Home--Issues--Agriculture and Biotechnology

Poisoning the Well: the Genetic Pollution of Maize

January 15, 2003

Maize has been genetically polluted in its centre of origin. Despite all the manipulation, denials, evasive tactics, pseudo-scientific falsehoods, half truths, euphemisms, roundabout justifications and attempted cover-ups, maize has been genetically polluted in its centre of origin.

The pollution was no chance act, but a well thought-out and conscious strategy which simply took a little while to play itself out. None could deny that the natural course of any seed is inevitably to spread. That is what makes a seed a seed. Nor could anyone deny that maize is naturally an open pollinator. Any farmer knows that. Put a genetically-modified maize variety into a highly diverse, maize-intensive small-farmer area and it will be just a matter of time for the new variety to join the pool and for contamination to occur. If you are responsible for causing the contamination, there are a number of important steps to take. At first, make sure no one knows that the new seed is transgenic, so that defense and choice mechanisms won't be activated until it's too late. And to make sure you cannot be accused of wrongdoing, step right out there and say: "That wasn't seed. It was grain." Later, when pollution is detected and provokes indignation, stall for time: deny it. Next, blame local farmers for having done what small farmers always do: pick up seeds and test them.

Why someone would purposely cause genetic pollution is something we can only infer from the reactions of different scientific 'authorities'. We have been fed some of the most incredible lines, which it would be meaningless to mention here. Gradually, though, the bottom line seems to be that pollution is here to stay, and Mexicans will just have to get used to the fact and face life polluted as it is. This message is being aimed far beyond Mexico, to all those resisting transgenics around the world. If the centre of origin is already polluted, why not pollute the rest? If maize is already polluted, why not pollute all the other crops too? Canada has already experienced this phenomenon with transgenic oilseed rape (canola).

The contamination of maize in Mexico affects us all. It hits first of all the Mexican and Meso-American peoples for whom maize is a staple food, a key factor in their economies and an essential part of their spirituality. It affects all the Latin American peoples who have adopted, cared for and given form to their own varieties of maize, many of whom have also incorporated maize into their spiritual lives. It has direct effects on the African and Asian peoples who did exactly the same thing, centuries later. It affects all those who still grow crops with care and affection, because if maize was polluted on purpose, this will certainly happen to other crops as well. And finally, it affects us all as witnesses of a process whose consequences we can barely imagine. As humanity, we see how a small group of people moved by arrogance and driven by profit, with the support of various forms of power, are shamelessly playing God.

If there is an ounce of decency in biotech companies, in the authorities at the Food and Agriculture Organisation, the Biodiversity Convention, the Centre for the Improvement of Maize and Wheat (CIMMYT) and other research centres, as well as in thousands of government officials, then their most intense experience right now should be shame. Shame for having done what they did, or shame for not having done anything to avoid the disaster. Their shame should be profound and inescapable.

But rather than shame, we shall speak of how we might help repair the damage. Maize is in the fix it is today because of a long process of aggression not only against maize itself, but against all the social ways and means that made it possible, and in particular against the peoples who have created and nurtured it for so many centuries. Examples of these attacks include ignoring the rich and sophisticated knowledge that sustains local maize varieties, imposing ultra-simplified cropping and consumption habits, destroying local systems that maintain, breed and distribute seeds and, above all, destroying its sacred and life-giving nature.

This new process of genetic pollution is thus just the most recentand perhaps the most alarmingsign of a series of ongoing attacks that may eliminate the wealth and the significance of one of the world's most important and sophisticated farm crops. Beyond fighting against its genetic contamination we must consider what we can do to defend maize as a whole. The only honest answer is to support the restoration of those systems, processes and dynamics that created maize in the first place and kept it growing for so many centuries. None of those processes is even conceivable, however, without the ongoing presence of the indigenous and farming peoples who have always sustained them.

It is not up to us to say what those systems consist of. It is the privilege of the indigenous and farmer peoples of Mexico and Central America to state what keeps them as living peoples and cultures. Our role here is to expound solidarity with their struggles, constructions and efforts to keep on being and living what they are. This solidarity involves becoming aware of the massive economic, social, cultural and military aggression they face, and demands our cooperation with the forms in which they react to that aggression. During the 1980s, we as NGOs around the world denounced the situations of injustice, inequity and absence of freedom that prevailed in many parts of the world. What is happening to maize today and to the peoples who are trying to defend it is a painful reminder that situations we have spent much time and energy denouncing have not been overcome.

Meanwhile, there are also 'technical' attacks underway, around which we may be able to make a second contribution. Time and again, NGOs have also demonstrated that technology has absolutely none of the neutrality with which it is normally disguised. All technology expresses the ideology, the world vision and the vested interests of those who shape and seek to spread it. Whether these aspects are purposely or unwittingly incorporated into technologies is beside the point. This is why NGOs like GRAIN have advocated in all possible ways the adoption of processes that allow for the incorporation of technology designed to generate autonomy and to strengthen local capacities.

Yet perhaps we have fallen short in dealing with all the consequences of this affirmation. A large group of organisations took a step forward recently in the Philippines, when they stood up to the driving force of international research (the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research). The change we need, they said, is not to research something else but for research to be done by someone else, by those who create and nurture the bases the true agricultural wealth that feeds the world. This same conclusion is equally valid for maize.

The decontamination of maize and the recovery of its sacred nature, along with the attitudes of respect and profound gratitude due to it, will not be achieved by scientists or any research centre in the world, but by the peoples who still nurture maize. It is likely that in coming months and years, as contamination becomes impossible to deny, we will come to see well- or ill-intentioned, respectable or shameless offers to decontaminate maize through major scientific efforts. It would not be any surprise to see various research centres including the CIMMYT offering to do the job. The centres will say that they alone can produce clean seeds, and that the only thing farmers can do is reproduce the seeds the centres give them. They will say that the communities whose maize has been contaminated should burn their seeds, or else turn them over to the research centres for decontamination. They may announce that, unfortunately, every contaminated population cannot be decontaminated and that communities will have to accept the decontamination of a 'representative' population of a variety, which will then be distributed throughout the region. And it is very likely thatat this pointthey will claim ever so sadly that it will be impossible to decontaminate the countless local varieties now affected, and that the communities will have to accept the (perhaps even obligatory) elimination of said varieties, 'to avoid re-contamination'.

Or they may say something else entirely. But whatever the research centres say or do, if they think that they are the ones who can define, design, direct or implement the decontamination efforts, they are inevitably condemned to making mistakes that may be just as or even more damaging than the contamination itself. The wealth and diversity of maize are totally inseparable from and absolutely dependent upon the wealth of human diversity that sustains them. There are thousands of varieties in the fields and each of them exists because they are useful for something, for someone or for maize as a whole. This is even the case of those varieties that today may seem insignificant. All are part of the same fabric, and the loss of any one of them is a loss of something sacred. For that reason, maize can never be held by a group, no matter how well chosen or committed it may be. The collective nature of maize breeding is what has maintained its wealth. What some have not been able to conserve, others have. What some did poorly, others did well,. What some did not test, others did, adding new traits or adapting it to new conditions, to continue creating the plethora of varieties that so impress us today.

Yet wealth does not lie only in the number of varieties. Each person, family or community who handles a variety either adds or changes something. Local varieties are thus more than a set of equivalent populations, but rather sets of populations close enough to each other to relate as similar, while also diverse enough to make it impossible for there to be a truly representative sample. Each population also evolves continuously, as living beings indeed are wont to do. This is what allows good farmer maize breeders to renew their varietal seeds every year, by exchanging with either a nearby or a farther away acquaintance. If local varieties were what research centres claim them to be, it would be impossible to renew seeds, and maize would be much poorer and weaker than what we see today.

No research centre or even all the research centres together will ever be able to handle such diversity, even if they were genuinely committed to maize and what it represents. No strategy dependent on a single actor or decision-maker or on a small number of actors and decision-makers could take on such complexity and wealth. Only the action of human collectives that are equally complex, rich and diverse, working in all kinds of environments and able to make decentralised and diverse decisions, applying equally diverse strategies and instruments to seek diverse and even divergent results, could ever hope to maintain, restore and even strengthen maizes inimitable wealth and diversity.

Even if we could imagine that through huge efforts the research centres might be able to maintain maizes biological diversity, its integrity would not be safe. Each variety of maize reflects a conversation between farmers and their crop - one held with great care and affection, because the farmers know that maize not only provides sustenance and autonomy but that maize actually teaches them to care for it. This is why knowledge about maize is associated with the very experience of sustaining it. It is collective knowledge in eternal evolution, because conversations are shared and never repeated. When seeds are put into few hands, communication and learning are also restricted to those few people. As learning systems start breaking down, crop support systems break down as well, and processes of dependency move in forever. Autonomy, so essential for survival, can only be maintained as long as it is exercised.

In short, it will once again be the task of indigenous and peasant communities to be the custodians, restorers and generators of the integrity of maize. There is no other truly effective alternative on the horizon. This will be a momentous and demanding task. To make such an assertion knowing that these peoples are already being forced to fight for their survival may sound profoundly offensive and inconsiderate. It would indeed be an offence if, first of all, there were no sign that many indigenous and peasant communities are already looking for ways to deal with the problem autonomously. And it will be, secondly, unless we bring whatever pressure we can to achieve all the conditions required for maize to be saved.

Maize will not survive unless the people who created and/or nurture it survive as well. This will depend on at least three conditions that these peoples require and have fought to achieve. The first is an end to the open or covert warfare to which they have increasingly been subjected in relation to their resources. The second is access to all the resources and guarantees that can allow them to decide what to do and how, in order to survive as peoples. This involves not having to fight accelerating impoverishment and the physical breakdown that brings forced migration, or the territorial breakdown that comes from the invasion of big capital and big infrastructure projects. The third condition is respect and support for their autonomy, which in the case of maize means making sure that the process is led by the knowledge and knowledge-building processes that these peoples have developed over time. It means reversing the classic roles in agricultural research and genetic resources conservation: the experts must be the indigenous peoples and the peasants, while todays scientists and research centres must become sources for information to be called on by the experts.

It is our outstanding and urgent task as NGOs to support this kind of process. We have accumulated experience over the past decade in supporting local initiatives to control and safeguard biodiversity, and to shore up equally local social and cultural processes. Many of those experiences allow us to be broadly optimistic. Yet the complexity and severity of what we are witnessing also demands a rapid learning process on how to work in real solidarity with struggles which are much broader than defending biodiversity, and which transcend fundamental local processes. We cannot offer answers or directions here for such a complex process, yet we would like to contribute to its development by facing the many complex issues that inevitably affect relations between biodiversity and the rights of local communities.

Website link: www.grain.org/seedling/seed-03-01-2-en.cfm

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