Mexico: NAFTA, transgenic maize impacts assessed

Mexico’s Social Development Secretary Josefina Vazquez Mota announced Aug. 19 that the country has lived through a “lost decade” and that poverty levels are slightly worse today than in 1994. In a speech at the National Congress to Combat Poverty 2006-2012, Vazquez Mota, an appointee of President Vicente Fox, talked at length on the depth of the nation’s poverty. Many of her comments were contrary to the optimistic reports recently given by the presidential office.

Quoting statistics she attributed to a World Bank study that the Fox administration has refused to publish, Vazquez Mota said that in 1994, 55.6 million Mexicans lived in poverty, and 21.1 million in extreme poverty. After the devastating peso crash in 1995, the nation’s poor shot up to 69.6 million. Those in extreme poverty, whose income doesn’t cover the cost of food, grew from 21.1 million to 37.1 million in 1996. Today, out of a total population of 106 million, 47 million are poor and 17.3 million are extremely poor.

“With the 1994 crisis, extreme poverty grew 21 percent according to the World Bank,” she said. “It has taken us 10 years to return to 1994 levels. It is clear proof of economic decisions that are profoundly damaging in the social sphere.”

She pointed out that in Garza Garcia, Nuevo Leon, one of the wealthiest municipalities in the country, life expectancy is 78 years, while that in the country’s poorest municipalities is no more than 57. “That’s a 20 year difference, 20 years that represent thousands of decisions, opportunities gained or lost, 20 years that speak clearly to the challenges we face.” (El Universal, Aug. 20, via Chiapas95)

While it seems Vazquez Mota was careful not to mention it by name, her speech was clearly intended to assess the impact of NAFTA, which took effect in 1994.

In another development related to the controversy over NAFTA’s impacts, a study found no trace of genetically-altered corn in southern Mexico four years after reports of its discovery there raised concerns that a modified intruder could contaminate or even take over the birthplace of maize.

But the findings cannot reflect future developments, warns a report on the study by scientists from the Mexican government, Ohio State University, Washington University in St. Louis and the Iowa-based company Genetic ID North America.

The study was done in the Sierra de Juarez region of Oaxaca, where independent and government researchers found evidence of transgenic corn contamination in 2000.

The new research found “no evidence that genetically modified maize…invaded local maize crops” in Oaxaca during 2003 and 2004, said the report, published this month in the Washington-based journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Many concerns about unwanted or unknown effects” of transgenic corn “can be discounted at present, at least within the sampled region,” it said. But it said the conclusions should not be applied to other regions of Mexico, “nor is the current situation likely to remain static.”

Groups that oppose importation of genetically-modified maize were cautious about the findings. “It’s good that they found no contamination in the places where they took samples, but this does not mean that contamination has disappeared,” said Gustavo Ampugnani, an activist with Greenpeace Mexico. As long as Mexico imports transgenics, “the doors to contamination remain open,” he said.

The issue is a sensitive one in Mexico, where farmers first bred corn some 8,000 years ago, and surviving native species are considered both a valuable natural gene pool and a source of cultural pride. Environmental groups and rural farmers fear modified corn could corrupt the genetic diversity of Mexico’s 59 species of maize.

Farmers in the US have been growing transgenic corn since 1996. In 2003, approximately 40% of the corn grown north of the border had been modified genetically to resist insects and herbicides. Mexico, in contrast, imposed a moratorium on the planting of genetically-modified crops in 1998, although earlier this year President Vicente Fox said he would sign a bill establishing a framework for approving such planting.

Meanwhile, as much as half of the corn that Mexico imports from the United States each year for human and animal consumption is genetically modified.

An organization of Oaxacan farmers that opposes transgenic corn criticized the latest study and suggested its purpose was “to give the green light to the cultivation of transgenic maize in Mexico.”

Baldemar Mendoza of the Union of Organizations of the Sierra Juarez of Oaxaca also questioned whether the study’s methods were sufficient to detect minor levels of contamination. “It is clear to everyone that Mexican native maize is contaminated…in Oaxaca and many other parts of Mexico,” Mendoza said.

But scientists from the Mexico-based International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, who were not involved in the study, told thr AP the research was sound.

“I found that the study featured a careful sampling strategy, a good experimental design, well-articulated assumptions, solid analysis, rigorous interpretation of results and solid and balanced conclusions,” said the center’s director, Masa Iwanaga. (AP, Aug. 14)

See our last reports on southern Mexico and NAFTA.