Published: 01/11/2004

While it presses its WTO complaint against the European Union’s lapsed moratorium on GMO imports, the US government has been seeking to suppress an official report on the GMO contamination of Mexican maize (corn) prepared by the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The administration has intervened to halt its publication and is working to delay it indefinitely.

The report, undertaken in response to demands from Mexican environmental, indigenous community and farmer organizations, confirms what independent researchers have previously documented but the agrofood/biotech industry and its political proxies have consistently denied. In Mexico, the birthplace of maize and repository of the world’s richest variety of species, indigenous maize has been extensively and irreversibly contaminated by US GMO varieties despite Mexico’s ban on commercial GMO cultivation.

Any GM grain is a seed, and farmers will plant it. The pollen is diffused as the plant ripens and the patented genes insert themselves into the genetic material of non-GM varieties. This is what has happened in Mexico, propelled by the cheap, subsidized genetically modified imports which have flooded over the border under NAFTA.

The report concludes that Mexico can only protect its biodiversity and the farming communities which safeguard it by strengthening the moratorium on the commercial growing of GM maize. To achieve this, says the report, the government must minimize GM maize imports and insist on ‘clear and explicit labeling in the sacks, containers and silos’ that contain GM maize. To defend native varieties the report calls for all imported maize to be immediately milled at the point of entry to cut off GM contamination at the source.

No wonder the industry wants to suppress the report. It implicitly recognizes that the conflict over GMOs is not about ‘science’ but about power, specifically the ability of a handful of seed, pesticide and grain trading corporations to dictate the conditions of global agriculture. This is the meaning of the statement in the conclusion that ‘The economic pressures associated with modern agriculture and the current asymmetries in the economy of commercial exchange of maize between Mexico and the United States could cause farmers and small cultivators to abandon the use of native varieties’.

Forcing Mexican campesinos to abandon native maize is precisely the program which corporate agribusiness has been pursuing under NAFTA. The goal is not only to capture the Mexican maize market for US-based agribusiness (Canada is already heavily dependent on GMOs for maize and soybeans), but to make Mexican farming dependent on patented inputs of seeds, pesticides and other chemicals. The US government, in its comments on the draft report, quickly cuts to the essential issue: the report’s recommendation that all commercial maize shipments be immediately milled ‘would be a significant barrier to trade’.

The report is particularly embarrassing since the Bush administration is not simply pursuing a WTO complaint against the EU’s faltering GMO restrictions. It is now preparing a second WTO complaint attacking Europe’s GMO labelling requirements. As part of a wider offensive aimed at breaking down ‘barriers’ to expanding exports of basic foodstuffs, it is forcing GMO maize on Africa in the guise of ‘food aid’ and paving the way for global cultivation of GMO rice, the ultimate corporate prize.

The CEC was set up under NAFTA’s environmental ‘side agreement’ to sell the trade pact to a hostile public worried about the ‘free trade’ impact on health, safety and the environment. Like the labour rights side agreement which was tacked on at the same time for the same reason, it is a toothless appendage to a vehicle for corporate expansion. The conclusions and recommendations of the draft report on Mexican maize can, however, serve as minimum guidelines for stemming further GM contamination in North America and beyond.

A number of further conclusions can also be drawn. First, African nations which have been derided and threatened by the Bush administration for insisting on milling imported US maize are absolutely correct. The African Growth and Opportunity Act of 2000, which conditions greater market access on political concessions, has been a vehicle for coercing governments to abandon efforts to defend food security, biodiversity and public health. By rejecting unmilled US maize imports African governments are simply acting on the basis of the precautionary principle. They deserve wider support for their position to avoid being starved into submission.

Second, if any more evidence were needed, the CEC report shows that ‘segregation’ and ‘separation’ of GMO and non-GMO crops is an industry-driven public relations fraud. When commercial growing of GMOs takes hold, contamination is inevitable and irreversible.

Third, GMOs are fundamentally about rights, power and control. Biodiversity and small farmers are not the only casualties of global trade deregulation. The majority of genetically modified seeds are designed to resist high doses of toxic pesticides and herbicides. Their commercialization means more, not less, chemical applications, and agricultural and plantation workers are in the front lines of exposure. GMOs are the patent-protected route to diminishing social and environmental sustainability in global agriculture. Compulsory GMO labelling and bans on commercial cultivation are basic instruments of social and biological defence against an invasive technology, and they will have to be used against the trade and investment rules which are promoting GM agriculture.

Finally, the European Union is currently embroiled in a WTO dispute over the further propagation of GMOs, but it is a reluctant combatant (see GMOs and the WTO: Defending a Vanishing Moratorium). At the WTO, the EU is seeking to fight off the trade sanctions which would result from a favourable decision for the US, Canada and Argentina in their complaint against the former moratorium. At home, on the other hand, the EU Commission is bowing to pressure from the biotech industry. In the latest of a series of voluntary surrenders, the Commission has now authorized EU-wide sales of Monsanto’s glyphosate-resistant maize NK603 in food and animal feed. Ultimate capitulation to the industry will be put to a vote at a Regulatory Committee meeting tentatively planned for November 29, when EU member states will be asked to abandon the precautionary principle and lift their national bans on GMOs. In the context of the CEC report, it is timely to recall that these bans were enacted in Austria, Germany and Luxembourg in response to specific concerns over GM maize varieties from Bayer, Monsanto and Syngenta (other national bans concerned rapeseed, about which there is also abundant evidence of GMO contamination). European trade unions should make use of the suppressed NAFTA report to remind their governments, and the EU Commissioners, why these bans were enacted in the first place, and campaign to defend and extend them.

There now exists an international human rights instrument which gives countries the right and the means to reject GMO imports: the Biosafety (or Cartagena) Protocol to the Biodiversity Convention. Had the Protocol been in effect and effectively implemented when NAFTA began its destructive work, millions of small Mexican farmers would not have been forced to join the ranks of the urban unemployed, and GM contamination would have been halted at the border.

Human rights law not only gives countries the right to defend themselves against GMOs. It requires them to do so. Unions need to press for wider ratification and implementation of the provisions of the Biosafety Protocol and start making effective use of this essential tool.