Mexico farmers seek funds to deal with GM corn (11/3/2004)

Mexico farmers seek funds to deal with GM corn
Reuters, 03.10.04, 8:31 PM ET
By Pav Jordan

OAXACA, Mexico (Reuters) - Mexican farmers, anxious to protect corn their ancestors developed over 7,000 years from pollution by transgenic strains, said on Wednesday they need money if they are to preserve the world's largest maize gene pool.

Farmers and scientists in the city of Oaxaca, in the central Mexican state of the same name, want the government to fund local laboratories to develop genetically modified corn technology suited to Mexican needs.

Gathered to discuss the impact of genetically modified (GM) corn in Mexico, scientists also want government monitoring of transgenic maize entering the country and for farmers to be trained to recognize it and alert officials to its presence.

Those are likely to be among recommendations academics make to the Mexican government in a draft report to be released on Thursday by Canadian, Mexican and U.S. scientists from an environmental commission set up alongside the shared North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

GM corn was unexpectedly discovered growing in 2001 deep in the mountains of Oaxaca, where local farmers say they bought it from government food stores and planted it among local varieties that are well adapted to local conditions.

The discovery was particularly shocking given a 1998 moratorium on growing GM corn in Mexico.

"It was I who planted it," said Olga Maldonado, from the tiny village of Capulalpan where the transgenic maize first caught the attention of scientists. "It appears I made a little mistake."


The discovery raised alarms around the world because Mexico is the birthplace of corn and home to the world's richest corn gene pool.  "We need to conserve and rescue this great and rich biodiversity," Flavio Aragon Cuevas, in charge of genetic improvement at a government corn seed bank on the outskirts of Oaxaca City, said on Wednesday.

Aragon said the seed bank, where samples of local seed strains are stored to protect them from natural disasters like hurricanes and droughts, is severely underfunded.

Last year the seed bank received only 172,000 pesos ($16,000) to operate, well below the 500,000 pesos it needs for minimum costs like seed generation and maintenance of refrigeration facilities.

Preserving Mexico's seed banks is expected to be one of the key recommendations presented this week by scientists from the tri-nation Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC).

"The 81 ethnic groups of Mexico are the true stewards of most of the 41 maize landraces," an abstract of the draft report to be presented says in its first chapter.

"It is widely accepted within the Mexican scientific community that in situ conservation of maize will stay viable as long as ethnic cultures remain stable," it continued.

Jose Sarukhan, chairman of the CEC advisory group, told Reuters, as he stood in a Oaxaca cornfield on Wednesday, that he would also push for funding to develop local GM corn.

Mexico imports up to 6 million tonnes of corn a year to supplement local production of 18 million tonnes.

Transgenic corn imports, about a third of the total, are not meant for planting as they are not suited to the local environment, but strains could be developed to suit local needs.

"Strains could be generated that are resistant to high metals contents in the soil," for example, said Sarukhan.

He said he would push in talks on Thursday for GM labs to be set up in Mexico with public funding.

Copyright 2004, Reuters News Service


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