Mexicans are fighting hard to save their traditional maize from the onslaught of GM hybrids and US exports
A treasure too good to lose
When you see the traditional maize of Mexico for the first time you are stunned. It is a cornucopia of unimagined colours and lustre: blue black, purple, translucent beige, pearly white, some deep burgundy, sun-kissed yellow or crushed mulberry, and countless other combinations. Many of the variegated corn varieties appear to have been put together with a careful eye for dramatic effect. You wonder: are these real?
Mexico is the centre of origin of maize, or corn, a place where it has been cultivated for several thousand years after it was domesticated from a grasslike tasselled plant, teosinte, in the southern part of the country. Some scientists say it has been cultivated for 7,000 years; others put it at 10,000 years. What no one doubts is its antiquity or place in Mexico’s culture and history. In times past, maize was regarded as a deity; in some cultures it was believed that gods created humans out of maize, as in the Popol Vuh, the sacred book of the ancient Mayans. Historians think that such a belief holds more than a grain of truth because it was the cultivation of maize that transformed the early Mayans from hunter-gatherers into a settled and highly advanced civilisation. And it was not just the Mayans.
Maize was cultivated by other pre- Hispanic populations: the Aztecs, the Zoques and Mixtecos among others. In more modern times, it is the campesino who has been nurturing the traditional maize for centuries. Campesino is defined as a resource-poor farmer, cultivating mostly in rainfed land by traditional methods for self-consumption or for the small market. This system of cultivation called milpa was till recently the backbone of the rural economy.
In a milpa, maize and about two dozen associated cultivars, ranging from melon, tomatoes, sweet potato to a wide variety of squash and beans are sown together. The reason is simple: some of the plants lack nutrients, while others have it in abundance, resulting in a selfsustaining symbiosis.
But in the 21st century of food shortages and technological assaults on traditional agriculture, does the milpa and Mexico’s treasure trove of maize count for anything? A lot of people think it does—or should. Scientists, anthropologists, academics, the small farmer and environmental activists believe that such biodiversity must be preserved at all costs. In all, Mexico boasts 59 maize landraces (local plant species that have developed largely by natural processes and are specific to a region) and hundreds of varieties.
Since the 1990s, the Mexicans have been engaged in a struggle to keep genetically modified (GM) maize out of the country because they fear the country’s unique and irreplaceable genetic heritage would be contaminated by the seeds that multinationals like Monsanto and DuPont’s Pioneer Hi-Bred International (PHI) wish to introduce. Their worry is the gene flow from transgenic maize. In fact, there was a ruckus when traces of transgenic maize were detected in rural areas in 2001. It was first reported by Nature in Septem ber 2001, and although the journal qui ckly withdrew the report, it was confirmed by the Mexican government in April 2002.
A staunch defender of biodiversity is Elena Lazos Chavero, a biologist and anthropologist whose research centres on rural livelihoods and the impact of biotechnology on agriculture. She is passionate about conservation of traditional maize as a common asset, and at a recent international conference in In dia, she made participants sit up with her delineation of her country’s maize saga.
You cannot talk maize with a Mexican without provoking strong emotions. Maize production accounts for over two-thirds of the gross value of agricultural production, covering half the total area under cultivation. It employs roughly three million people, or over 40 per cent of the agricultural labour force. And unlike in the US and other industrialised countries, 68 per cent of the maize is consumed directly used as food, primarily in its trademark tortilla.
Bt maize was first introduced in Mexico in 1996 but in the face of resistance from peasant organisations and environmentalists it was kept on hold, with the Mexican government declaring a moratorium that lasted 11 years till 2009. In April 2010, however, the government decided farmers should be given access to new technology and it granted 67 permits for companies to grow GM maize on an experimental basis, prior to the pilot phase. The permits covered more than 70 hectares in the north of the country. How did this happen despite a strong movement against GM?
They simply divided the country into two zones and allowed GM crops in the north, explains Chavero. The Secretaríat of Agriculture, Cattle Raising, Rural Develop ment, Fishery and Food, known as SAGARPA, decided they would authorise cultivation of Bt maize in the north because they claimed there were no landraces there and the rich farmers of the region were clamouring for new technology, ostensibly to reduce corn imports from the US. In the south, no Bt maize would be allowed in order to conserve native maize. In a detailed discussion with Down To Earth, Chavero says it reflects the policy of President Felipe Calderon who declared in 2008: “We will protect the maize landraces and their wild relatives, but we cannot ignore modernisation and the benefits of GMO.”
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