Corn at the Crossroads: Free Trade, Migration, and Modified Genes in the Cradle of Maize

[ Detail of a mural in Oaxaca’s Government Palace ]

January 1, 2008 – from Free Speech Radio News: The North American Free Trade Agreement comes into full effect today with the cancellation of all remaining tariffs and so-called “trade barriers” protecting Mexican agricultural products. The trade deal, which began to come into force on the first of January, 1994, has been largely blamed for the ongoing crisis in the Mexican countryside, the growing disparity between rich and poor, and the unprecedented rate of migration of Mexicans towards the United States. Join us today as we take a look at the intersection of culture, food, migration and trade.

Download audio 29:01 minutes (26.57 MB)

El Maiz en la Mira: Libre Comercio, Migracion y Genes Modificados en su Lugar de Origen

Descargar el audio 29:42 minutos (27.2 MB)

The North American Free Trade Agreement comes into full effect today with the cancellation of all remaining tariffs and so-called “trade barriers” protecting Mexican agricultural products. The trade deal, which began to come into force on January 1st, 1994, has been largely blamed for the ongoing crisis in the Mexican countryside, the growing disparity between rich and poor, and the unprecedented rate of migration of Mexicans towards the United States. But little has been said about the effects of NAFTA on corn – the foundation of the Mexican diet, the staple crop of the countryside, and the symbol of Mesoamerican identity.

Cultural Identity and Historical Context

In Southern Mexico, corn is much more than a simple source of calories for the human body – it represents life itself. The Popul Vuh – the creation myth of Mesoamerican culture – tells of how the gods struggled to make thinking, feeling human beings. After two failed attempts with mud and wood, the gods finally succeeded when they crafted the first people from the dough and kernals of yellow and white corn. Mesoamerican cultures regard the plant as sacred and many indigenous small farmers – or campesinos – pay their respects with rites and customs from the sewing of the seeds until well after the harvest. This Zapotec farmer from Oaxaca’s Sierra Juarez describes a few of the customs that have endured since before the time of the Spanish invasion:

Farmer from the Sierra Norte (in Spanish): “One is planted for the little animal, one for the family, one for the townspeople, and one for the festival. It was in this way that the agricultural education returned to the heart of the family. Why? Because those who came here, destroyed the schools where these lessons of how to attend to maize were given. Maize is sacred. You can’t sweep maize with a broom because it is said that if you sweep maize, maize will abandon you. You can neither put a flame to the cob. You have to be careful. Why? Because it’s life. It’s the baby of the house, as we say in our language. With so much love given to maize, sometimes it can even seem to one as exaggerated – but it’s not so. It’s the way a man acts when one knows that its the food which gives him life.”

The strong link between humans and maize in Oaxaca is the legacy of millenia of symbiotic co-existance. It was here that corn was first domesticated from it’s wild ancestor more than seven thousand years ago. Maize cannot grow without human help… and it’s impossible to imagine humans here growing without maize.

(Ambient sound: Central de Abastos de Oaxaca)

One can find corn in nearly all its forms by talking a walk through Oaxaca City’s bustling central market. Maize is the main staple crop of Mexico and every part of the plant has a use.

Most of the arable land in Oaxaca is in the form of communal land holdings. Land re-distribution was the central demand of Mexican revolutionary hero, Emiliano Zapata. The agrarian reform he advocated made it into the Constitution as Article 27.

In practice, it transferred ownership of large plantations – or haciendas – to those who had historically worked the land. It also protected the communal ownership of land in many rural communities.

That all changed in January of 1992, when then-President Carlos Salinas de Gortari announced reforms to the Mexican Constitution as part of negotiations for what later became the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Carlos Salinas de Gortari (in Spanish): “After many years of crisis en the countryside, we have brought forth a new agrarian reform from the very campesinos. Made for and by them. The change to Article 27 of the Constitution will give security and freedom to the campesinos to decide for themselves what they want to do with their land. Second, it will provide more resources to stimulate production and improve campesino livelihood. We will soon see the Mexican countryside emerge vigorous and renewed.”

Corn, in its various presentations, is the backbone of the Mexican diet.
Corn, in its various presentations, is the backbone of the Mexican diet.

Compliance with NAFTA required an adjustment in the legal concept of private land ownership. Communal land could now be divyied up into parcels and sold. Critics of the reform said it turned land into just another commodity and buried the fundamental gain of the Mexican Revolution.

(New Year’s fireworks and big band music)

The first phase of NAFTA took effect on January 1st of 1994. During New Year’s celebrations with fireworks, music, and parties – an indigenous rebel army mobilized to take over five key towns in the southern state of Chiapas. The date chosen for the armed uprising was no coincidence; the Zapatista Army of National Liberation – or EZLN – called NAFTA a death sentence.

Soon after the start of their uprising, the EZLN went about taking over large land holdings in Chiapas and redistributed them to landless campesinos. Comandanta Kelly, one of the military leaders of the EZLN, speaking about the Zapatista’s so-called Revolutionary Agrarian Law of 1993.

Comandanta Kelly (in Spanish): “Thanks to this revolutionary recuperation of land and territory, thousands of zapatista and non-Zapatista families exist where – before 1994 – they had been stripped of their lands, of their lives, and of their autonomy. Today, these people and these families have land to work, land for building community, land for a better future for indigenous, campesino, and rural peoples. The land and territory are more than sources of work and food. They are also culture, community, history, ancestors, dreams, future, life, and mother.”

Indigenous communities in Mexico administer land as a commonwealth. Decisions about land use are subject to debate within the collective governance structures known as popular assemblies. But the reforms to Article 27 turned communal land into a collection of individual pieces of private real estate that can be rented or sold.

More than 15 years after Salinas de Gortari promised the reforms would renew and invigorate the Mexican countryside, current president Felipe Calderon is advising small farmers to look for other forms of income, like in this speech given in late November to campesinos in the state of Jalisco:

Felipe Calderon (in Spanish): “We want you to have an income different from primary agricultural work. We want you to have a different source of income by opening a grocery store, a carpentry or sewing workshop, or a tortilla store. We want you to have tourism projects. We want the beauty of the land where you live to be known by Mexico and the world and for you all to be technically prepared to give the people the services they need, to maintain – for example – bathrooms and service facilities in good conditions because this is what tourists really appreciate.”

Maize Diversity and Migration

NAFTA has put Mexican campesinos into direct competition with US agribusiness – in the agrarian equivalent of a race between a Porsche and a donkey cart. US subsidized corn has been dumped onto the Mexican market at prices that undercut the cost of production for small farmers, thereby creating enormous financial pressure to find work elsewhere. Mexico now ranks as the world’s top exporter of migrant labor.

This student activist from Chiapas explains the rationale many young people have for abandoning the countryside:

Student from La Coordinadora de Organizaciones Autónomas (in Spanish): “Most of the young people are in the United States because their parents can no longer support them since all of the products from the countryside no longer have a good price. So, all the young campesinos – instead of studying – say ‘I’m going north because I can’t make it here anymore’. Then they migrate northwards.”

Sergio Rodriguez Lazcano, editor of the pro-Zapatista magazine, Rebeldia, says the reform to Article 27 of the constitution ended up making the countryside dependant upon migration and remittances.

Sergio Rodríguez Lazcano (in Spanish): “The idea behind that reform was to generate a spatial readjustment for Capital with the following characteristics: to bring about a new process of separating producers from the means of production, thereby generating a labor surplus to be channelled towards migration to the United States, fracturing the old social fabric….In return, what do these workers produce? The second most important source of revenue in the form of remittances – 24 billion dollars last year. And the development of an internal market, because without that revenue, without those remittances, it would be impossible to maintain the Mexican countryside.”

The migration stream has virtually emptied rural towns of working age men. Stricter enforcement at the US/Mexico border has made clandestine crossing very risky and expensive. As a result, immigration has become more of a one-way trip. This has had a profound impact on the social fabric of Mexico’s rural communities. Wives are separated from their husbands, children grow up without their fathers, and parents die without saying goodbye to their sons.

Ignacio Chapela (in English): “The social structure, the social fabric is incredibly important, actually indespensible, to retain the biological fabric of the planet.”

Dr. Ignacio Chapela is a microbial ecologist and professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

Ignacio Chapela (in English): “The impact of migration and the break up of these communities and their social structures is so damaging. Not only from the social point of view – even if I was not interested in people – I would say that for the sake of the biological diversity, we’re really messing up the system of support of that diversity by breaking down that social fabric.”

Dr. Chapela is perhaps best known for an article he published with David Quist in the prestigious peer-reviewed scientific journal, Nature.

Display of native corn diversity.
Display of native corn diversity.

The two researchers found evidence in 2001 that genetically engineered traits had mixed with or “contaminated” landraces of native corn in the Sierra Juarez in Oaxaca’s northern mountains. This, despite an official moratorium on the cultivation of GE crops within Mexico.

Nature withdrew the article after detractors linked to the biotechnology industry latched onto technicalities, but the article’s central thesis – that lab-modified genes had mixed with native corn in its center of origin – has been confirmed with studies by Mexican public institutions, as well as by campesino groups that have sent samples for testing.

Genetic Drift in the Center of Origin

One such group is the Union of Organizations of the Sierra Juarez of Oaxaca – or UNOSJO.

UNOSJO member Baldemero Mendoza says that in 2005, samples were already showing evidence of transgenic traits stacked on top of each other.

Baldemero Mendoza (in Spanish): “In the Sierra Juarez, transgenic contamination from three different proteins were found; corn classified as an insecticide, insecticide-corn for animal consumption only, and transgenic corn with an herbicide resistance. And unfortunately, in Guelatao we found a sample that had all three characteristics. This leaves us with the understanding that transgenic contamination has been happening for many years and not since public institutions confirmed the contamination in the Sierra Juarez.”

Farmers have, for millenia, cross-bred maize varieties in order to enhance desired traits. Genetic engineering, however, can only happen in a laboratory. The process of using a gene gun to shoot a sequence of code into the DNA of a host organism can result in the combination of genetic information from entirely different biological kingdoms. For example, Bt corn contains genetic information from a bacterium – a mix that would not be possible in nature.

This perceived tampering with the natural order has raised stiff opposition from some members of Oaxaca’s religious community. Mercedes Garcia Lara is a catholic nun who often travels in rural areas and has collected corn samples for genetic testing.

Mercedes Garcia Lara (in Spanish): “We took samples in three regions: in the Central Valleys, in the Sierra Sur, and in the Mixteca…and in the three regions, the maize came out contaminated with different genes. The most worrisome was the Starlink, which we know is not for human consumption, whose presence was unknown, and we don’t know who is eating it.”

Close up of Oaxacan native corn.
Close up of Oaxacan native corn.

Genetics and Intellectual Property

Bt corn is one of two types of GE corn on the market. It expresses an insecticide trait found in a soil-dwelling bacteria. Some types of Bt corn are for animal consumption only. The other form of GE corn is engineered to have a resistance to herbicides like Roundup. Roundup is a weed killer manufactured by Monsanto – which is also the world’s leading producer of genetically modified seeds.

The other companies that hold patent rights to most of the world’s biotech seeds are: Dow, Dupont, Novartis, and Bayer. This concentration of seed ownership has been one of several issues fueling the worldwide controversy over GE agriculture.

Areli Carreon is with Greenpeace-Mexico:

Areli Carreon (in English): “This constant invasion of a technology that is patented, that is owned by a company, is a growing process of privatization of seeds and also of control of the production of food. And the one that controls food, controls politics and controls liberities. And this is the freedom to plant, the freedom to harvest, the freedom of the ownership of their own seeds.”

Farmers have always saved seeds from their harvest to plant the following season, but farmers who want to use biotech seeds, must pay a licensing fee to plant them. If patented genes appear in a crop without a license, even if by consequence of cross-pollination, the patent holder can sue the owner of the field. Campaigners warn these intellectual property lawsuits could start to pop up in Mexico if the government loosens restrictions on GMO cultivation.

Jean-Philippe Vielle Calzada (in English): “The best way of avoiding having private corporations monopolizing intellectual property of the genes is to make the information public.”

Jean-Philippe Vielle Calzada is a Developmental Geneticist at Mexico’s National Laboratory of Genomics for Biodiversity. The publicly-funded laboratory successfully concluded a project to sequence the genome of Mexican popcorn and plans to do the same for other key domestic crops.

Jean-Philippe Vielle Calzada (in English): “The idea is to basically protect nationally the rights of genes that will be important for Mexican maize and make the whole information public later which allows other nations to use the information freely and use it agronomical improvement purposes.”

Biotechnology has been used for pharmaceutical purposes without much controversy. For example, the production of insulin for diabetis patients is faster and cheaper thanks to biotechnology.

But its application for agricultural purposes has provoked an intense international debate. Opponents say genetically engineered crops were not sufficiently tested to prove they pose no threat to human health, but were approved by officials at the US Food and Drug Administration amidst allegations of influence peddling. The European Union, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and China have approached the technology with more caution. But the US position – that GE crops pose no significant threat – has been influential in the crafting of legislation in developing countries with close trading relationships with the US.

Dr. Vielle Calzada describes the criteria Mexico’s National Genomic Laboratory uses when deciding between the two strategies of traditional breeding and genetic engineering:

Jean-Philippe Vielle Calzada (in English): “The first criteria has now become public opinion. When it comes to modifying crops like maize for human consumption, one has become quite cautious. There is also worry in the public opinion and in the political sector that genetic engineering of maize might affect the native maize varieties that are in Mexico by changing their genetic constitution through natural crossing in the fields.

The rest of the criteria have to do with the ease that a crop – in this case maize – has to be transformed. Not all varieties are easy to be transformed and therefore, one has to consider in which genetic background the gene has to be inserted.

And thirdly, it has to do also with how important it is to develop a technology in a short time frame or if one can wait and have many years being invested on a more complex combination of traits.

Mexico issued a moratorium on the cultivation of GE crops in 1998, but partially lifted the ban in 2005 with the approval of the national Biosecurity Law, which permits limited commercialization of transgenics within national territory. A group of large producers in Northern Mexico who want to plant GE crops have organized to pressure the government to loosen biosecurity restrictions. They say farmers hit hard by the crisis in the Mexican countryside should have the option of turning to biotech crops without having to navigate the burocracy to get a planting permit. These producers are optimistic that GE seeds can help to improve crop yields and make their operations more competive.

Defense of Native Corn in the Countryside

(sound of walking through a corn field)

Back in the cornfields of Oaxaca, resistance to transgenic crops remains strong. Aldo Gonzalez is with the Union of Organizations of the Sierra Juarez of Oaxaca:

Aldo Gonzalez (in Spanish): “We didn’t know what transgenics were. We had to investigate what transgenics were. And well, we realized that transgenics are not only seeds that have been genetically modified, but that they also had different types of implications. Those that have been mentioned are primarily the biological, economic, and political implications. But there are also cultural implications.”

Handmade tortillas are larger and thicker than machine made counterparts.
Handmade tortillas are larger and thicker than machine made counterparts.

One tradition that has been gradually disappearing throughout Mexico is the practice of making handmade tortillas. The tortilla is the most common form that corn takes in Mexico. Two domestic agribusiness giants – Maseca and Minsa – dominate the supply of corn flour to the country’s tortillerias. Machine made tortillas are many times cheaper than their handmade counterparts. Most of the women who go door-to-door in Oaxaca City with their baskets of tortillas are over the age of fourty and are becoming a less common sight.

This resident of the Sierra Juarez mountains says the vanishing custom isn’t just limited to the cities:

Serrana forum participant (in Spanish): “When the young women find out there are some tortilla machines nearby, they opt to no longer prepare their corn for grinding, make the nixtamal mix, make the tortillas by hand, and save themselves that work. But the young people don’t realize that that’s where we end up eliminating a part of our culture – a custom.”

The taste and texture of handmade tortillas is significantly different from that of the ones made by machine and the demand is still high enough to fill the local markets with women selling their hand-crafted tortillas, blandas, and tlayudas.

(the call of vendors selling tlayudas and blandas)

One of the best places for handmade tortillas in Oaxaca City is “Itanoni” – a restuarant featuring dishes made from an impressive selection of native corn. The restaurant’s owner, Amado Ramirez says eating here helps to connect urban consumers to the countryside and to the legacy of maize.

Amado Ramírez (in Spanish): “Urban consumers, really don’t know about the meaning of maize – even Mexicans… And, well, we’re talking about something profound when we talk about maize. For many Mexicans, all corn is equal. As if the only differences are in color. Other very obvious things go unrecognized. For example, every maize has a flavor, a texture, a smell, a personality completely different from the other, depending on the agro-ecological zone in which it was developed and the group of people with which it was raised. From this wide diversity of maizes, we have selected a few – like we select our friends. We have corn from sea level up to the mountains and from this great diversity we have chosen some of the best which are best adapted, according to our tastes, to each one of our appetizers.”

Microbial ecologist Ignacio Chapela says this biodiversity is the result of ancient networks that continue to link humans and maize, with farmers selecting specific plant characteristics for different human needs.

Ignacio Chapela (in English): “The crops that we have are there, the diversity that we have is there because it’s followed a very specific evolutionary pathway that we would never be able to repeat. So, in that sense, the loss is so much bigger because it’s something that is not – like people think – a renewable resource. Plants, genetic diversity is not renewable in that sense. We cannot retrace our steps and think, ‘Oh, well we have storage of seeds somewhere and we’ll be able to pull them out if we’re in trouble’. We won’t. We need to keep that network alive.”

Despite the economic pressure to abandon traditional farming and migrate, many Oaxacan campesinos continue to cultivate their relationship with maize. To a certain extent, the perceived threat to the maize landraces by transgenic corn has sparked a renewed appreciation for the native varieties in southern Mexico.

Corn offering at an event in Oaxaca.
Corn offering at an event in Oaxaca.

Zeferino Clemente Garcia helped to organize a recent festival for native corn in the Zapotec town of Teotitlan del Valle – about 30 minutes outside of Oaxaca City:

Zeferino Clemente Garcia (in Spanish): “It’s well documented that the first findings of the most ancient pollen were found here; in the Rio Salado cave and in the White Cave. This makes it all the more significant that campesinos can no longer produce large quantities of corn due to lack of government subsidies. But at least we can be self-sufficient and not have to buy genetically modified corn from the United States.”

NAFTA’s policies pitt two systems against each other: US subsidized agribusiness and the small-scale, mostly manual farming of the Mexican campesinos. While the Midwest can claim the largest corn production in the world, Dr. Ignacio Chapela is placing his bets for the future of agriculture on small farmers in his native Mexico:

Ignacio Chapela (in English): “If we, as humanity, stand a chance to deal with ourselves and with that thing that we call Biology or Nature, it is not by looking up to what’s happening happening in the American Midwest. It is by looking to what’s happening here in those very, very marginalized examples of relationships. I think it is from those examples that we – hopefully at some point – will have to draw to survive… in places like the Midwest, in the U.S., when the soil and the water and the human fabric there too has been exhausted, we’ll have to come to places like this and learn from here to try to remind ourselves how it was when it worked to put it back together.”

The amount of resources and influence that policy makers within the US government have dedicated to biotechnology could give the impression that the future of global food security is a race… but there’s an old saying in some of the communities here, which perhaps can explain why local campesinos here aren’t rushing to jump on the biotechnology bandwagon…”We’re not in a hurry because we have a long way to go”.

(This radio documentary originally aired on the January 1, 2008 broadcast of FSRN.)