With 6,000 years of cultivation history, Mexico and its people gave corn to the world. But an illegal immigrant from El Norte now threatens the future of native varieties.
Mexico's Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources announced in September that as much as 10 percent of corn seed tested in 22 communities in the state of Oaxaca have been contaminated with genetically engineered DNA of Bt corn. Regulators haven't determined the full extent of the contamination, and efforts to quantify the problem are hindered because they don't know exactly how it happened. Two years ago, Mexico forbade cultivation of biotech corn, which has been grown in the United States since 1996.
"These are the extremes, the places where you would really not expect to find contamination," said Ignacio Chapela, a microbial ecologist at the University of California, Berkeley, who believes researchers have only scratched the surface of the problem. "The only reason they found it there is because that's the only place they've looked."
The findings are worrisome. From Oaxaca to Chihuahua, there is amazing diversity of maize plants, as well a wild relative called teosinte. Both are likely threatened as the biotech corn is engineered with an advantageous trait that allows the plant to produce its own pesticide.
Jack Harlan, a pioneering American botanist and plant breeder, has stated that "genetic diversity stands between us and catastrophic starvation on a scale we cannot imagine."
Greenpeace has called on Mexico to adopt emergency measures to combat this contamination. In addition, Greenpeace has called on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to stop reregistration of genetically engineered Bt corn. This type of engineered corn is responsible for the contamination in Mexico and was up for reregistration on Oct. 15.
Rice Fields Grow Human Genes
In the Sacramento Valley, not far from thousands of acres of farmland under organic cultivation, pharmaceutical researchers have planted a trial crop of GM rice engineered with human genes.
Applied Phytologics Inc., a research and development firm with ties to the University of California at Davis, said it has taken the necessary precautions to ensure that the test plots of rice don't affect surrounding fields. But environmental and organic advocates fear the worst.
Because the crops are being grown as potential drugs and are not meant for human consumption, Frank Hagie, executive officer for the company, said it has met federal regulations. The planted crops are at least 400 feet from other commercial fields, and a border crop of nongenetically engineered rice four feet wide surrounds it as well.
While rice plants are self-pollinating and shouldn't cross-pollinate, according to the company, Greenpeace Science Adviser Doreen Stabinsky pointed out that the Central Valley is one stop on the migration trail for millions of ducks. Those ducks eat leftover rice in fields, and rice seed sowed by air will grow where the ducks drop it.
Greenpeace campaigners recently donned biohazard suits and marched with 10-foot-tall syringes near the plot in protest. "There is no excuse to allow drug-producing crops to be grown in fields where they can contaminate the environment and food chain," said Charlie Kronick with Greenpeace UK. "Past experience shows that once GM crops are widely planted there is no way of stopping them contaminating conventional crops."
Field tests run by Greenpeace determined that, among other compounds, the rice contained lactoferrin and lysozyme, proteins commonly found in mother's milk. Lactoferin is thought to boost the immune system, and Applied Phytologics plans to develop animal feed additives and pharmaceuticals based on the research.
Killer Cotton Gets Federal Approval
The Environmental Protection Agency recently gave its green light to cotton plants that are genetically engineered to produce their own pesticide.
St. Louis-based Monsanto, developers of the seed technology, heralded the decision, which extends registration and approval of Bt cotton for five more years. Environmentalists and organic growers are concerned that insects are going to become resistant to the pesticide.
"The EPA has the fox watching the chicken coop in many of the oversight policies they are establishing to regulate genetically engineered crops," said Craig Winters, executive director of the Campaign to Label Genetically Engineered Foods, citing the agency's approval of Bt Starlink corn for animal use and subsequent failure to prevent it from entering the human food supply.
Bt, Bacillus Thuringiensis, is a soil bacterium that is cultivated and often used as an insect spray in organic agriculture. Its use is favored because it dissipates within days and leaves no residue. When genetically engineered into cotton, however, the toxin is present in every cell of the plant throughout the entire lifecycle of the crop, Winters said.
In reaching its decision, the EPA said that the threat of insects developing immunity to the pesticide was minimal. The agency requires farmers to plant sections of conventional cotton along with the Bt varieties, in the belief that any insects that develop resistance to the pesticide will mate with those who haven't and keep the population susceptible. Those sections must only be 5 percent of the total amount of cotton planted.
Opponents of Bt gene manipulation felt the agency should have increased the size of conventional fields required, as well as its overall regulatory efforts. "I don't see how we are going to significantly delay resistance with these small refuges," said Jane Rissler, spokeswoman with the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXII/number 11/p. 3, 7