Monocultures of the Genetically Modified Mind: My surreal encounter with Monsanto in Mexico
I was surprised to find seed giant Monsanto almost everywhere I went to research my book, Eating Tomorrow. But my closest encounter came early, during a five-hour meeting in 2014 with six Monsanto executives in the company’s high-rise office in Mexico. Monsanto and other seed companies were trying to open Mexico to genetically modified corn. At the time of that meeting, the gene giant had been stopped in its tracks by La Demanda Colectiva, a group of farmer, environmental, and community groups who in October 2013 had won an injunction that suspended the companies’ experimental planting on the grounds that it threatened Mexico’s rich diversity of native corn varieties. Scientists called it “gene flow.” Corn farmers called it “genetic pollution.”
I confess: when I arrived in Mexico in 2014, I was not confident that the country’s dynamic social movements could stop the companies. An appeal filed by Monsanto was pending before another judge. As I wrote in Eating Tomorrow, “Since it was Easter Sunday, I attended mass at San Hipólito Church in the heart of Mexico’s historic city center. Locally, the 18th century church is known less for Saint Hipólito than for San Judas Tadeo, the ‘patron saint of lost causes,’ according to the translation at the church entrance. I didn’t think the GM lawsuit was a lost cause, but it sure seemed a long shot. I lit a candle and said a prayer. I’m not Catholic, nor even very religious, but it seemed the least I could do. The next day, the judge denied Monsanto’s request, leaving the injunction in place.”
Remarkably, that injunction has held for more than five years, withstanding a series of legal challenges. And now Mexico’s new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has promised to ban the cultivation of GM corn.
Given those remarkable victories, it seems a good time to revisit my surreal 2014 encounter with Monsanto in Mexico. Being a good journalist, I had asked Monsanto for an interview. I expected a polite “no” or a meeting with a private in the company’s public relations army. Instead, I was greeted by six company officials. Frida Kahlo should have been there. A company official actually told me their goal was to help Mexico achieve “food sovereignty.” I nearly fell off my chair. That is the term coined by radical farmer organizations to protect themselves from multinational firms such as Monsanto who are trying to impose their technologies on small-scale farmers.
That would be my closest encounter with the genetically modified mind. I think I came away uncontaminated. I certainly felt like a corn borer in a field of GM corn; I know I didn’t eat a thing while I was there.
I documented the interview in a series of three articles that at the time ran in different publications. I bring them together below with links to the original pieces, which were also translated into Spanish and published in Mexico. The stories are also woven into my book chapter, “Monsanto Invades Corn’s Garden of Eden in Mexico.”
Monsanto was everywhere I went for my book. In Malawi, they had taken over the national seed company and shelved one of the country’s most popular and productive corn seeds; Monsanto’s former country director had co-authored Malawi’s national seed policy, which threatened to outlaw the widespread practice of farmers saving, exchanging, and selling their seeds. In Mozambique the company was pushing its Water Efficient Maize for Africa scheme, as a way to open the country up to genetically modified corn. India’s cotton farmers were abandoning GM cotton, which put them into debt as local insects developed resistance to the GM insecticide and devoured farmers’ crops. In the United States, of course, blanketed in GM corn and soybeans, three lawsuits have won damage judgments of more than $2 billion for company neglect in failing to warn people that its Roundup herbicide causes cancer.
In my book travels, I thought often of Vandana Shiva’s brilliant essay, “Monocultures of the Mind,” on the reductionism of Western science subordinated to commercial interests. She wrote it even before GM crops came into widespread use. Their quick dominance in places like the United States seemed to illustrate her central thesis, almost to the point of caricature. As one Mexican farm leader told me, “Our problems are not solved with one gene.”
Now the gene giants are losing. Bayer bought Monsanto and now faces multi-billion-dollar liabilities for its cancer-causing herbicide, with more than 13,000 plaintiffs lined up in the United States alone. In Mexico, a judge banned GM soybeans in the Yucatan after pollen contaminated the beehives of organic honey-producers. And, remarkably, the injunction on GM corn is still in place five years after I said my Easter prayer.
I’m a believer, in San Judas Tadeo and in the power of determined, well-organized people to bring down the gene giants.
On April 21, a Mexican judge dealt a blow to the efforts of agricultural behemoth Monsanto and other biotech companies to open the country to the commercial cultivation of genetically modified (GM) maize. The ruling upheld the injunction issued last October that put a halt to further testing or commercial planting of the crop, citing “the risk of imminent harm to the environment.”
In a fitting tribute to Mexican surrealism, Monsanto had accused the judge who upheld the injunction of failing to be “impartial.” I don’t know if the presiding judge smiled when he denied Monsanto’s complaint, but I did.
I had just arrived in Mexico to look at the GM controversy, and I could tell it was going to be quite a visit.
The original injunction came last October as the result of a class action suit filed by 53 citizen plaintiffs, including farmers, environmentalists, and consumers. Known as “La Demanda Colectiva,” they claimed the Mexican government’s approval of permits for planting genetically modified maize violated the country’s constitutional guarantee of a clean environment.
The legal case is complex, but the core issue couldn’t be simpler.
Mexico is recognized as the “center of origin” for maize, and is home to many diverse strains of the crop’s seeds. Each of these core strains — known as landraces — evolved over thousands of years in Mexico to adapt to both local environmental conditions and human tastes and desires. Each landrace has evolved further into a rich array of local varieties.
Southern and central Mexico have long been known as the homes of maize biodiversity. Every year, indigenous communities there select their best seeds for planting the next crop cycle. That simple process, and the free exchange of seeds with other farmers, has produced the complex diversity that we find today.
A recent study by Mexico’s National Commission for the Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity (known by its Spanish acronym CONABIO) identified 65 distinct landraces of maize in the country, including several that had never before been catalogued. From those 65 confirmed landraces, the CONABIO study identified more than 22,000 different varieties of maize in Mexico.
Experts fear that if genetically modified maize comes into the mix it could alter these landraces by pollinating native varieties and undermining the genetic integrity of the crops. This isn’t just a question of conservation. These maize varieties are the living, evolving base for modern plant-breeding, a resource drawn on by conventional maize breeders (and GM breeders like Monsanto) when they look to create hybrid varieties that can increase yields, resist drought, or provide other useful adaptations to changing climates and cropping environments.
The native varieties are of such high value that samples of them are stored in ultra-secure locations around the world in the event of a catastrophe.
For people from the United States — who tend to be familiar only with sweet corn on the cob and the yellow dent corn (unfit for human consumption) that feeds our animals and, through ethanol, our cars — this diversity is striking. One Mexican variety, for instance, is used almost exclusively forpozole,a subtly spiced soup with large whole kernels of white maize. Others are used for local tamales, which can be found in different forms throughout the country. Many are used for a rainbow of tortillas — white, blue, green, red.
Mexican law recognizes this diversity. Its biosecurity law, approved in 2005, includes special protection for maize. GM maize, the law stipulates, is not to be sown in proximity to any area known to be a “center of origin” for maize. With no legal definition of this term, the Mexican government in 2009 approved biotech company requests to begin experimental trials in six northern states where maize diversity was considered negligible. The government was set to approve large-scale commercial planting of GM maize there when the injunction put a stop to all GM permits.
To the naked eye, northern Mexico does not look like a center of diversity. It is dominated by huge irrigated farms that look like they could be in Iowa. These farms use hybrid white maize seeds developed either by national maize breeders or foreign multinationals. Their high yields provide a significant share of Mexico’s production of maize for direct human consumption, which totals more than 20 million tons a year. About 10 million additional tons a year come from the United States, but nearly all of it is yellow maize, and nearly all of that is genetically modified.
Mexico’s industrialized white maize is the market Monsanto wants, even though field trials have been limited to yellow varieties. Mexico is one of the world’s largest producers and consumers of white maize. In an interview at the company’s high-rise headquarters in Mexico City, Jaime Mijares Noriega, Monsanto’s Latin America Director for Corporate Affairs, admitted that the company wanted to get their transgenes into Mexico’s white maize.
I was surprised. Wouldn’t Mexicans rebel en masse at the prospect that biotech companies were planning to put GM maize into their beloved tortillas and tamales? I asked him if he didn’t think it might be a harder sell, since consumers even in the United States are skeptical of directly consuming GM maize. He acknowledged that it “would take some time.”
He dismissed concerns about gene flow, saying that their field trials had shown minimal pollination beyond 25 meters from the field.
That’s not good enough for José Sarukhán, director of CONABIO. Gene flow is gene flow, and once a plant is contaminated with GM maize pollen it will then pollinate other plants. Sarukhán said that CONABIO researchers found a surprising number of native varieties in northern Mexico, precisely the regions where experimental GM plots were authorized. Sarukhaán told me the strong presence of native seeds in the north made him rethink his previous support for limited GM maize trials in those states.
According to Antonio Serratos, a researcher involved in CONABIO’s recent maize study, the entire country should be considered a center of origin. “You can’t just isolate the communities where you find native maize,” he said.
Serratos also reminded me that the most pervasive form of gene flow isn’t pollen on the wind, it’s kernels of maize in people’s pockets. Peasant farmers are relentless experimenters, trying every type of maize they get their hands on to see if it produces something useful. They can’t know from looking at a kernel of maize whether it’s genetically modified or not. They assume it isn’t. If they plant it, its pollen will flow to neighboring plants.
This is precisely what happened in the southern state of Oaxaca in 2002, when a farmer presumably took grains of maize from a food distribution, which contained imported GM maize, and planted them in his fields. Serratos says this kind of contamination was already prevalent in Mexico, even before the recent GM field trials. His own study found a surprisingly rich diversity of maize even within the borders of Mexico City itself. But he also found transgenic contamination.
“We’re creating something new: transgenic native maize,” he warns.
I asked Monsanto officials how they expected to control this more pervasive form of gene flow. “We can’t really ensure how grains are transported and where they end up,” said Oscar Heredia, the company’s Agronomic Regulatory Affairs officer.
For CONABIO’s Sarukhán, that is the final straw. “I don’t believe this country has the capacity — nor the will — to regulate transgenic maize,” he said.
The injunction put a stop to the expansion of transgenic maize, for now. Monsanto and other biotech companies have joined with Mexico’s agriculture and environment departments to file a blizzard of legal challenges, 62 different appeals and legal complaints so far. Up to now, Mexico’s notoriously corrupt judicial system has refused to overturn the injunction. Observers expect the legal proceedings to take a year or two to resolve.
When the class action suit on the danger of genetic contamination is finally heard, the plaintiffs will have the opportunity to present a raft of evidence, from governmental, non-governmental, and university sources, on the history and the presence of GM contamination of Mexico’s native maize. “We look forward to that opportunity,” says Adelita San Vicente, one of the spokespeople for the plaintiffs.
To listen to the current debates over the controversial requests by Monsanto and other biotech giants to grow genetically modified (GM) maize in Mexico, you’d think the danger to the country’s rich biodiversity in maize was hypothetical. It is anything but.
Studies have found the presence of transgenes in native maize in nearly half of Mexico’s states. A study of maize diversity within the confines of Mexico’s sprawling capital city revealed transgenic maize in 70% of the samples from the area of Xochimilco and 49% of those from Tlalpan.
Mexico is the “center of origin” where maize was first domesticated from its wild ancestor, teocinte. The country is arguably the last place you’d want to risk the possibility that its wide array of native seeds might be undermined by what indigenous people have called “genetic pollution” from GM maize.
Last October, a judge issued an injunction putting a halt to all experimental and commercial planting until it can be proven that native maize varieties are not threatened by “gene flow” from GM maize. The precautionary measure comes more than a decade too late.
In 2001, US-based researchers discovered the presence of transgenic traits in native maize varieties in the southern state of Oaxaca. A formal citizen complaint brought an exhaustive study by the environmental commission set up by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The researchers acknowledged that “gene flow” had occurred, warned, as other studies did, of more widespread contamination, and called for precautionary policies, including restrictions on imports from the United States.
The Mexican government buried the study and promptly passed a biosafety law that opened the door to GM maize.
“It is Orwellian that this history is unknown,” said Antonio Serratos, one of the researchers on the NAFTA-commissioned study, as well as the studies on Mexico City native maize. He said he was surprised by two things in Mexico City.
“First, that we found so much diversity. In an area so small, so urban, it was so unlikely,” he said. “The other surprise was finding transgenics.”
“In Mexican fields,” Serratos warned, “transgenic native maize is being created.”
That possibility did not seem to concern representatives of Monsanto Mexico, beyond a passing mention. “We are very sensitive to Mexico being a center of origin, to the cultural significance of maize,” Jaime Mijares Noriega, Monsanto’s Latin America Director for Corporate Affairs, told me in the company’s Mexico City office. “But if there is pollen flow to native maize, what happens? There are very few pure landraces in Mexico today. Many have already gotten genes from hybrids. And the native seeds are preserved in gene banks.”
According to Oscar Heredia, the company’s Agronomic Regulatory Affairs officer, the company-funded field trials in northern Mexico showed minimal gene flow from GM maize to non-GM maize in bordering plots, dropping to less than 0.5% of plants. I asked if the company’s goal was to achieve zero percent gene flow. He said that would be unrealistic.
Indeed it would, which is why people are concerned. Serratos told me that maize pollen has been known to travel more than one kilometer.
He explained the danger. A hectare will have about 40,000 plants. One-half a percent of that is 200 plants. Each plant has about 400 grains on a few ears of maize, with each grain pollinated separately through the plant’s silk threads. If 200 plants get some level of contamination, that can mean up to 80,000 grains. And if any of those grains are planted as seed, they will produce pollen, even if they don’t produce usable ears of maize. That pollen travels the winds, further spreading the transgenes.
Serratos pointed out that wind-borne gene flow isn’t even the most pervasive source of contamination. Seeds travel far and wide, in farmers’ pockets. Small-scale farmers are relentless experimenters, trying every seed they get their hands on to see if it produces something useful. That’s how maize has evolved into the wide and useful range of varieties we see today. That is also how imported GM maize traveled to Oaxaca, got planted by an unwitting farmer, and spread transgenes to native plants.
I asked Monsanto officials how they expected to control this more pervasive form of gene flow. “We can’t really ensure how grains are transported and where they end up,” Heredia said.
Serratos stressed that this is precisely why precaution is warranted, why the entire country should be declared a “center of origin” for maize, with no permitted GM cultivation. Well-intentioned farmers could already be storing contaminated native seeds in their own community seed banks.
”If the seeds of maize are sold or exchanged, the contamination will grow exponentially,” he warned. “That is the point of no return.”
I’d come to Mexico to investigate the ongoing controversy over the proposed introduction of genetically modified (GM) maize into the birthplace of this important global food crop. The issue was hot because last October a Mexican judge had issued an injunction halting all experimental and commercial planting of GM maize, a process that was well underway in six northern states. The ruling cited the need for precaution to ensure that Mexico’s rich diversity of maize varieties were protected from inadvertent “gene flow” from GM maize.
As I began to investigate this most controversial of biotech initiatives, the question that most puzzled me was why anyone in Mexico thinks the country needs anything that transgenic maize has to offer?
Monsanto, of course, had an answer to that question. When I met with a group of company officials in their high-rise offices in Mexico City’s transnational business district of Santa Fe, they offered their “Vision 2020,” in which transgenic maize is key to feeding the world. In Mexico, they argued, it would help double Mexican maize production, reduce persistent rural poverty among the country’s small-scale maize farmers, restore the country’s self-sufficiency in its key food staple, and reduce the negative environmental impacts of maize farming.
They even used the term “food sovereignty” to describe their goal for Mexico.
This was more than a vision; this was a hallucination.
A recent US Department of Agriculture study of the first 15 years of US experience with transgenic crops concluded that the technology had produced only limited and uneven yield improvements over conventional hybrid varieties of maize. The main benefit, when there was one, came in the reduced need for labour, since insect-resistant transgenic maize reduces pesticide applications and herbicide-tolerant varieties reduce manual weeding by allowing the liberal spraying of entire fields with Monsanto’s Round-Up weed-killer.
Mexico’s rural poverty problem, of course, has everything to do with the lack of jobs, so it was hard to see how labour-saving technology would be a boon to the poor.
Monsanto, of course, does not actually have its transgenic sights set on the small-scale farmers who populate Mexico’s central and southern regions. Fewer than 30 percent of Mexican farmers even use conventional hybrid maize — high-yielding, single-use seeds, which need to be purchased every year. They prefer to stick with seeds they can save year to year, often varieties of the native “landraces” of maize the injunction is intended to protect.
Why would anyone think Mexican campesinoswould pay even more for transgenic seeds developed for the kind of industrial farms found in Iowa? Or in the Mexican state of Sinaloa, the heart of the country’s irrigated maize belt?
That question got us past the rose-tinted “Vision 2020”. Sinaloa is the market Monsanto wants, along with the other agricultural states of the north. In 2009, the Mexican government approved experimental planting in six northern states, where Monsanto and a handful of other biotech multinationals — DuPont, Dow, and Syngenta, among others — had applied for permits eventually to plant millions of acres of transgenic maize. Monsanto’s permits were for Sinaloa.
The planting was restricted to the north because these are areas of presumed low densities of native varieties of maize. In recent years, the experimental trials have also been limited to yellow maize, the same varieties grown in the United States and exported to Mexico to feed the growing industrial production of meat and processed foods.
Just as the north was considered safer for environmental reasons, yellow maize was less objectionable because the product was not directly consumed by humans.
That regulatory distinction is common. Many countries that allow GM imports allow it only for animal feed or processed foods, such as vegetable oil. Health concerns abound regarding the direct consumption of transgenic food. Most recently, tests showed the presence of the herbicide glyphosate, widely used with Monsanto’s herbicide tolerant GM soybean and maize varieties, in samples of mothers’ breast milk in the United States.
High risks, low rewards
Almost no country consumes more maize directly than Mexico — in its rich variety of tortillas, tamales, soups, and other preparations that earned Mexico the distinction as the only country whose cuisine is recognised by UNESCO as the patrimony of humanity. Mexicans have grown accustomed to yellow maize, via imports, but they don’t have to eat it. White maize, much of it from Sinaloa and the other northern states, is a different story.
I asked Monsanto officials whether their goal was just to open up yellow maize markets in Mexico to transgenics. It made no sense to me. The seed provider already has the Mexican market for yellow maize seeds; 90 percent of US maize is in GM seeds, and that is the source for Mexico’s imports of yellow maize. Monsanto’s seed market won’t get bigger because some of the seeds get planted in Mexico.
The response was surprisingly clear. “In order for the penetration of biotechnology crops to be successful, it will have to be for both white and yellow corn,” said Jaime Mijares Noriega, the company’s Latin America Director for Corporate Affairs. “If it was only yellow, we would not be investing.”
I was shocked. Why would company officials, in the middle of a lawsuit, state so openly that their goal is to put transgenic maize into Mexican tortillas?
And why did they think anyone would buy their controversial seeds? Company representatives presented, in very general form, the poor results from their own field trials. They didn’t call them poor, I did. Monsanto’s own corporate-funded trials suggested a 10 percent yield advantage over conventional hybrids. That’s a small gain for a technology that will be more expensive for farmers. More to the point, though, Monsanto’s own data show that Sinaloa’s farmers, using non-transgenic varieties, already get yields higher than those on the company’s carefully controlled experimental fields.
Wouldn’t the company have a tough sell in Sinaloa? They nodded: It might take time to win over Mexico’s farmers.
But why would Mexico, with its rich diversity of this important national and global food crop, want to take such high risks with such low rewards? One of Monsanto’s researchers, Dr. Juan Manuel Oyervides, had presented a long-view perspective on yield gains in Mexican maize. He chose to highlight his speculative estimate that the government’s delay in allowing GM maize had resulted in a “lost decade” of productivity stagnation, sacrificing 12 percent of potential yield improvements worth $9.3 billion.
That bit of quantitative creativity caught my attention, but it’s not what I asked about. Professor Oyervides’s graph showed that the fastest yield growth in maize had come in that “lost decade,” using conventional hybrid seeds and native maize varieties. One of the main arguments biotechnology companies make for the urgent adoption of their seeds is that yields are stagnating. His data showed the opposite.
Doesn’t that imply that Mexico has not in fact exhausted the productivity potential of existing technologies? My own study, with Mexican researcher Antonio Turrent, had shown exactly that.
“We need complex solutions to complex problems,” said Victor Suarez, head of Mexico’s largest independent organization of grain producers. “GMOs are simplistic. Our problems are not solved with one gene.”