Soledad Barruti investigates what can be learnt from Mexico in its struggle against genetically-modified corn, and tells of the daily violence experienced by those on the frontline. This article was originally published in Revista MU. Translation by Elke Wakefield.
In Latin America, the cultivation of genetically modified corn increases without limits. Its frontiers now advance over forests, mountains, communities and other food, making the idea of its containment almost inconceivable. However, in Mexico, an ambitious battle is underway to change this – to stop the introduction of new genetically modified crops and eradicate those already planted.
The Corn Defence Alliance is a group of 53 persons and 20 NGOs. In 2013, they filed a lawsuit against Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow Chemical, Pioneer, Du Pont and the Mexican Government, demanding they comply with the precautionary principle. That is: before planting, the producers of genetically modified crops demonstrate they will not affect traditional crops, or the dynamics of traditional farming practices and diet. Moreover, the Alliance demands there is consultation of those affected – campesinos, indigenous communities, small and medium-sized producers – to determine whether they understand what is being proposed, and whether they agree. The surprising thing is that, until now, it has worked quite well: court after court has upheld their position, and the planting of genetically modified crops has been more or less suspended. It’s a triumph underpinned by a thousand year old conviction you’ll find echoed all over Mexico: the loss of corn means the loss of the world, and not just the world: the whole universe.
“It’s impossible to talk about corn as if it were split off from reality,” says Adelita San Vicente. “We’re living in a time in which many people don’t value anything – not even life itself or that which sustains life, like food. Nothing. We must defend ourselves from that.”
Adelata: sharp-eyed woman with heavy, black hair and a big grin; country teacher with flashes of the agronomist; custodian of seeds and mother of the alliance that will not rest. Before discussing corn, she talks with pain about the tortured and murdered bodies as though they were a daily thing: there’s the photojournalist, Ruben Espinoza, murdered by hitmen along with his three friends in the middle of Mexico City; and the 43 students devoured by the monster in Ayotzinapa. She talks about poverty, wealth, mega-mining, and the impunity with which evil is descending on Mexico. “The only hope is in the people,” she says. She has seen it before: the power of people who just can’t take anymore. “There are so many people protesting on the streets. And that’s because we’re fighting for is who we are – not who they want us to be.”
Mexico aches: for its dead and disappeared; for its shattered mountains; for its wetlands plugged by shopping malls; for the earth that no longer provides food and the people forced from the country into the city. What’s happening here is the same thing that’s happened everywhere else: paradise is being carved up and auctioned off for peanuts. However, it’s not quite the same: Mexico refuses to become a metaphor. Every corner is a faithful representation of the tragedy sweeping mankind. Here, there’s no battle that’s not a battle of life against death and death against life in a way that is both incredibly intense and hopeful.
Well, as they say here, we’re the navel of the world.
This is the birthplace of the over 300 indigenous nations – with descendants of over 15 million today – who have decided to take a stand. Which is really as it should be, given they were the ones who discovered the perfect way to read the sky and understand the earth, who developed hundreds of languages to narrate her, as well as ingenious cultivation systems, modern even by today’s standards. Combining calendars, planets and gods that still work, they domesticated one hundred plants that today are the sustenance and culinary glory of a large part of the planet.
Perhaps that’s why.
In this alchemical process of earth, seed and food, a plant was born, which, according to legend, created men and women, and not the other way round. A sacred food that, when it was to be conquered, conquered the world instead. And which today, when everything seems broken, has managed to go head-to-head with its damned nemesis: a fire-yellow corn, genetically modified and always the same – just like the morass of a system that wants to create a single monoculture.
“That’s what we’re fighting against, with corn on our banner,” says Jesusa Rodriguez. She – famous dramaturge, singer, feminist, vegan, social activist, interpreter of a symbolic world she expresses with fury and increasing directness with every day that passes in Mexico – joined the cause without a moment’s doubt. From her trench she speaks about the end: “The end of human relations, of understanding, of empathy. That’s what’s at stake. The world that we want: just look.”
To understand, all you need to do is look:
The hall has the look and feel of a small theatre: an oval stage with a television on the left and a desk on the right. At the desk sits a small, dark man, with sweaty hands and a grey tie, absorbed in the task of sorting through, one by one, a mound of papers: this is the court register. In front of him are thirty chairs, mostly empty, apart from the ones occupied by those awaiting their papers so they can leave. On the right, four men, all black suits and white shirts in coolly expensive fabrics; shadows who steal repeated glances at their mobile phones: these are the lawyers for the defendant companies. On the left, two vacant seats down, are seven women in green, fuchsia and yellow huipiles embroidered with flowers, geometric figures, little people and animals. They are Adelita and Jesusa, together with the other plaintiffs from the Corn Alliance. Alongside them is René Sánchez, their dark-jacketed lawyer. And behind them, two men in flamboyant ties are sneaking a siesta behind their own hands: they are the government’s lawyers, one from the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (Semarnat) and the other from the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Rural Development (Sagarpa); in other words, the respondent party and ostensible guarantors of a fair trial.
Shortly before, the registrar had tried to facilitate an agreement between the parties. After all, that’s what mediations are for and they reason why everyone is here today: to see if this can be sorted out face-to-face. The registrar sketched out the case, casting doubt on the testing method the plaintiffs had used, before giving the floor to René Sánchez, lawyer for corn, to defend his position.
“We want there to be consultations with our specialists and all those potentially affected.”
The lawyers from the companies start whispering. They say: “There should be agreement today. This should be settled here and now.”
“How can this be settled when the people affected aren’t even here? When it’s not even clear to us what kind of business you want to set up? When you won’t even explain to us what you’re proposing?” says Sánchez, all at once.
The defendant lawyers: “We just want what the law allows us.”
Sánchez retorts: “The law doesn’t allow everything.”
And so on and so forth. Until the lawyer for Syngenta says: “There’s not going to be any settlement.” And so the registrar asks: “What is the opinion of Sagarpa and Semarnat?”
“The same – no settlement,” responds official council, before relaxing into a break.
The maddening world of today, as Víctor Toledo would say.
The crisis in civilisation on full display: private confronting public, demanding everything for itself, and the community resisting, “fermenting a profound and radical transformation that will enable us to live, coexist and produce.”
The mediation ends with a handshake. The four lawyers leave. The women and René Sánchez can hardly contain their smiles: every time they don’t lose or backdown is one day more.
This is how it went until March, when they achieved the famous definitive suspension of commercial planting.
Just what do you think you’re eating?
This conflict has a long history. You could trace its roots back 500 years. Or 80. But we’ll start in 1996, when Monsanto first arrived in Mexico with its transgenics. The first crops were soybeans and canola genetically modified to be resistant to the weed-killer glyphosate. The permit authorised by the local government – based in studies conducted by the company with approvals granted in the United states – included, from the outset, consumption by humans and animals.
But when they tried to do the same thing with corn, which comprises 40% of all calories and proteins consumed on a daily-basis in Mexico, it wasn’t quite as straightforward. For the multinationals, it was just business, but for Mexicans, this was a sacrilege.
And now it’s important to make a distinction. What are we talking about when we talk about corn?
Genetically modified corn technology – RR (glyphosate resistant) or BT (which produces a protein toxic to moths and butterflies), or a combination of both – is applied to the variety that feeds, not people directly, but the food industry. With its high sugar content, it is the corn that factory-farm animals guzzle so they fatten faster, and it is also appears as various molecular reorganizations in ultra-processed food. High-fructose corn syrup, present in 80% of all boxed goods; monosodium glutamate (MSG); various vitamins with which industrial foods are fortified; caramel colouring; and, of course, the frying-oil used as an alternative to soybean-oil, which ends up filling-out products like chicken nuggets: all this is that corn. Which, by the way, isn’t produced in Mexico but is rather imported, with all that overwhelming food ideology of Coca Colas, Big Macs and industrial tortillas, from the United States.
The corn eaten by humans, which makes up the fiesta of flavours that are artisanal tortillas, tacos, tamales, tlacoyos, is – are – 61 kinds of local corn that give rise to millions of distinct varieties. The majority are native, though there are some hybrids, in particular, the white corn. But genetically modified? Never.
In the production of this corn, the delicious corn of human consumption, Mexico not only feeds itself but the world: there are 22 million hectares of corn; Mexicans consume ten and the rest is exported. This is not to say that Mexicans don’t, like the rest of us ignorant and oblivious consumers, eat genetically modified corn; but rather, that when they eat properly, when they eat their way, they hardly do. Their recipes, homemade, authentic, exquisite, Mexican, cooked by human hands, are made from corn that is pure corn, free from artificially implanted genes.
Centre of Origin
There was no corn six thousand years ago. Not in Mexico or any place on earth. What there was, in what is today Puebla, was a grass called teocintle: a plant similar to grass, with long, skinny blades and a crested tip. The rest is a mystery: there are archaeological remains and laboratory tests but nothing helps us understand how teocintle made the quantum leap to what is choclo, elote, or corn. The lines of investigations point to crossbreeding by various human groups of a plant that, for some reason, began to evolve into corn.
Doubts, and above all, stories. According to legend it was the gods who gave us the seed from which men and women was born. Men and woman whose body and soul was made, not from earth or borrowed ribs, but pure corn.
Biologically speaking, corn is a singularly rare phenomenon that would seem to confirm the myths and legends: if farmers did not free the seed imprisoned in the cob, the plant would be condemned to extinction. Another way of understanding this interspecies relationship is through the fertilization process: the masculine organs that contain corn pollen are in the top part of the corn, ‘outside’ the corn, you could say; they face the arduous task of travelling to the cob, traversing it, and then entering the feminine part of the plant. Interrupting this process by shaking the pollen from one plant onto another is easy, and allows the creation of an almost infinite variety of crossbreeds. A farmer can choose, at her fancy, the most beautiful and delicious, the most tenacious and the best-adapted of her corn. And not just that: when she needs to, she can reach backwards in time so as to fortify adaptiveness. One of the most interesting agricultural practices that has been developed – and which is still in use today – is that of recrossing native corn with the teocintle, thereby restoring to the plant its million-year genetic journey through droughts, floods and frosts. “The genetic memory of diversity that allowed corn to evolve over thousands of years is in the Mexican countryside,” says Antonio Turrent, a scholarly and friendly man, at once warm and combative, but always factual, always informed.
He is an agricultural engineer from that generation of Latin-Americans who flourished in the 60s and also the person who has most studied the productive potential of this ‘creole’ corn in Mexico. “The biodiversity in the Mexican countryside is greater than that found in world’s genebanks. Each year farmers produce billions of different plants from the various types of corn. The possible diversity is infinite: and every variety is an opportunity for survival in the face of climate change, instability, and other inevitable tragedies. These plants know how to overcome many of these contingencies, because the challenges they will face in the future have already befallen them in the past. They’ve seen it before, this corn and teocintle and the ancestors of teocintle from more than 20 million years ago. Darwin’s theory of the survival of the fittest is what we find embodied in our major food: that’s why it’s important it remains free from contamination”.
The biggest danger not just for Mexico, but for everyone who consumes this grain, is the contamination of this past: the disappearance of the genetic memory that holds the secret of a life carried this far, and to which the plant can resort whenever present circumstances threaten.
In order to explain all of this and more, a group was founded that has since become one of the most active in the region: The Union of Scientists Committed to Society, of which Turrent recently became chair. It forms part of the Corn Alliance and is comprised of professionals from distinct scientific disciplines united in their insistence that the countryside is not the inanimate entity depicted by biotechnologists in their laboratories.
The intimate link between indigenous peoples and the corn they grow is founded on mutual understanding and, above all, freedom. When campesinos do possess their own land, it tends to be in smaller and less arable territories. (Of the eight million hectares dedicated to corn cultivation in Mexico, three million are of excellent quality; this is where they intend on planting genetically modified corn. The remaining five million is distributed in small parcels of varying quality.) And they do not produce in line with the logic of private property. “Why? Because just as in humans, inbreeding undermines biological fitness,” says Turrent – “And, in the on average two to five hectares owned by campesinos that would be inevitable. One way campesinos protect themselves from this is by exchanging seeds. In this way, you’re not limited to one hectare but to the whole territory. Production is collective. It’s in the DNA of both plant and producer. That’s why, when a farmer leaves their territory they always take their corn with them. And when they return, it’s with corn from the place they visited: they want to the corn to cross in the same way they have criss-crossed the earth throughout their own history. This is how corn ended up all over Latin-America.”
Ode to Folly
Towards the end of the year 2000, a group of investigators from the University of Berkeley blew the whistle that native corn in Oaxaca and Puebla was contaminated with genetically modified corn. Until then, it had been assumed this transgenic corn was unplanted, awaiting the lifting of the moratorium on its cultivation. And so a case was brought forward – the first – against the Mexican government. A participatory report was initiated whose results were never shared. More reports soon followed that demonstrated that over 33% of native corn was contaminated. That was the beginning of campaigns, debates, cross-country journeys, meetings, alliances. Years passed. Until finally, one day, the Mexican interior was galvanised by a cry that could no longer be ignored: El campo no aguanta más – the countryside can’t take it anymore.
The Free Trade Agreement signed in the 90s led to an enormous influx of products from the United States. Put simply, it wasn’t in anyone’s interests to compete or produce. Rural unemployment was crushing. Food insecurity reached record levels. Mexican’s destiny had been decreed: produce car parts and maquilas; unleash the megamines, the dams and petroleum. It wasn’t written anywhere, but in the facts, a disturbing trend seemed to be emerging. The rural exodus, the production of utter junk and the changes to the food system coincided with seriously bad tidings: Urban obesity, diabetes and malnutrition shot to frightening levels; inland, the growing drug-trade spawned violence in the most coveted farmlands. Many began fleeing to the United States, which promptly shut down any possibility of an immigration agreement.
“From the very beginning, the idea behind these treaties was to empty the countryside,” says Adelita San Vicente, “so that the land would be free for outside interests to exploit the water, forests, mineral wealth and plant material.” Since then, the campesinos have agitated tirelessly. Remittances are the second biggest source of income in the country. And yet, every corner of Mexico seems replete with people in resistance.
“It was all arranged so the countryside would empty. But luckily campesinos are stubborn: they wanted to stay and that year they started protesting in the streets,” says Adelita.
Monsanto didn’t care about any of this. The Senate cared even less. And Congress cared even less than the Senate. Because in 2005, shortly after the campesino revolt, they rushed to sign a Biosecurity Law authorising the planting of experimental genetically modified corn. Without any announcement; without implementing the precautionary principle; without informed consent from the community; and, even worse: with responsibility thrown back onto the contaminated victim, against whom Monsanto could claim for intellectual property infringement.
For many, like Adelita, this law was the call to action. She couldn’t take it any more either. She started Seeds of Life, approached organisations like Greenpeace (who played a fundamental role in the defence of corn) and allied herself with the equally new Scientists Committed to Society. The proposal was to protect the places in the country that were Centres of Origin.
For this new cause, they rushed to finish a map coordinated by biologists and anthropologists. It is a beautiful map; like a many-coloured dot-painting. Every dot represents a kind of corn that does not exist anywhere else. Looking at it there can be no doubt: all of Mexico is a Centre of Origin.
However, it had been declared that the north of the country was fair-game, and, on that basis, the pre-commercial permits had been issued. Because the basic idea was the following: you do some experiments, it goes well, you do a pilot test, it goes well, you start selling.
It was this knowledge that prompted the Alliance to decide on the path of legal action. A path that – in a country where only 8% of the population trusts the justice system – was an undoubtedly risky bet. “But there was no other option”, says Adelita. “We had to stop them”.
But legislating against the Government and Corporations was difficult. The road was long and beset by pitfalls.
Moratoriums were introduced.
The president annulled them.
The moratoriums were reintroduced.
The moratoriums were again lifted.
Ever-more experimental permits were being issued. And so, genetically modified corn was advancing across the bloodiest Mexican territory; through the Sinaloa of the Zeta Cartel; through the Tamaulipas of the Golfo Cartel and the Chihuahua of the Juárez Cartel. Sowed by companies who were somehow able to travel throughout these regions in complete safety.
The Taste of Evil
It was a perverse scenario: genetically modified corn was everywhere, and it had begun to spill into the campesinos’ crops. Soon, the cornfields that grew alongside regional delicacies (squash, beans, chillies, quelites and corn) began to yield genetically modified organisms. From here, they went straight to Mexican dining-tables in the form of cornbread, stews and those 600 carefully-catalogued recipes that make this a World Heritage listed cuisine.
If there was someone missing from the struggle, it was the chefs: those teachers and guardians of a wisdom that no one was willing to forget, even if it was employed less and less in the cities.
In this context Enrique Olvera is not just any one. He’s the best in his country and he knows it. To dine in his restaurant, Pujol, is to take part in a majestic game of Chinese boxes in which everything tastes like heaven and is laden with meaning. He doesn’t just buy products to cook with; he curates each ingredient as though it were a work of art. It can sound snobby – and there’s no doubt that, given the price, it’s not available to everyone – but, if this is about changing the paradigm, then what he is doing here is a good thing.
The tortillas at Pujol are sweet, succulent, purple. The mole – a thick sauce – takes months to achieve its flavour, which is complex, indefinable. The mezcal is a kind of mission statement: this is the drink of the gods…And I could go on and on because dinner here is made up of 12 courses.
“We said goodbye to the system of huge-markets and monocultural products that don’t respect the producer, the diner or anyone else. You can see what’s happening with the food market and it’s bad. The chickens are blown up to the size of footballs; all the apples come from New Zealand; there is only one kind of tomato and it has zero taste. You don’t have any options, and even worse, this isn’t even as bad as it could get.”
He realised this getting to know Adelita San Vicente, when they collaborated together on a book called In the Cornfield. The book, which took him on a journey to the very heart of his country, serves not just as a guide to gastronomy, but, also and above all, to the social sciences: “Producing in Mexico is a way of understanding the world and civilisation. It means being together and building through collective power.”
A father of three, Olvera began going round to schools to spread the message. He also managed to draw together a group of people from within his own tribe: the collective of Mexican chefs. A group that, in 2015, published a brave letter to President Peña Nieto, in which they drew attention to the dangers of genetically modified corn BT and Rr: loss of biodiversity; uncertainty in the face of an uncertain technology; the danger of increased agrochemical use (using, as an example, the misery-plagued Argentine countryside) and loss of food sovereignty.
Among the signatories were various famous chefs who, all of a sudden, were willing to use their camera-time to discuss something that needed to be heard by the all those who got their news from the television: that genetically modified corn could see Mexico worse-off.
Why did they do it? Why would they take the risk?
“Look, I don’t think that chefs are social activists. It’s not our job to stop the planting of genetically modified corn – that’s the job of campesinos and scientists. Of course, I have a lot to say as a Mexican. I’ve said it and I’ve put my name to it. But as a cook, my responsibility is to the diner and in this respect the issue is crystal-clear: nevermind the fine print: genetically modified corn tastes like crap.
The Legal Journey
Between 2010 and 2013, the Alliance was conceived and the finishing touches were put on the corn defence: campesinos, indigenous people, beekeepers from the Yucatan (who had had their own success prohibiting the planting of genetically modified corn in the peninsula); as well as activists, artists, scientists and chefs. There was only one person missing and he appeared at exactly the right time.
René Sánchez Galindo: the lawyer. A young guy, enthusiastic and with an unwavering resolve. His first job – three years in the senate – was writing mirror legislation to the free trade treaties with the United States. It’s legislation that exists, that gives rights to indigenous and citizen groups, that nobody applies, but which he knows and cleverly employs wherever possible. The first time was in Tlaxcala: “They invited me to a conference to prepare an agricultural bill, and that’s what we did – The Law of Promotion and Protection of Maize as an Original Patrimony, in Constant Alimentary Diversification; that’s what it’s called”. That was in 2011. The law recognised campesinos and indigenous people as the owners and custodians of the germplasm that gave rise to corn and equips them with tools for its protection: seed banks; a register of producers; catalogues; records; and the total prohibition of genetically modified strains in their vicinity. “Tlaxcala means ‘place of the tortilla’. It’s where my grandparents are from. In some way, I owed it to them”. His commitment is fuelled by motivations like this: his parents, his grandparents, his child. “I want my newborn son to eat like a Mexican. No transgenics. He’s not an experiment”.
Luckily, Adelita and the rest of the Alliance knew where to find him: “They recruited me to file an amparo lawsuit, but we ended up making an unprecedented collective demand”. This is the most original part of the process, and the most risky: confronted with the 83 experimentation requests submitted by the multinationals, the Alliance lined up to defend the territories from possible harm, representing communities who weren’t going to participate in the process and who in many cases wouldn’t even find out about it.
The lawsuit had to be watertight. And it was: just 22 pages and seven local scientific studies in a single, robust demand: that the precautionary principle be fulfilled. They accuse the government and corporations of having released genetically modified corn into the environment at the detriment “of conservation, sustainable use and fair and equitable sharing in the diversity of native corn”.
After countless twists and turns, in March of this year the Alliance finally received the long-awaited news: the judge in the case ordered the definitive suspension of the sowing of genetically modified corn for commercial sale in Mexico. Meanwhile, experimental planting would be subject to monthly evaluations, in which anyone potentially affected could participate and put forward their opinion. Which is to say, everyone. Though the corporations were positive about the outcome of the trial in public (there was not a total prohibition), this was an obvious victory for the Alliance.
Why did they win?
“Our claim doesn’t say anything out too of the ordinary. It’s only a few pages long. They responded with 500 or 600, because the burden of proof is on them to prove they won’t do any harm. But they couldn’t pull it off. And you know why? Because they don’t buy it. Because there’s one simple fact that unites us all: we’re Mexican and Mexicans love tortillas”.
Including the judge.
“Everyone. Monsanto included. Just look at their lawyers: they’re Mexicans. And Mexicans eat tacos. Do you really think they’re going to risk their livelihood? Corn is Mexico. Just look how deep its roots go”.