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Column 112904 Emmond

Monday, November 29, 2004

 

More heat than light shed on GM corn in Mexico

 

By Kenneth Emmond

 

“Genetically modified (GM) corn in Mexico poses a potential threat that should be limited or stopped.”

 

“Genetically modified corn is not likely to contaminate the Mexican countryside.”

 

Each of these contradictory statements is part of the lead sentence of separate stories on the same NAFTA research report about potential effects of imported GM corn on Mexican production. One is from The Associated Press, the other from The Washington Post.

 

Both go on to say the report urges caution and more research, but the difference in approach from two respected news agencies illustrates the complexity of the issue. It’s hard for us non-scientists to filter out the facts from the white noise.

 

Should Mexico import GM corn? Should Mexican farmers get on the worldwide bandwagon and start using GM corn, or GM cotton, or GM soybeans, or GM rice?

 

Ranged on one side are the producers and sellers, led by Monsanto. Our reasons for being skeptical of their conclusions are obvious: they want to sell GM seeds.

 

Still, they are right when they say genetic engineering is solving some thorny problems. By tweaking plant genes scientists are creating a quantum leap in world food production capacity, reducing the need for pesticides and herbicides, adding nutritional value to crops, and extending crop-growing areas with strains tolerant to cold, drought, and salinity. They are accelerating the solving of problems plant breeders have been working on for thousands of years through gene selection.

 

On the other side, focusing on the dangers, are the environmental activists, led in this case by Greenpeace.

 

They describe real concerns: the potential contamination of gene pools, the possibility of life-threatening allergies to some consumers, and fears that this new branch of agriculture lacks adequate testing and regulation.

 

In some quarters it’s heresy to question the motives of groups like Greenpeace, but like the world’s Monsantos, they have extracurricular agendas too.

 

They perform a useful service alerting non-specialists to environmental dangers, but they are not white knights out to save the environment as they like to be depicted.

 

Patrick Moore, a disaffected co-founder of Greenpeace, left when he concluded that “the environmental movement has been hijacked by political activists who are using green rhetoric to cloak agendas that have more to do with anti-corporatism and class warfare than with ecology or the environment.” He says its tactics are “not just politics but propaganda, misinformation, and sensationalism.”

 

Extreme? Perhaps, but when was the last time you heard Greenpeace reporting good news? We know what it’s against, but what useful alternatives does it offer?

 

Among its dire predictions about the consequences of introducing GM plants there’s nary a word of praise about the reduced use of insecticides and pesticides. It’s been decrying these ever since farmers increased usage after adopting zero tillage techniques to control another environmental danger – soil erosion. No photos exist of activists congratulating farmers for finding a way to control topsoil losses.

 

Nor do activists pause for breath when they’re wrong. One of their most eminent practitioners, Paul Elrich, predicted in the 1960s that within 20 years, 60 million Americans would starve to death. Today, 60 million Americans are fighting obesity but Elrich is still doing the rounds of talk shows.

 

Had these activists been around in 1900, we might still be carrying out environmental impact studies on the Panama Canal!

 

The activists worry about agribusiness profits, but so what if Monsanto makes billions of dollars if it solves billion-dollar problems?

 

Getting back to genetically modified corn in Mexico, a leading concern is that imported GM corn could contaminate non-GM strains. This is important because Mexico is the world’s leading gene repository of corn.

 

That said, the thousands of poor Mexicans struggling to produce enough to eat on tiny farms or rooting for leftovers in a Macdonald’s garbage dump can be forgiven for not wanting to wait.

 

Meanwhile, wisely or unwisely, Mexico’s competitors are adopting GM agriculture with a vengeance: China, India, and now Brazil. Sooner or later Mexico will be tempted to get on board.

 

Last week Mexico’s Congress was about to finalize a bill to regulate GM research and production, but with the NAFTA report it decided to give itself a few more weeks to think it over.

 

That is wise: with all the heat surrounding the issue and so little light, it’s little wonder that Mexico’s decision-makers have a hard time getting it right.

 

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Kenneth Emmond is a freelance journalist, economist, and market consultant who has lived in Mexico since 1995.  He is a graduate of Carleton University School of Journalism in Ottawa, Canada, and has a Master's degree in economics from the University of Manitoba.  He has worked with The Canadian Press and United Press and in a professional capacity with Canadian Pacific Railway and The Winnipeg Commodity Exchange.  His e-mail address is kemmond00@yahoo.com.