Pesticide Action Network Updates Service (PANUPS)
International Bodies Urged to Halt Maize Contamination
More than 144 farmer and other civil society organizations from 40 countries signed a joint statement released February 19, 2002 calling for inter-governmental and United Nations bodies take responsibility for protecting genetic diversity in the wake of the Mexican genetically engineered (GE) maize scandal. Controversy surrounds last fall’s discovery of GE maize contamination in one of the world’s most important centers for maize genetic diversity, located in Mexico.
The organizations are demanding that several key international bodies stop contamination of the Mesoamerican center of genetic diversity for maize — one of the world’s most important food crops.
Specifically, the statement calls on the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) to abide by its mission to conserve diversity and safeguard farmers by acknowledging publicly that GE maize contamination has occurred in Mesoamerica and confirm that under present circumstances, it must be assumed that contamination of global gene banks is inevitable.
The organizations are also calling upon the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to ensure that the Code of Conduct on Biotechnology currently being developed include mechanisms to control the diffusion of GE materials to vulnerable regions. The groups also demand that the Code embrace the “polluter pays” principle by guaranteeing that the burden of ecosystem restoration and farmer and national compensation for GE contamination will fall on those who develop and market the crops.
The statement further asks the FAO and the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) to issue a moratorium on shipments of GE seed or grain to countries or regions that are part of the centers of origin or centers of genetic diversity for the species. Agreements signed in 1994 between the FAO and 11 of the CGIAR Centers for Genetic Diversity require that materials held in trust be kept safe, accessible, and free of intellectual property constraints. The groups charged that GE contamination threatens each of these commitments.
News that GE maize was turning up in farmers’ fields in Mexico first appeared in an article in the journal Nature last September. The article reported the findings of Mexico’s Ministry of the Environment that extensive GE maize contamination had been found in farmers’ varieties in two Mexican states. A peer-reviewed article written by scientists at the University of California, Berkeley published in Nature in November offered scientific evidence of the Mexican contamination. In January, the Mexican environment ministry presented a study revealing that GE contamination had been found at rates of up to 35% in remote villages in the states of Oaxaca and Puebla.
A later article in Nature Biotechnology indicated that the Berkeley scientists had unconfirmed, preliminary indications that the world’s most important maize gene bank has been polluted by GE maize. Although the Director-General of CIMMYT cautioned that none of the three tests CIMMYT conducted revealed contamination of their gene bank, he admitted that there is contamination in a global center of genetic diversity and that it is only a matter of time before the gene bank is also contaminated.
Both CIMMYT and Mexican authorities believe the contamination likely occurred as a result of maize food imports.
Academics and the biotechnology industry have attempted to discredit the findings of the Mexican Government and the U.S. university scientists. The attacks come at a crucial time when the biotechnology industry is trying to lift the European, Mexican, and de facto Brazilian moratoria on genetically modified seeds or foods, and just before the world’s environment ministries meet in the Hague this April to discuss the Biosafety Protocol — a document that emphasizes the special role of Centers of Origin and Centers of Genetic Diversity.
The signatories to the joint statement charge that industry is trying to undermine the findings of contamination in Mexico in order to protect chances of lifting the GE moratoria in Europe, Brazil and Mexico, and to prevent pressure at upcoming international meetings for both further moratoria and for industry compensation when contamination occurs.
The statement’s release comes on the eve of an international science policy meeting in Los Banos, Philippines where a global response to the scandal will be discussed. The groups have promised that if the Genetic Resources Policy Committee of the CGIAR does not act decisively and immediately to protect farmers in Mesoamerica at the Los Banos meeting, they will take the issue directly to the April meeting of the Biodiversity Convention in the Hague, and the World Food Summit in Rome in June.
The full text of the joint statement, and the complete list of 144 signatories, can be found at http://www.etcgroup.org.
Sources: ETC Group News Release, February 19, 2002, available at http://www.etcgroup.org; letter to Dr. Ian Johnson, Chairperson, CGIAR, The World Bank, from civil society organizations, February 6, 2002.
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