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Genetically engineered corn poses no immediate threat to Mexican crops


Genetically modified (GM) corn won’t threaten native corn species in Mexico, according to a new report issued by the North American Free Trade Association (NAFTA).

In a country whose culture and identity revolve heavily around corn, or maize – the crop was first developed here thousands of years ago – the thought of imported GM varieties contaminating indigenous plants frightens many citizens, said Allison Snow, a co-author of the report and a professor of evolution, ecology and organismal biology at Ohio State University. Because of that fear, Mexico placed a moratorium on planting GM corn in 1998.

However, an estimated 30 percent of the corn that Mexico imports from the United States may be genetically modified, Snow said. The United States does not separate GM corn from non-GM corn, making it impossible for Mexican farmers to know if the grain they receive is genetically engineered or not. "Reliable unpublished data suggest that it is extremely likely that some GM corn is already growing in Mexico, whether it was intentional or not," said Snow, who is also an expert on plant-to-plant transmission of GM genes.

"What no one knows, however, is how common this has become," she continued. "Though GM seeds imported as grain from the United States would probably result in poor yields, farmers may try to plant these seeds in times of need, and the seeds could also be considered a new source of genetic variation for plant breeding practices."

Snow was part of the Maize Advisory Group, a 16-member group established by the North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC). The CEC oversees the environmental provisions of NAFTA. Her colleagues included experts from Mexico, Canada, the United States and England. The advisory group two years studying the potential effects of transgenic – or GM – corn in Mexico.

Concerns over gene flow from transgenic corn to native Mexican varieties prompted the report, released today, called "Maize and biodiversity: Effects of transgenic maize in Mexico." "Even though many kinds of transgenic corn have been approved in the United States, where it’s a part of nearly everyone’s diet, the effects of GM corn in Mexico have yet to be evaluated and determined," Snow said. "But transgenic maize from the United States can easily enter Mexico through the massive amounts of GM grain the country imports from the United States."

While the group concluded that genetically engineered corn currently poses no threat to Mexico’s native corn varieties, the advisory group cautions that Mexico remain vigilant when importing and cultivating corn from the United States. The group outlines several recommendations concerning the handling of transgenic corn, including:

  • To avoid undermining its current moratorium, Mexico should label all corn imported from the United States as possibly containing GM seed, or grind the corn when it’s imported. Grinding would prevent the imported seeds from being planted.
  • Conducting more research to learn which transgenes have been introduced in the local varieties of Mexican corn and how common they are.
  • Determining to what degree the genes, including the transgenes, of modern corn plants have been introduced into traditional Mexican crops. Also, evaluate and develop ways to eliminate transgenes from native corn, if Mexico desires to do so.
  • Requiring regulatory agencies in the United States, Canada and Mexico to devise methods to detect and monitor the spread of specific transgenes, as well as the products of those transgenes.
  • Conducting more studies to determine how transgene accumulation through gene flow affects the fitness and yield of the plants receiving these transgenes.
  • Educating Mexican citizens about possible benefits and risks of GM corn.
  • Encouraging better international coordination of regulatory policies, so GM crops that are released in our country are also evaluated for safety in other countries that import viable GM seeds.

Allison Snow | EurekAlert!
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