'People of corn' protest GMO strain in Mexico

Mexico has 59 strains of native corn. While the country has some GMO corn as well, activists are concerned about expanding its reach.

Everywhere in Mexico, from the megalopolis of Mexico City to the smallest farming community, the squeaking, creaking sounds of a tortillería churning out corn tortillas can be heard.

Corn is the most important staple of the Mexican diet. Corn tortillas of many varieties – white, yellow, blue – figure into every meal of the day. The grain works its way into the national cuisine in endless other ways: The large kernels of hominy corn in rich pozole soup, as the base for spicy tamales, in sweet breads, and in hot, thick atole drinks.

It’s native to Mexico, where some 59 indigenous strains of corn exist.

Which is why an emerging debate over whether to allow growers to cultivate genetically modified corn has heated up. Opponents of GMO corn have urged the Mexican government to ban GMO. To draw attention to their cause, on Thursday four local Greenpeace activists climbed a 335-foot monument on Mexico City’s busy Reforma Avenue and dropped a banner reading "No GMO" on the iconic Estela de Luz tower in protest, according to a Greenpeace spokeswoman.

Mexico has already allowed limited cultivation of GMO corn in a handful of northern states as part of an experimental program. In March, according to local news reports, agribusinesses Monsanto and Syngenta solicited permits to expand GMO plantings. If granted, planting will begin in the fall.

Greenpeace is asking the government to prohibit the cultivation of GMO corn in any form, whether in pilot programs or on a commercial scale. [Read about Peru's recent decision to say 'no' to GMO.]

The DNA of genetically modified corn can mix with native strains, threatening their existence, according to Antonio Turrent Fernandez, president of the nonprofit Union of Scientists Committed to Society, or UCCS.

“Mexico is the world’s only hope,” says Mr. Turrent Fernandez. “If a few years from now the world wants to revert to original strains, the only way to return is for native Mexican corn not to be contaminated.”

Mexican producers haven’t kept up with demand for corn, leading the country to import about 30 percent of what it consumes, he says.

That’s one reason why an association of Mexican corn producers has come out in favor of commercial-scale planting of GMO corn for its ability to resist increasingly hot temperatures and scarce water.

In the creation stories of the Popol Vuh, the sacred Mayan text, man and corn are described as inextricably linked – giving rise to the saying that Mexicans are “people of corn.” Now the country faces a decision: Of what kind of corn does it wish to be made?

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