GM Fall-out from Mexico to Zambia: The Great Containment
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.
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!
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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. www.etcgroup.org. 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 www.cbdcprogram.org.
The Great Containment - Highlights of the Year
At FAO, The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources is approved after seven years of negotiations.
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.
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.
CIMMYT endorses the use of GM maize, and offers governments their expertise on biosafety and related matters.
Governments fail to consider the issue.
IRRI's Director General Ron Cantrell publishes a paper defending collaboration with agribusiness and endorsing intellectual property.
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Last Updated on 10/28/02