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Mexico Takes Step to Allow Planting of GM Corn

As California voters were considering whether to require food with genetically modified ingredients to be labeled as such, the ongoing debate in Mexico over genetically modified organisms was again heating up. Much of the debate over GM food in the U.S. centers on its potential effects on human health. But in Mexico, it’s about biodiversity -- particularly of corn, the base of the Mexican diet.

Around 70 varieties of corn are native to Mexico. Those opposed to the planting and importation of GM corn are concerned it could contaminate native corn, leading to a loss of biodiversity.

Mexico outlawed the planting of GM crops in 1998, but then loosened the ban under outgoing president Felipe Calderón. In recent years, international companies like Monsanto and Syngenta have received permits to plant experimental pilot plots of GM corn in Mexico.

Mexico’s Law of GMO Biosecurity, which took effect in March 2005, requires the government to publish maps delineating areas of origin and genetic diversity of corn in order to protect them from GMO contamination. The first maps were published on November 2, covering eight of Mexico’s northern states, most of them along the border with the U.S.

The publication establishes the official areas where genetically modified corn can be planted — outside of the designated areas of origin and genetic diversity. Agricultural companies promoting GM corn hope to get started planting commercial crops as soon as possible, according to some Mexican news outlets. However, the Mexican government will still have to grant the permits to do so.

In the meantime, small farmers, environmental activists and some scientists warn that allowing the large-scale planting of GM corn would be disastrous for Mexico’s farmers and for the country’s genetic diversity. On the flip side, promoters of GM crops say they would give a major boost to the country’s productivity, and require less chemical and human inputs.

Still, the threat to biodiversity seems real. In 2000, two Berkeley scientists found GM genes in native Mexican corn crops growing in a remote area of Oaxaca.

Look for the GM debate to heat up in Mexico as agricultural companies start applying for permits to grow corn in the northern states.

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