MEXICO CITY - After a three-year-long process, Mexico is about to clear the way for legal cultivation of transgenic crops, in spite of resistance from environmentalists and several small farmer associations.
The Rules for the 2005 Biosafety Law on Genetically Modified Organisms were published Wednesday, and by the end of this year a national biosafety system and special guidelines for experimental sowing of transgenic maize will be in place.
According to some scientists and the government, constructing this legal edifice was appropriate and necessary, as in their view it ensures legality and regulates the study, experimental planting, and potential sale of genetically modified (GM) crops.
Trangenic organisms are modified in the laboratory by introducing genes from other plant or animal species, in order to improve their characteristics, such as yield or resistance to environmental conditions.
In the natural environment, GM crops can cross-fertilise with wild, native species or traditional hybrids and alter their genes, which environmentalists call "genetic pollution."
There is no conclusive evidence about the health effects of consuming foods containing GM ingredients, although there have been a few cases of health problems.
Environmentalists and several campesino (small farmer) groups say that Mexico could pay a high price if the wealth of its biodiversity were adversely affected by the release of transgenic crops.
Aleira Lara, the coordinator of Greenpeace Mexico's sustainable agriculture campaign, told IPS that the entire regulatory framework is designed to promote biotechnology at the expense of the precautionary principle. "The Rules are one more step in that direction," she said. The precautionary principle advocates avoiding the possibility of harm to the environment or human health, by prohibiting actions when doubts remain about their safety.
Environmentalists refer to the Mexican biosafety law as the "Monsanto Law", after the U.S. biotech giant that is the world leader in transgenic seed production, which has publicly backed the legislation.
Miguel Colunga, leader of the Democratic Campesino Front of Chihuahua, a state in northern Mexico, says his country "is still in time to reverse" the authorisation of GM crops.
"Transgenic crops are not safe, and we will lose our sovereignty, because the GM seeds belong to just a few transnational corporations," Colunga told IPS.
Using seeds patented by companies like Monsanto forces farmers to buy seed every planting season, paying the corporations each time, and puts an end to thousands of years of the traditional practice of saving the best seeds from the harvest to use for the next sowing.
The Biosafety Law on Genetically Modified Organisms, with its 124 articles, 33 pages and dozens of footnotes, and the 64 articles and 30 pages of Rules that accompany it, lay the basis for biotechnological research and create monitoring mechanisms for importing GM products and growing GM crops.
They also establish the intention of confronting the potential negative environmental impacts of GM organisms, while benefiting from their presumed advantages. The scheme under which transgenic crops will be authorised to enter Mexico is "case by case, and step by step."
The Biosafety Law and its Rules are adequate, because they ensure and guarantee that what happened in Brazil will not happen in Mexico, Luis Herrera, a renowned Mexican biotechnologist, told IPS.
The Brazilian government accepted GM crops after discovering that they were already being grown, illegally and without prior research, he pointed out.
The Mexican regulations will allow experiments and assessments to be carried out, to establish with certainty the safety of planting GM maize, soybean, cotton or any other transgenic crop, said Herrera, who is avowedly in favour of the technology.
The scientist, who along with other researchers produced the first transgenic plant at the University of Ghent, Belgium, in 1983, is now the director of the National Laboratory of Genomics for Diversity at the state Centre for Research and Advanced Studies.
Limited trials of transgenic potatoes, squash, papaya, soybean and other crops have been carried out experimentally in Mexico over the past few years, without any clear rules to regulate them.
The main concern of opponents of GM crops is the possibility that transgenic maize will be introduced and released in the country, an action which has been expressly prohibited by law since 1999.
One of the transitory rules attached to the biosafety law stipulates that by May 19 specific regulations should be drawn up to define where and how experiments may be carried out with GM maize.
The possibility that transgenic maize may be grown in Mexico, even on an experimental basis, raises hackles among opponents of GM foods. Maize is the staple food in Mexico, where it was domesticated 9,000 years ago, and is of immense cultural value.
"We are hoping that Mexico as a whole will be declared the centre of origin of maize, so that experiments and cultivation of GM maize are banned in the country," said Greenpeace activist Lara.
Mexico produces about 20 million tonnes of maize a year, on an area of 8.5 million hectares. Over three million local campesinos, most of whom are poor, grow maize using native seeds, or seeds that have been improved by methods other than genetic manipulation. There are dozens of sub-species of maize.
IPS was informed by official sources that the authorities and their advisers intend to allow experiments with transgenic maize to be carried out in the north of the country, where there is less biodiversity, and the connection between farmers and maize is not as strong.
In addition, campesino associations in the states along the border with the United States have been asking for several years to be allowed to grow GM maize, on the grounds that it is the only way they can compete in the marketplace with U.S. farmers.
"It's a myth that transgenic crops are more productive. Here in Chihuahua, many of us grow hybrid maize (improved by traditional techniques) and we can prove that it's better than the transgenic kind," said Colunga, of the Democratic Campesino Front.
"We can modernise our farming with our own maize. It's safe, it doesn't harm the environment, and it doesn't make us dependent on Monsanto or other companies," he said.
These companies take legal action against those who use their seeds without contracts and payments.
The companies state that GM crops do not harm the environment and are suitable in every way, and millions of hectares all over the world are now planted with transgenic crops.
However, there are documented examples of potentially dangerous GM maize. In the United States, Starlink maize was withdrawn from the market in 2000 after consumers experienced allergic reactions.
And transgenic MON-863 maize, belonging to Monsanto, which was authorised for human consumption in Mexico, harmed rats in experiments, according to a confidential report by the company itself which was made public in 2005 by a court order.
In 2007, the worldwide area sown with transgenic crops amounted to 114.3 million hectares, "benefiting 12 million farmers," according to a report by the International Service for Acquisitions of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), a U.S. not-for-profit organisation that promotes GM crops.
Less than 20 years ago, the area sown with transgenic crops was insignificant.
In the U.S. where, unlike in Mexico, transgenic maize as well as traditional varieties are grown, maize occupies 32 million hectares and production is over 300 million tonnes a year, 15 times more than in Mexico.
Mexico imports large quantities of maize from the United States to make up for the deficit in its own production. GM maize is included in these purchases, and the authorities do nothing to prevent it, environmentalists complain.
If the deadlines are met, by the end of 2008 trials of transgenic maize will be under way, which is good news, Monsanto spokesman David Carpintero told the Reforma newspaper.
© 2008 Inter Press Service