ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network
26 October 2002


ETC Group
Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration

October 25, 2002

GM Fall-out from Mexico to Zambia:


* * *
The Year of Playing Dangerously

Thirteen months ago, the agbiotech industry wakened to a nightmare.  Illegal and unwelcome, the presence of genetically-modified (GM)  maize was reported smack in the crop's center of genetic origin in  Mexico. There's never a good time for a political/ecological  calamity, but the beleaguered Gene Giants were already struggling to  persuade consumers, following the Taco Debacle (Starlink), that  companies could control their inventions and their inventory. The  seed companies were also hoping to arm-twist EU ministers into  lifting the ban on GM products in Europe. Suddenly, the headlines  were full of the contamination scandal. To make matters worse, the  year ahead was shaping up to be the Year of the Summits - a  succession of diplomatic poverty, hunger, and pollution "retros"  including the Monterrey Summit on development financing in March; the  10th anniversary of the Biodiversity Convention in April; another  World Food Summit (once more with feeling) in June - all boiling up  to the "mother of all summits" (World Summit on Sustainable  Development) in South Africa in September. For the corporations (and  the United States so aggressively supporting them) the issue was: how  to run the gauntlet of intergovernmental marathons with GM  contamination on their backs? Thirteen months later, the issue for  governments, international agencies, and civil society is: how did  the Gene Giants duck and dodge their way through all these fora and  end the year with Southern African governments - half a world away  from the "scene of the crime" - being blamed and vilified for  rejecting GM seeds?

* * *  Dodge 1 - Denial:  One year after the Mexican Government announced that maize in two  states was contaminated with GM varieties, neither Mexico nor the  international genetic resources community have taken constructive,  coherent steps to arrest, fully assess, or ameliorate the  contamination.  (1) Mexico is the center of origin and diversity for  maize - one of the world's most vital food crops. As local farmers,  joined by more than 150 social movements and civil society  organizations worldwide, raged, the first reaction from pro-GM  scientists (public and private) was denial. It couldn't be true. The  reports were wrong. Mexico (at least, initially) and the two U.S.-  based researchers who provided corroborative evidence, held their  ground. When the whistle-blowers revealed that their study was being  peer-reviewed by Nature, industry's nightmare became a hologram.

Dodge 2 - Diversion:

Quickly, biotech's spin doctors took control, launching a vindictive  e-mail and media campaign to discredit the scientific competence and  political intent of the scientists. (One Mexican and one American -  both located at the University of California at Berkeley.) Rather  than deny contamination (the likelihood of which was scientifically  undeniable), the industry strategy was to divert attention by  orchestrating a row over research methodology (the vagaries of which  are always academically irresistible). This strategy became  doubly-important when Nature's article confirming contamination was  published in November, 2001 A good scientific squabble, industry  reasoned, could obscure any truth and immobilize the germplasm  community for months.

CIMMYT limited:
Caught like a deer in the headlights of the battle, was the  Mexican-headquartered International Maize and Wheat Improvement  Center (CIMMYT) - flagship of the Consultative Group on International  Agricultural Research and the developing world's leading institute  for maize breeding and conservation. Mandated to help eradicate  poverty and conserve maize diversity, CIMMYT soon took to the woods.  Despite repeated requests from civil society for CIMMYT to weigh in  on the reality of contamination and cut through the absurdity of the  methodology obfuscation, the Institute limited itself to pious  pronouncements about the need for scientific clarity and promises to  help in any way short of action. CIMMYT went on to produce a  succession of studies confirming that, whatever else may or may not  be happening in the world, its own gene bank was not contaminated.  The centre holds the world's largest unique maize germplasm  collection. Always dependent on U.S. funding and increasingly  dependent for its technologies on the biotech corporations, CIMMYT  refused to publicly acknowledge what every maize researcher in the  world knew -- that GM contamination of the Mexican maize crop was a  reality. During the 10th anniversary of the Biodiversity Convention  in April, however, the international institution did concede that the  Mexican situation was grave enough for CIMMYT to adopt a moratorium  on maize seed collection for conservation purposes. There was a risk  that GM-contaminated seeds would find their way into the CIMMYT gene  bank if collections continued. Still, CIMMYT refused to publicly-back  the Mexican government's ongoing moratorium on the introduction of GM  crops. A moratorium for conservation in its own genebank, but not a  moratorium for commercialization or contamination. Realizing that the  Precautionary Principle was being ignored and that food sovereignty  was being trampled, Mexican farmers' organizations and CSOs were  furious.

Dodge 3 - Delay:

Industry's diversionary tactic was successful. Ultimately, Nature  withdrew its support for the peer-reviewed study  and the initial  investigations both in Mexico and at Berkeley were widely distrusted.  This accomplished, however, there was the danger that, in mid year,  attention would again focus on the obvious reality that -- regardless  of methodology -- farmers' fields were filling up with transgenes in  at least two Mexican states. The logical solution was to call for  more studies. Mexico announced that two leading national institutes  would put the methodology debate to rest with two independent  studies. What's more, as an act of national pride -- and to vindicate  the Berkeley scientists -- Mexico would have the two studies  peer-reviewed in Nature. The months ticked by. Called to act, FAO and  CGIAR said they were awaiting Mexico's report. Meanwhile, the World  Food Summit came and went in Rome and the GM contamination debate was  not on the agenda. The World Summit on Sustainable Development came  and went in Johannesburg and the unsustainability of agricultural  biodiversity in the midst of GM contamination was not on that agenda  either. Farmers in Mexico continued to wait.

Only in late October, while answering questions from reporters, did a  senior Mexican official admit that the two institutions had had their  findings rejected by Nature. According to the press, one of Nature's  reviewers explained that the reality of contamination was too obvious  to bother publishing. A second reviewer insisted that the studies had  been flawed. Something for everyone! Thirteen months later and both  the earth and the debate had gone full circle. (2)

Dodge 4 - Damnation:

With scientists and the scientific media already in chaos, drought  and famine in sub-Saharan Africa afforded the biotech industry  another opportunity to turn contamination into a virtue. Almost from  the beginning, of course, some biotech enthusiasts had insisted that  "if" contamination were proven to have occurred in Mexico, then the  seed industry was not only providing a free gift of valuable patented  traits but it was also contributing to genetic diversity. When  several African countries expressed alarm that food aid containing  genetically modified traits could have health, environmental, and  trade risks for their people, American officials jumped in with moral  outrage claiming that "beggars can't be choosers" and accusing  African governments of willfully starving their citizens. Even though  other nations offered GM-free food, the United States and the biotech  industry pressured FAO, the World Food Program, and the World Health  Organization to urge the governments to accept GM aid. Instead of  focusing on the environmental and food security threat posed by  contamination, the Johannesburg Summit became entangled in a debate  over "despotic" African rulers and the overriding urgency of getting  food to the hungry. There was no space for the discussion of  alternative food supplies or of the human right to safe and  culturally appropriate food.


Thirteen months after the revelation of GM contamination in Mexico,  nothing has been done to change or even monitor the flow of  contaminants through commercial food shipments into Mexico. The  Mexican government has failed to make its own findings available to  its own people with the exception of INE/CONABIO's reports. (3) We  know nothing more about the extent of GM contamination in other  Mexican states. No new regulations have been put in place. Neither  Mexico, CGIAR, nor FAO have undertaken any new studies on the impact  of GM contamination in a center of crop diversity. No studies have  been undertaken on the legal implications of the diffusion of  patented traits in farmers' fields. We have no additional information  on strategies to prevent contamination from entering gene banks. No  wider studies have taken place anywhere in the world regarding the  possibilities of contamination in other centers of diversity for  other crops.

Ironically, the biotech industry is pushing for an end to the GM  moratorium in Mexico, at the very time it is imposing new regulations  to contain gene flow north of the border. In a desperate attempt to  pre-empt public concerns over leaky genes, the biotech industry  announced this week that it would adopt a voluntary moratorium on the
planting of "Generation3" pharma crops - crops genetically modified  to produce drugs or chemicals or plastics - in major food-producing  regions of the United States and Canada. Industry's move to impose  voluntary restrictions on the location of pharma crops demonstrates  that GM pollution poses a serious risk. For the Gene Giants, the  primary concern is not biosafety, but the need to avert a public  relations disaster. One industry representative told the Washington  Post, "I think we can all agree that industry cannot afford StarLink  II."  (4)  But industry concerns apparently do not extend to Africa  and Latin America.

Farmers and biodiversity continue to be threatened. The Gene Giants  have successfully "contained" the GM debate. If only the biotech  industry were as successful containing its genes!

(1) The Institute of Ecology (INE), part of the Mexican Ministry of  Environment and Natural Resources was the first government  institution to confirm contamination and, with the Mexican Commission  on Biodiversity (CONABIO), undertook in-depth studies in the  contaminated states. The INE has been transparent and helpful, in  announcing preliminary results and describing potential effects.
(2) "Nature se niega a publicar estudio sobre transgénicos", by  Angelica Enciso and Andres Morales, La Jornada, Oct 22, Mexico
(3) see fotnote 1
(4) Justin Gillis, Biotech Industry Adopts Precaution: Altered Plants  Banned Near Major Food Crops, Washington Post, October 22, 2002.
For further information:

Hope Shand: 1 (919) 960-5223 EST

Silvia Ribeiro: (52) 5555-63-26-64 CST
* * *

The Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration, formerly  RAFI, is an international civil society organization headquartered in  Canada. The ETC group is dedicated to the advancement of cultural and  ecological diversity and human rights. The ETC  group is also a member of the Community Biodiversity Development and  Conservation Programme (CBDC). The CBDC is a collaborative  experimental initiative involving civil society organizations and  public research institutions in 14 countries. The CBDC is dedicated  to the exploration of community-directed programmes to strengthen the  conservation and enhancement of agricultural biodiversity. The CBDC  website is
* * *

The Great Containment - Highlights of the Year

September 2001
The Mexican Government announces that farmers' traditional maize  varieties in two Mexican states, Oaxaca and Puebla, are contaminated  with DNA from genetically modified maize.

October 2001
Mexican civil society organizations demand that the government  immediately ban imports of GM corn and develop a plan to detect,  reverse and prevent GM contamination, and that biotech companies pay  damages to affected farmers. Hundreds of CSOs worldwide support their  demands. CGIAR's Annual Meeting is held in Washington D.C. and fails  to discuss GM contamination in the maize center of genetic diversity.

November 2001
Nature magazine publishes a peer-reviewed scientific paper by Ignacio  Chapela and David Quist from UC Berkeley that documents the  contamination found in farmers' traditional varieties from Mexico.

At FAO, The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources is  approved after seven years of negotiations.

December 2001
A vicious campaign to discredit Chapela's and Quist article is  initiated by industry-friendly scientists asserting that  contamination is not proven and accusing Chapela and Quist of faulty  methodology.

January 2002
Over 120 Mexican farmers, indigenous and civil society organizations  gather at the seminar "In Defense of Maize" in Mexico City and  reaffirm demands to halt imports of GM corn and address the problem  of contamination of native varieties. At the seminar, the Ministry of  Environment in Mexico announces the preliminary results of new  testing in Oaxaca and Puebla, revealing transgenic contamination as  high as 37% in samples in some areas.

February 2002
CSOs at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre demand that FAO and  CGIAR acknowledge GM contamination, develop an immediate plan to  protect gene bank material held "in trust" and call for a moratorium  on GM releases. More than 140 CSOs worldwide issue a "Joint Statement  on the Mexican GM Maize Scandal" and protest the smear campaign  against the Berkeley scientists. See statement at

CIMMYT responds to the CSOs Joint Statement by claiming they upheld  their responsibilities by testing their gene bank for GM  contamination. CIMMYT straddles the fence on the Mexican  contamination crisis, refusing to confirm or deny evidence of  contamination in writing.

March 2002
FAO requests that CIMMYT investigate the implications of the GM maize  contamination and that the Mexican Government provide information  about the extent of the contamination and develop a concrete plan to  respond to the significant risks posed.

February 2002
CGIAR's Genetic Resources Policy Committee meets in the Philippines  and, following the advice of IRRI and CIMMYT, refuses to acknowledge  GM contamination of native varieties or call for a moratorium on GM  releases in the center of origin of crops.

April 2002
Nature magazine buckles under pressure and retracts the Chapela and  Quist article, writing, "The evidence available is not sufficient to  publish the original paper." Nature's retraction, considered an  important public relations victory for the biotech industry, is timed  to precede the CBD meeting in The Hague.

The 6th Conference of the Parties of the Convention on Biological  Diversity takes place in The Hague. A meeting of the Biosafety  Protocol follows. The issue of GM contamination is not officially  discussed in any of the meetings, although African governments  express their concern. Despite being at the center of the storm, the  Mexican government does not present an official position at CBD.  However, at a meeting called by CSOs and attended by many official  delegates, a high-ranking official of the Mexican Ministry of  Environment confirms alarming rates of GM maize contamination in  Mexico.

May 2002
CIMMYT releases a document calling for more research "in case"  contamination has occurred in Mexico. The Center recognizes the need  for further research on maize gene flow and the possible impacts of  transgenes on maize, noting particular concern over the impact of the  new generation of GM crops designed to express traits for  non-agricultural uses.

CIMMYT endorses the use of GM maize, and offers governments their  expertise on biosafety and related matters.

June 2002
The World Food Summit + 5 takes place in Rome and hundreds of CSOs --  including Via Campesina, the world's largest peasant federation --  denounce GM maize contamination as a serious threat to food  sovereignty and farmers' rights.

Governments fail to consider the issue.

July 2002
Southern African countries question GM grains imposed as humanitarian  food aid. WFP, WHO and FAO issue declarations criticizing Africa for  not accepting the GM food aid.

IRRI's Director General Ron Cantrell publishes a paper defending  collaboration with agribusiness and endorsing intellectual property.

August 2002
The World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg aligns  with the major economic powers of the world and sanctifies the role  of transnational corporations as major actors for sustainable  development. Sustainability is reduced to technological problems.  GMOs are off the official program, but implications are hotly debated  due to the revelations of GM contamination in Mexico, African  governments' protests over GM food aid, and industry's claim that GM  technology is the solution to world hunger. U.S. Secretary of State  Colin Powell is booed by official delegates when he refers to the  need for biotech corn. Farmers' organizations, CSOs and many Southern  governments express their concerns about contamination
September 2002
One year after the announcement of GM maize contamination in Mexico,  national governments and intergovernmental bodies have failed to take  any action to remedy, stop or prevent contamination. The Mexican  government is silent. CGIAR is silent.

October 2002
Nature refuses to publish a report by Mexican scientists that  confirms the contamination of Mexican maize with GM material. In an  effort to avert a public relations disaster, The Biotechnology  Industry Organization announces that it will adopt "voluntary  guidelines" in the US and Canada to prevent gene flow from GM pharma  plants to neighboring food crops.

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