The Last Days of Mexican Corn
November 21, 2007 – John Ross writes from Mexico City: The single, spindly seven foot-tall cornstalk spiring up from the planter box outside a prominent downtown hotel here was filling out with new “elotes” (sweet corn) to the admiration of passer-bys, some of whom even paused to pat the swelling ears with affection. Down the centuries most of the population of this megalopolis migrated here from the countryside at one time or another over the course of the past 500 years and inside every “Chilango” (Mexico City resident) lurks an inner campesino.
But the solitary stalk, sewn by an urban coalition of farmers and ecologists under the banner of “No Hay Pais Sin Maiz” (“There Is No Country Without Corn”) in planter boxes outside the downtown hotels, museums, government palaces and other historical monuments can just as easily be seen as a signifier for the fragile state of survival of Mexican corn.
As the year ripens into deep autumn, the corn harvest is pouring in all over Mexico. Out in Santa Cruz Tanaco in the Purepecha Indian Sierra of Michoacan state, the men mow their way down the rows much as their fathers and their fathers before did, snapping off the ears and tossing them into the “tshundi” basket on their backs.
In the evenings, the families will gather around the fire and shuck the “granos” from the cobs into buckets and carry them down to the store to trade for other necessities of life. It is the way in Tanaco in this season of plenitude just as it is in the tens of thousands of tiny farming communities all over Mexico where 29 per cent of the population still lives. But it is a way of life that is fading precipitously. Some say that these indeed may be the last days of Mexican corn.
In fact, this January 1 may prove to be a doomsday date for Mexican maiz when at the stroke of midnight, all tariffs on corn (and beans) will be abolished after more than a decade of incremental NAFTA-driven decreases. Although U.S. corn growers are already dumping 10 million tons of the heavily subsidized grain in Mexico each year, zero tariffs are expected to trigger a tsunami of corn imports, much of it genetically modified, that will drive millions of Mexican farmers off their land – in NAFTA’s first 13 years, 6,000,000 have already abandoned their plots – and could well spell the end of the line for 59 distinct “razas” or races of native corn.
Corn was first domesticated eight millennia ago in the Mexican states of Puebla and Oaxaca and Mexico remains the fourth largest corn producer on the planet but its 22,000,000 ton annual yield pales in comparison to U.S. growers who are expected to harvest near 300,000,000 tons this year, accounting for 70 per cent of the world’s maize supply. A third of U.S. corn acreage is now under genetically modified seed.
Big Biotec has had its guns trained on Mexican corn for a long time but under the national biosecurity law, Monsanto and its ilk have been barred from selling their GMO seed here. Now the transnationals are putting a full court press on the CIBOGEN, the inter-secretarial committee on bio-security, to vacate the prohibition on GMO sales – the measure was originally enacted in the late ’90s in an effort to protect native seed from contamination and homogenization by genetically modified materials.
This September, the CIBOGEN was on track to designate experimental GMO farms in the north of Mexico (Sonora’s Yaqui Valley and the Valley of Culiacan) where there are no native corns that could be corrupted by the engineered seeds but the designation was abruptly postponed around issues of potential contamination to the great frustration of a powerhouse pro-GMO coalition motored by the Biotec giants and including the Mexican National Farming Council (big growers), the National Association of Self-Service Stores (Wal-mart – now the biggest tortilla retailer in the country), and the National Farmers Central (CNC) which groups together rank and file farmers attached to the once-ruling (71 years) PRI party.
A dubious milestone in the history of corn was reached in July when scientists at the National Genetics & Biodiversity Laboratories announced that they had successfully mapped the genome of Mexican maiz. That was the good news. The bad news is that the genome will be available to anyone who can pay the Institute’s asking price.
Who owns the genome is crucial to the survival of Mexican corn. There is little doubt that the Monsanto Corporation of St. Louis Missouri would love to get its hands on this breakthrough information so that for-profit scientists could design seeds modeled upon the DNA of native corns for commercial sales.
Mexican corn is a rich source of genetic history. Millions of adaptations to specific conditions have created a seed stock with extremely variegated properties. For millennia, native seed savers have set aside corn seed that is resistant to drought whose DNA structure Monsanto will now be able to simulate in its laboratories and market under its brand.
Monsanto took a giant step in locking up the genetic wealth of Mexico this past April 18 when it signed an agreement with the National Association of Corn Producers (CNPMM), a section of the CNC that groups together big corn farmers, to establish regional seed banks in the center and south of the country. CNC members were designated “guardians of the seed” and charged with assembling collections of native corn to be housed in Monsanto-financed repositories.
(Big bucks from Cargill and Maseca-ADM have also funded the seed banks.) “Allowing Monsanto to get so close to the secrets of Mexican corn is like asking Herod to baby-sit,” writes Adelita San Vicente, an activist with the “No Hay Pais” coalition in a recent agrarian supplement of the left daily La Jornada.
55 per cent of the crops needed to feed the human race are now grown by just ten corporations. The biggest players in this monopoly game are Bayer, Dow, Dupont, Syngenta (once Novartis), and Monsanto. None of these conglomerates is a seed company. They all began their corporate life selling chemicals for war and farming.
Monsanto, which dominates 71 per cent of the GMO seed market, has operated in Mexico since the post-World War II so-called “green revolution” that featured hybrid seeds (“semillas mejoradas”) that only worked when associated with pesticides and fertilizers manufactured by the transnational chemical companies. Selling hybrid seeds and chemical poisons in Mexico continues to be profitable for Monsanto whose total 2006 sales here topped 3,000,000,000 pesos ($300 million USD.) It doesn’t hurt that Monsanto Mexico sells hybrid seed for $2 Americano for a packet of a thousand when its states-side price is $1.34.
22,000,000 Mexicans, 13,000,000 of them children, suffer some degree of malnutrition according to doctors at the National Nutrition Institute and Monsanto insists that it can feed them all if only the CIBOGEN will allow it to foist its GMO seed on unwitting corn farmers. But the way Monsanto sells its GMO seed is severely questioned.
Farmers are forced to sign contracts, agreeing to buy GMO seed at a company-fixed price. Monsanto’s super-duper “Terminator” seed, named after California’s action hero governor, goes sterile after one growing cycle and the campesinos are obligated to buy more. By getting hooked on Monsanto, Mexican farmers, once seed savers and repositories themselves of the knowledge of their inner workings, become consumers of seed, an arrangement that augurs poorly for the survival of Mexico’s many native corns.
Moreover, as farmers from other climes who have resisted Monsanto and refused to buy into the GMO blitz, have learned only too traumatically, pollen blowing off contaminated fields will spread to non-GMO crops. Even more egregiously, Monsanto will then send “inspectors” (often off-duty cops) to your farm and detect their patented strains in your fields and charge you with stealing the corporation’s property.
When Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmeiser came to Mexico several years back to explain how Monsanto had taken his farm from him for precisely these reasons, local legislators laughed that it was a science fiction scenario. “It is going to happen to you,” the old farmer warned with all the prescience of an Aztec seer.
Mexican corn is, of course, not the only native crop that is being disappeared by global capitalism. Native seeds are under siege from pole to pole. In Iraq, where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers come together to form the birthplace of agriculture, one of the very first acts of George Bush’s neo-colonial satrap L. Paul Brenner was to issue the notorious Order 81 criminalizing the possession of native seeds. The U.S. military spread out throughout the land distributing little packets of GMO seeds, the euphemistically dubbed Operation “Amber Waves.” To make sure that Iraq would no longer have a native agriculture, the national seed bank, located at Abu Ghraib, was looted and set afire.
The threat to native seed has become so acute that the United Nations Food & Agricultural Organization is funding the construction of a doomsday vault on remote Svalbard Island in northern Norway 800 miles from the North Pole. It was thought that seeds cryogenically frozen and stored in deep underground bunkers would be insured of survival. But as the polar bears of that gelid bioregion now know only too well, nothing is safe from the globalizers’ hunger to destroy the planet and what it grows.
John Ross is preparing to return to Mexico for the holidays equipped with a new – if uneasy – eye. Mil gracias to everyone who kicked in to help buy it. Contact: [email protected]