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World Focus: Genetic Material Fallout from Mexico to Zambia|
Posted on Sunday, October 27 @ 12:10:10 UTC
Topic: GM Food
Group, www.etcgroup.org, Oct. 26, 2002|
The Year of Playing Dangerously The Great Containment:
Genentic Material Fallout from Mexico to Zambia
Thirteen months ago, the agbiotech industry wakened
to a nightmare. Illegal and unwelcome, the presence of genetically-modified
(GM) maize was reported smack in the crop's center of genetic
origin in Mexico. There's never a good time for a political/ecological
calamity, but the beleaguered Gene Giants were already struggling
to persuade consumers, following the Taco Debacle (Starlink),
that companies could control their inventions and their inventory.
The seed companies were also hoping to arm-twist EU ministers
into lifting the ban on GM products in Europe. Suddenly, the
headlines were full of the contamination scandal.
To make matters
worse, the year ahead was shaping up to be the Year of the Summits--a
succession of diplomatic poverty, hunger, and pollution "retros"
including the Monterrey Summit on development financing in March;
the 10th anniversary of the Biodiversity Convention in April;
another World Food Summit (once more with feeling) in June--
all boiling up t! o the "mother of all summits" (World
Summit on Sustainable Development) in South Africa in September.
For the corporations (and the United States so aggressively supporting
them) the issue was: how to run the gauntlet of intergovernmental
marathons with GM contamination on their backs? Thirteen months
later, the issue for governments, international agencies, and
civil society is: how did the Gene Giants duck and dodge their
way through all these fora and end the year with Southern African
governments--half a world away from the "scene of the crime"--being
blamed and vilified for rejecting GM seeds?
One year after the Mexican Government announced
that maize in two states was contaminated with GM varieties,
neither Mexico nor the international genetic resources community
have taken constructive, coherent steps to arrest, fully assess,
or ameliorate the contamination. Mexico is the center of origin
and diversity for maize--one of the world's most vital food crops.
As local farmers, joined by more than 150 social movements and
civil society organizations worldwide, raged, the first reaction
from pro-GM scientists (public and private) was denial. It couldn't
be true. The reports were wrong. Mexico (at least, initially)
and the two U.S.-based researchers who provided corroborative
evidence, held their ground. When the whistle-blowers revealed
that their study was being peer-reviewed by Nature, industry's
nightmare became a hologram.
Quickly, biotech's spin doctors took control,
launching a vindictive e-mail and media campaign to discredit
the scientific competence and political intent of the scientists.
(One Mexican and one American--both located at the University
of California at Berkeley.) Rather than deny contamination (the
likelihood of which was scientifically undeniable), the industry
strategy was to divert attention by orchestrating a row over
research methodology (the vagaries of which are always academically
irresistible). This strategy became doubly-important when Nature's
article confirming contamination was published in November, 2001. A good scientific squabble, industry reasoned, could obscure
any truth and immobilize the germplasm community for months.
Caught like a deer in the headlights of the
battle, was the Mexican-headquartered International Maize and
Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT)--flagship of the Consultative
Group on International Agricultural Research and the developing
world's leading institute for maize breeding and conservation.
Mandated to help eradicate poverty and conserve maize diversity,
CIMMYT soon took to the woods. Despite repeated requests from
civil society for CIMMYT to weigh in on the reality of contamination
and cut through the absurdity of the methodology obfuscation,
the Institute limited itself to pious pronouncements about the
need for scientific clarity and promises to help in any way short
of action. CIMMYT went on to produce a succession of studies
confirming that, whatever else may or may not be happening in
the world, its own gene bank was not contaminated. The centre
holds the world's largest unique maize germplasm collection.
Always dependent on U.S. funding and increasingly dependent
for its technologies on the biotech corporations, CIMMYT refused
to publicly acknowledge what every maize researcher in the world
knew -- that GM contamination of the Mexican maize crop was a
reality. During the 10th anniversary of the Biodiversity Convention
in April, however, the international institution did concede
that the Mexican situation was grave enough for CIMMYT to adopt
a moratorium on maize seed collection for conservation purposes.
There was a risk that GM-contaminated seeds would find their
way into the CIMMYT gene bank if collections continued. Still,
CIMMYT refused to publicly-back the Mexican government's ongoing
moratorium on the introduction of GM crops. A moratorium for
conservation in its own genebank, but not a moratorium for commercialization
or contamination. Realizing that the Precautionary Principal
was being ignored and that food sovereignty was being trampled,
Mexican farmers' organizations and CSOs were furious.
Industry's diversionary tactic was successful.
Ultimately, Nature withdrew its support for the peer-reviewed
study and the initial investigations both in Mexico and at Berkeley
were widely distrusted. This accomplished, however, there was
the danger that, in mid year, attention would again focus on
the obvious reality that -- regardless of methodology -- farmers'
fields were filling up with transgenes in at least two Mexican
states. The logical solution was to call for more studies. Mexico
announced that two leading national institutes would put the
methodology debate to rest with two independent studies. What's
more, as an act of national pride -- and to vindicate the Berkeley
scientists -- Mexico would have the two studies peer-reviewed
in Nature. The months ticked by. Called to act, FAO and CGIAR
said they were awaiting Mexico's report. Meanwhile, the World
Food Summit came and went in Rome and the GM contamination debate
was not on the agenda. The World! Summit on Sustainable Development
came and went in Johannesburg and the unsustainability of agricultural
biodiversity in the midst of GM contamination was not on that
agenda either. Farmers in Mexico continued to wait.
Only in late October, while answering
questions from reporters, did a senior Mexican official admit
that the two institutions had had their findings rejected by
Nature. According to the press, one of Nature's reviewers explained
that the reality of contamination was too obvious to bother publishing.
A second reviewer insisted that the studies had been flawed.
Something for everyone! Thirteen months later and both the earth
and the debate had gone full circle.
With scientists and the scientific media already
in chaos, drought and famine in sub-Saharan Africa afforded the
biotech industry another opportunity to turn contamination into
a virtue. Almost from the beginning, of course, some biotech
enthusiasts had insisted that "if" contamination were
proven to have occurred in Mexico, then the seed industry was
not only providing a free gift of valuable patented traits but
it was also contributing to genetic diversity. When several African
countries expressed alarm that food aid containing genetically
modified traits could have health, environmental, and trade risks
for their people, American officials jumped in with moral outrage
claiming that "beggars can't be choosers" and accusing
African governments of willfully starving their citizens. Even
though other nations offered GM-free food, the United States
and the biotech industry pressured FAO, the World Food Program,
and the World Health Organization to urge the! governments to
accept GM aid. Instead of focusing on the environmental and food
security threat posed by contamination, the Johannesburg Summit
became entangled in a debate over "despotic" African
rulers and the overriding urgency of getting food to the hungry.
There was no space for the discussion of alternative food supplies
or of the human right to safe and culturally appropriate food.
Thirteen months after the revelation of GM contamination
in Mexico, nothing has been done to change or even monitor the
flow of contaminants through commercial food shipments into Mexico.
The Mexican government has failed to make its own findings available
to its own people with the exception of INE/CONABIO's reports.
We know nothing more about the extent of GM contamination in
other Mexican states. No new regulations have been put in place.
Neither Mexico, CGIAR, nor FAO have undertaken any new studies
on the impact of GM contamination in a center of crop diversity.
No studies have been undertaken on the legal implications of
the diffusion of patented traits in farmers' fields. We have
no additional information on strategies to prevent contamination
from entering gene banks. No wider studies have taken place anywhere
in the world regarding the possibilities of contamination in
other centers of diversity for other crops.
Ironically, the biotech industry is pushing
for an end to the GM moratorium in Mexico, at the very time it
is imposing new regulations to contain gene flow north of the
border. In a desperate attempt to pre-empt public concerns over
leaky genes, the biotech industry announced this week that it
would adopt a voluntary moratorium on the planting of "Generation3"
pharma crops--crops genetically modified to produce drugs or
chemicals or plastics--in major food-producing regions of the
United States and Canada. Industry's move to impose voluntary
restrictions on the location of pharma crops demonstrates that
GM pollution poses a serious risk. For the Gene Giants, the primary
concern is not biosafety, but the need to avert a public relations
disaster. One industry representative told the Washington Post,
"I think we can all agree that industry cannot afford StarLink
II." But industry concerns apparently do not extend to Africa
and Latin America.
Farmers and biodiversity continue to
be threatened. The Gene Giants have successfully "contained"
the GM debate. If only the biotech industry were as successful
containing its genes!
|Average Score: 5|