In the July 5th issue of Nation Magazine is an article by Peter Canby entitled “Retreat to Subsistence,” which lays out in detail how NAFTA is destroying Mexico’s indigenous corn farmers, and also destroying the genetic diversity of the corn genome which these farmers are preserving. According to Canby, corn worldwide now produces more food than any other crop. About 9,000 years ago, Indians in the highlands of southern Mexico began deliberately selectively breeding a wild grass called teosinte, and over several millennia coaxed it into the plant we call corn (maize) today.
Oaxaca, Chiapas, and Guerrero are where corn was domesticated, and where its wild ancestors still survive. The Indians who accomplished this feat, mostly Zapotecs and Mixtecs, still live there and still practice the plant science of their ancestors. Farming tiny family plots by hand, their standard of living has never been high, but until NAFTA, the Mexican government subsidized them.
But in the 1990s, the Government of Carlos Salinas De Gortari decided to slash the safety net and throw Mexico open to free trade. The thinking was partly economic and partly anti-indigenous politics. They asked, “Why should the rest of Mexican society support Indians in a life of primitive agriculture that will never really free them from poverty?” So they deliberately pulled the rug out from under these people, first by ending all subsidies, and then allowing imported corn from the U.S. , under NAFTA, to undermine the price of local corn. The idea was to force peasants off their tiny plots of land and into the cities where they would all be employed in the bonanza of industrial jobs which NAFTA would provide. But it didn’t work.
A few maquiladora plants were built by corporations who then abandoned them for China. Even if these jobs had stayed in Mexico, it is unlikely that the jobs created could have fed the 15 million people forced off the land, and the Mexican government surely knew this. What happened is that 500,000 Mexicans per year illegally entered the U.S., and that may have been part of the plan. David Barkin, author of Sin Mais, no Hay Pais, an essay critical of NAFTA, at that time spoke to a political scientist specializing in Mexico, and was told, “They have no clear idea where all these people will go. My guess is they’re thinking Los Angeles.” The government figured, “Who cares? Once they’re out of Mexico, they’re somebody else’s problem.”
But as peasants flowed out of Mexico, corn flowed in—including hybrid, genetically modified corn. Though intended as animal food, some of this corn was planted all over Mexico, including areas where corn originated, and where the plant’s only reservoir of genetic diversity is preserved. Major Goodman, professor of plant science at U. of North Carolina and a leading expert in corn genetics, says that there is very little genetic diversity in commercial corn. He says, “We’re basically looking at about seven in-bred lines and the derivatives of those lines.” He believes we are with corn about where the Irish were with potatoes, just before the famine.
As climate changes, changing moisture conditions will give rise to all kinds of new blights and fungus assaults, and none of our commercial varieties will have any resistance to them. We will need to crossbreed our corn with strains that confer resistance, and only one place on Earth has a storehouse of genetic diversity broad enough to be of any use. That place is the highlands of south Mexico where corn originally grew wild, and where traditional farmers still preserve 59 distinct cultivars, (landraces.)
But the Mexican government deliberately encouraged farmers to abandon traditional cultivars and plant modern hybrids. Even those who refused now have neighbors planting these imports, so the pollen mixes these genes into their corn anyway. The studies done in the United States on keeping GMO corn isolated really do not apply to the kind of corn farming done by the Zapotecs. Here, we plant hybrids, and next year, we plant more hybrids. Any mistake, even a disastrous one, only has effects which last one plant-harvest cycle. But the Indians plant open pollinated corn and save seed for next year’s planting. A Zapotec farmer is not a seed company customer; he is a highly skilled plant breeder, and an heir to a 9,000 year culture of plant breeding.
A Zapotec farmer examines his whole crop—plant by plant—ear by ear—to identify those plants with superior qualities. He not only saves seed, but exchanges it with neighboring farms. So any foreign genes which invade a single field can become permanently and irremovably intermixed with the corn genome of the entire region.
In the late 1990s, Zapotec farmers asked Ignacio Chapela and David Quist, of the University of California at Berkeley, to test their corn for GMOs. The tests were not only positive, but indicated that the inserted genes were not stable but had fragmented and were migrating to different parts of the genome than where they had originally been inserted. Chapela and Quist published a paper in Nature, and a firestorm ensued. And the fact that the department which employed them had accepted millions of dollars from Novartis did not help matters.
As more studies began to confirm Chapell and Quist’s findings, Mexican environmental groups petitioned The Commission for Environmental Cooperation to study the matter. The CEC’s report; Maize and Biodiversity: The Effects of Transgenic Maize in Mexico appeared in 2004, along with 10 beautifully written background chapters. This background material examined the social, political, and ecological value of Mexico’s indigenous cornfields, and how genetically modified genes might flow through those fields. Timothy Wise, of Tufts University says this study “….is the best study of gene flow to date.”
The report said that we really don’t know what might happen, but that it could easily be a catastrophe for the genetic diversity of the world’s corn. The commission recommended that, as a precaution, all corn entering Mexico should be ground at the border, but this has never been implemented. The Bush administration was furious with this report. Judith Ayers, a Bush appointee at the EPA appended her own negative comments to the report, and completely suppressed the background chapters. However, the article in Nation provides a URL where this information can be seen.
Since NAFTA, to the surprise of the government planners, many indigenous farmers have elected to withdraw from the economy, stop buying fertilizer, and subsist on corn grown for their own table and bartering. But this retreat into subsistence will leave them in absolute poverty. In 2003, the World Bank said that 40% of Mexicans live in poverty, but that in Oaxaca, Chiapas, and Guerrero, 70% live in extreme poverty. Now, with the U.S. economy in deep recession, some displaced farmers who came illegally to the U.S. are returning home. Yet with no subsidy and the price of corn still depressed by cheap imports, subsistence is the only kind of farming they can go back to. Life was never easy for these people. But NAFTA has managed to make it worse.