Price Increases, Renewed Debate over Genetically Modified Corn Place Food at Top of Concerns in Mexico in 2011

Article excerpt

Though overshadowed by ongoing security troubles and political campaigning, food has reemerged as a growing issue in Mexico in 2011.

Beginning last year, a new round of price hikes for corn tortillas began gnawing away at consumers' pocketbooks, with prices for the staple food reaching 14 pesos (US$1.21) per kg in some states by March and threatening to go even higher as production uncertainties and rising energy costs cast a pall over the agricultural economy.

If the specter of a new tortilla crisis was evident by the dawn of the new year, it only loomed larger after unusual freezes wiped out hundreds of thousands of acres of corn in the key producer state of Sinaloa and other areas in February. Nearly 70% of the Sinaloa crop perished in the subfreezing weather, according to the Secretaria de Agricultura, Ganaderia, Desarrollo Rural, Pesca y Alimentacion (SAGARPA).

Swinging into action, President Felipe Calderon's administration helped growers replant nearly 350,000 hectares of corn and other crops in Sinaloa alone, and federal authorities pledged to expedite payments of approximately US$240 million in agricultural subsidies and credits to ease the Pacific state's farmers through hard times.

But it's still unclear if the replanting will prevent production deficits and forestall the need to import more corn from abroad, especially from the US.

Government grants Monsanto permission for GM test plot

In March, the Calderon administration added a volatile ingredient to the bubbling stew of the corn and food crisis. In a move that whipped up new polemics regarding food sovereignty and biocultural diversity, SAGARPA granted the transnational biotech company Monsanto permission to grow its Mon 603 genetically modified (GM) corn seed on a small pilot plot in the northern border state of Tamaulipas. Reputedly, the corn variety is resistant to glyphosate, a commonly used herbicide.

The federal agency said the decision was made in coordination with the Secretaria del Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (SEMARNAT), which imposed 32 conditions Monsanto would be required to follow or face sanctions, including possible closure of the plot.

"The issuance of this permit was possible in the sense that it complied with the principles of biosafety case by case and step by step," SAGARPA insisted in a communique.

SAGARPA's decision was immediately criticized by Greenpeace Mexico, the national Sin Maiz, No Hay Pais (No Corn, No Country) campaign, and the Union de Cientificos Comprometidos con la Sociedad (UCCS), affiliated with the US-based Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

Greenpeace and its allies contended that the Monsanto permit violated the national biosafety law, since it was approved without the prior public disclosure of the results of experimental crop trials. They warned that control of agriculture will shift to Monsanto and other transnational corporations that own seed patents and charged that transgenic seeds not only do not deliver the enhanced yields they promise but could also jeopardize human health given a lack of independent health studies.

The GM opponents maintained that transgenic seeds could jeopardize native Mexican corn by cross contamination. Mexican biologist and UCCS member Alma Pineyro cautioned that Monstanto's pilot farm plot is very close to where a species of native Tamaulipas corn is cultivated.

The Tamaulipas pilot project "opens the door to the massive planting of transgenic corn that will put at risk corn agriculture and the nourishment of Mexicans," the critics said, "while forcing us to eat daily transgenic products that have been prohibited in other countries."

The move to allow test plots with GM corn is a policy enacted by the Calderon government SourceMex, June 25, 2008 and Aug. 25, 2010 . Calderon's predecessor, former President Vicente Fox, considered requests to plant test plots with GM corn but ultimately denied the proposals SourceMex, Sept. …