corn milpa Corn is fundamental to many Mexican dishes.Universidad Nacional de San Martín

Mexican scientists at odds over court’s GM ruling

There is frustration and despair among some Mexican scientists whose research into genetically-modified (GM) maize, or corn, was more or less halted by a legal decision last September.

Beatriz Xonocostle is a plant biotechnologist who leads a project that is working on drought-tolerant GM corn. “We are very frustrated, and there is a general sense of despair. We have been unable to accomplish our objectives,” she told Nature magazine, which says the Mexican scientific community has been torn apart over the issue.

A coalition of activist groups filed a lawsuit last July to stop the government from granting permits to plant GM corn. A judge subsequently ordered a halt to both experimental and commercial planting pending a final verdict.

As a result, say public-sector biotechnology researchers, they are unable to continue work on strains that are more tolerant of adverse weather conditions and have less need for herbicides and fertilizers. Yields could be increased and imports reduced through the successful development of GM corn, they say.

Mexico used to be self-sufficient in corn, but now imports about one-third of its consumption.

Gene flow from GM plants to native varieties is one of the concerns of José Sarukhán, national coordinator of the National Commission for Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity (CONABIO), a government research council. “The richness of genetic diversity of maize in Mexico is invaluable.”

The worry is that the diversity will be lost as a result of widespread planting of GM varieties.

“We are not against transgenic maize, but want to raise awareness of the implications of their use . . . .”

Scientists opposed to modified corn say that irrigation and infrastructure projects, education and careful seed selection could increase yields.

But Xonocostle also sees her research as a means of saving local corn varieties. Her project has developed a plant that needs only two-thirds of the water normally required.

Yet with the court ruling in place, she cannot proceed to the next step in her research — field testing. Other scientists have carried on by doing field trials in other countries that are more receptive to genetic study.

Meanwhile, Monsanto and other companies making GM seed have applications in to plant more than a million acres of GM corn in Sinaloa and Tamaulipas states.

Corn is believed to have been domesticated in Mexico some 8,000 years ago. It is a central part of the culture and history of the country and the main ingredient in the tortilla, a food staple.

Sources: Nature, Reuters

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