall I attended an international "Ifgene" workshop on genetic engineering in Edinburgh. In a discussion group Fernando Monasterio, the Mexican government's safety commissioner for biotechnology, commented on the maize affair and its far-reaching consequences (Heaf and Wirz 2002, pp. 102-4). The introduction of GM-corn genes into locally adapted landraces, he said, could threaten their viability and the diversity that has developed over centuries through traditional breeding. In order to remove the contamination from the Oaxaca Valley, farmers would not be able to plant maize for at least a year, which would be a devastating blow to the local economy. Such measures would only help in the long run if there were no GM-corn to cause new contamination. The United States would have to make seed segregation mandatory so that it could guarantee to Mexico that it was receiving only nonGM-corn. Currently the U.S. requires neither seed segregation nor labeling, and appears unlikely to change this policy.

To date, Mexico imports annually about six million tons of corn for food from the U.S. Monasterio suspects that about one-third of this amount is GM-corn. The imported corn sells for about $150 per ton, while domestic Mexican corn sells for $250 per ton. Why can corn from the U.S. be sold so cheaply? Part of the answer is huge government subsidies. So the local production of corn in Mexico is not only threatened by foreign genes, but also by the economic practices of a government that loudly preaches free trade while subsidizing its own industries to undermine local economies in foreign countries.

In traditional Mexican (Mayan) mythology, maize—along with peyote and the elk—is regarded as a "gift of the Gods." To this day the act of divine giving is celebrated in traditional harvest ceremonies. Monasterio voiced great concern about the future of this spiritual heritage. Would its foundations be compromised by the use of GM-corn and the loss of maize that is embedded in the local ecology and in the hearts of the people?

At the end of his presentation, Monasterio mentioned an investigation into Quist and Chapela's research that was conducted on behalf of the Mexican government. Scientists from an internationally acclaimed institute in Mexico (Center for Research and Advanced Studies—Department of Plant Genetic Engineering) randomly selected 2,000 maize plants from the Oaxaca Valley. In sixty-three percent of the cases, they detected genetic contamination. This is a clear confirmation of Quist and Chapela's research.

These scientists were naturally interested in publishing their results in Nature (FoodFirst 2002). The article went through peer review and the two anonymous reviewers came to opposite conclusions about its content. One argued that the results were already common knowledge (!) and therefore not worthy of publication. The second reviewer called the results so unexpected and unbelievable that their validity could be called into question. What might we expect the editors to do in this case? If the journal were truly interested in promoting open scientific discourse, we would expect them to publish the article, especially after having retracted Quist and Chapela's work. But this didn't happen; Nature rejected the article on "technical grounds."

This whole muddled affair confirms the worst fears about the commercialization of GM-crops. Arguments that are based on factual evidence and suggest the negative impact of GM-crops are suppressed in the scientific debate. Science that doesn't tow the line of the pro-biotech, "progress-via-technology" mindset is considered "bad science." Biotech companies unscrupulously find ways to influence scientific and public opinion. And the whole biotech ideology is strongly supported by the powerful United States government with its subsidies, its export policies, and its lack of regulations concerning GM-crops and GM-food.

(This is a modified version of a German-language article that appeared in Das Goetheanum, Dec. 8, 2002.)

References

Dreesmann, Daniel (2001). "Fremde Gene auf dem Lande," Neue Züricher Zeitung (December 5).

FoodFirst (2002). http://www.foodfirst.org/media/press/2002/naturerefuses.html.

Heaf, David and Johannes Wirz, eds. (2002). Genetic Engineering and the Intrinsic Value and Integrity of Plants and Animals. Hafan, UK: Ifgene.

Monbiot, George (2002). "The Fake Persuaders," The Guardian (May 14). (Also available at http://www.guardian.co.uk/Columnists/Column/0,5673,715158,00.html.)

Quist, David and Ignacio Chapela (2001). "Transgenic DNA Introgressed into Traditional Maize Landraces in Oaxaca, Mexico," Nature vol. 414, pp. 541-543.

Radford, Mike (2002). "New Rules for a New Situation," in Heaf and Wirz 2002, pp. 49-50.


Original source: In Context #9 (Spring, 2003, pp. 3-5); copyright 2003 by The Nature Institute

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