Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Two views of corn

In the late 1980s two prominent scientists with opposing points of view on genetically modified food crops were coincidentally doing intensive language study at Cuernavaca’s Cemanahuac Educational Community.

Memory Elvin-Lewis, M.D., of St. Louis, Missouri, was preparing for a trip to Peru to collect samples of plants with medicinal properties found in the Amazon rain forest. She was the employ of a U.S. pharmaceutical company searching for patentable new drugs. (Dr. Elvin-Lewis is the conscientious physician who when baffled by the disease which killed one of her patients in 1969, froze some of his blood and tissue. Eighteen years later she made the grim discovery that her patient had been the earliest known U.S.-born victim of AIDS.)

Cary Fowler, Ph.D., had been lobbying the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization in Rome. He argued that farmers in countries that have given the world important food crops are entitled to some type of compensation from companies that exploit the genes from those crops. He cited as examples that Peru and Bolivia had given the world potatoes, Kenya had given us coffee, and Mexico had given corn. The Mexican government supported Dr. Fowler’s position in his negotiations in Rome.

Dr. Fowler was born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee, just downriver from the home of Dr. Elvin-Lewis, but their positions were worlds apart. Emotions ran high at the school and talks were scheduled for them to present their points of view to the assembled students.

Little did those of us present at the debate realize we were witnessing the beginning of a worldwide controversy that pits the survival of small farmers against giant agro-economic interests.
Dr. Fowler went on to be a key player in establishing the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a frozen bunker north of the Arctic Circle in Norway. It contains hundreds of thousands of varieties of seeds that represent the genetic diversity now present around the world. The bunker is a sort of insurance policy against an agricultural Armageddon.

Years before the seed bank in Norway was established, Dr. Abel Muñoz Orozco at Mexico’s Chapingo University sought funding for a similar project here in the tropics. A seed bank of this kind needs to keep seeds frozen but he wondered, “In the future – in a Third World country – when the freezer breaks down will there be funding or interest in repairing it?” To guarantee that there would always be a freezer he proposed the seed bank be located in a concrete structure set in one of Iztaccihuatl’s glaciers.

I met Dr. Muñoz in the 1990s when the genetically modified seed projects were barely getting under way. He estimated that in each of Mexico’s 30,000 valleys farmers had developed corn appropriate for their particular geography. They’d developed varieties for wet areas, dry areas, different elevations, different soil types, different times of the year.

In many cases it is Mexican peasant farmers who maintain today’s corn seed banks in their storage sheds by selecting their best corn from the harvest to be planted the following year.

“Large seed companies don’t have that foresight,” Dr. Muñoz said. “Whenever their variety of corn is affected by blight they send their scientists to Mexico to scour through the 30,000 valleys until they find a variety of corn that is immune to that disease and soon they’re selling a new variety of patented seed – always as part of a package accompanied by their own herbicide and insecticide. Of course, they do so without factoring in any compensation for the farmers who developed that variety.”

Earlier this month environmentalist Dr. Vandana Shiva from India spoke in Cuernavaca about the use of transgenic seeds, seeds that had their DNA altered in a laboratory. “In India within a decade transgenic seeds took control of our entire cottonseed sector. 95% of the cottonseeds in India are transgenic. Half the price of cottonseed sold in India goes to St. Louis (to Monsanto). The price has jumped 8,000% The new seeds have created new pests we’d never had. Farmers now use 13 times more pesticide.”

Currently Mexico is in the world spotlight. A Mexican judge issued a temporary restraining order last September prohibiting the planting of genetically modified seeds in Mexico. Judge Jaime Eduardo Verdugo of Mexico City cited the risk of imminent harm to the environment as the basis for his decision. This month a higher court judge, Jaime Manuel Marroquín, upheld Judge Verdugo’s decision.

The executive branch of the federal government is now appealing the judges’ decisions. Is it NAFTA that has changed the government’s stance since the 1980s? Meanwhile countries around the world are citing Judge Verdugo’s decision as they refuse to allow the import of genetically engineered corn from the U.S.

The debate to which I listened attentively at Cemanahuac is now on the world stage and the stakes are enormous.

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