Magazine article New Internationalist

Tainted Tortillas: Tania Molina Ramirez Reports from Mexico, Where Indigenous Corn Varieties Have Been Found to Contain Genetically Engineered Material

Magazine article New Internationalist

Tainted Tortillas: Tania Molina Ramirez Reports from Mexico, Where Indigenous Corn Varieties Have Been Found to Contain Genetically Engineered Material

Article excerpt

WHO would have imagined that the environmental news story of the year would surface one Saturday night on the TV channel of the Mexican Congress?

'Our native maize is, in some regions of Oaxaca, contaminated with modified genes,' Lina Ornelas, a high-ranking official, told senators on 5 September 2001.

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The news went unnoticed. A few days later, Masiosare (the political weekly of the Mexican daily La Jornada) published an excerpt from the meeting. Something that had been suspected for many years by indigenous, peasant and environmental organizations finally reached the mass media. A year of campaigns, forums and workshops began.

Mexico is the original home of maize. There are hundreds of varieties. One cannot exaggerate their cultural significance. Indigenous farmers over hundreds of years have bred maize until it became the staple food crop we know today. They call themselves 'people of maize'.

Aldo Gonzalez, a Zapotec from the Sierra Juarez of Oaxaca, puts it this way: 'The indigenous community has been able to survive because of maize. The communities that no longer have maize become dependent and can be destroyed easily, while indigenous communities have been able to resist for 500 years because they have been capable of being self-sufficient.'

Unless you're a scrupulous consumer, if you live in Mexico you have probably eaten modified maize already. Well, you might ask yourself, so what? Little is known about the long-term consequences. Nevertheless, bit by bit, information comes out. For example, modified DNA taken in food can recombine in the human stomach and intestines, transferring the properties of the modified plants. This means that there is a possibility that if you eat maize with resistance to an antibiotic you could develop resistance. The next time you're ill the medicine won't be effective.

The Mexican case became an international scandal when an article was published in Britain's most prestigious scientific magazine, Nature, in November 2001, by University of California researchers Ignacio Chapela and David Quist who concluded that the Mexican maize genome had been contaminated with genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Not enough evidence

In an unprecedented move, Nature did an about-turn, subsequently arguing that the research had methodological errors. Scientists from all over the world sent emails to each other discussing the issue. Several researchers pointed out that the big biotech companies like Monsanto, Syngenta and Dupont, support scientists who claim that GMOs are harmless to your health. …

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