(MintPress) — The Monsanto Corporation has won the right to begin planting genetically modified (GMO) corn in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. Although the company touts higher crop yields and new drought resistant vegetables, their presence has been met with vehement opposition in Mexico and in other countries with unfavorable relationship with the largest developer of genetically modified crops. Corn was first domesticated in Mexico some 10,000 years ago, and introducing GMO corn crops would likely disrupt and permanently change a long running history of corn cultivation by small, independent farmers.
The move by Monsanto, farmers say, continues a corporate agenda made possible through the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement.
History of lobbying in Mexico
The decision comes at a time of political transition in Mexico. Enrique Pena Nieto won the presidential elections in Mexico three weeks ago. Pena Nieto, representing the conservative Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), beat out the leftist challenger, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, with a healthy 6 percent advantage.
After the election, the Obrador camp claimed that the Nieto campaign took part in corruption and and vote buying. Hundreds of thousands of young Mexican leftists took to the streets to protest the results following the election. Obrador supporters have called for a full vote recount.
U.S. policymakers will likely be most interested to see how Mexico continues to deal with drug interdiction following the election. Violence associated with powerful drug cartels continues to plague cities like Juarez. However, for many Mexican farmers, especially those in the Yucatan, Pena Nieto’s victory is expected to bring a government more favorable to Monsanto corn development.
Elena Alvarez-Buylla, Investigator for the Ecological Institute Union of Scientists Committed to Society, commented on the situation in a recent statement saying:
“It is regrettable that the Mexican authorities have yielded to the demands of this corporation, and have done so during the electoral process as well as the spring – summer crop season, withholding any announcement and approving three new permits to plant transgenic corn in its pilot phase for Monsanto in northern Tamaulipas.”
In March 2012, Greenpeace activists and local residents protested a plan approving the planting of 30,000 hectares of soy GMO´s in Yucatan. The GMO planting, farmers say, could also disrupt honey production in the Yucatan region.
Mexican farmers cite cases in Poland, where GMO crops have had a negative influence on the already dwindling bee population. Insecticides and chemicals applied to the GMO crops, Polish beekeepers say, contribute directly to Colony Collapse Disorder, a condition which can eliminate entire bee populations. Polish authorities passed legislation banning Monsanto GMO crops in the country May 2012.
Reshaping agriculture legislation
The massive lobbying effort has yielded some gain for Monsanto despite continued public opposition to the company. The sale of seeds in Mexico has been controlled by a 1996 law which allows private sector corporations to maintain seed rights for 15 years, even if the seeds are sold for public agricultural projects.
The current law favors private corporations over small, independent farmers. However, the new law proposed earlier this year would marginalize independent agricultural workers further. Under the new legislation, independent corporations would be able to maintain rights on seeds for a full 25 years.
Additionally, opponents say the proposed law would have created a private “Monsanto police force” by giving the National Service for the Inspection and Certification of Seeds the ability to make site visits, demand information of farmers and impose administrative penalties for infractions.
When the Federal Law on Plant Varieties went to the Committee on Agriculture and Livestock of the Mexican Chamber of Deputies for debate on March 14, farmers and sympathetic supporters quickly organized massive demonstrations, successfully shutting down the proposed bill.
The victory was celebrated by small, independent farmers. However, a renewed effort will be required to stave off Monsanto corn planting long-term.
Effect on Mexican farmers
Greenpeace, the largest environmental advocacy group, issued a statement in 1999, warning the Mexican government that new genetically modified forms of corn coming from the United States would pollute Mexican crops.
Mexico is considered to be the birthplace of corn in the Western hemisphere, having domesticated the crop as early as 10,000 years ago. Farmers have developed several natural strains of corn through hundreds of years farming maize. This special history developing corn has resulted in several, natural forms of drought resistant corn. However, if an agreement were reached, farmers would be forced to abandon long-held practices, instead planting GMO Monsanto corn.
In other countries, the opposition to similar policies has been strong. In early June 2012, 5 million Brazilian farmers launched an unprecedented class action lawsuit against Monsanto. The legal action, estimated at $7.8 billion dollars was organized in response to continued exploitation by the corporation.
The farmers claim that Monsanto continues to extract exorbitant royalties from “renewal” seed harvests. Although the farmers purchased the seeds in a one time transaction, Monsanto insists that reusing seeds from previous harvests requires “renewal” fees.
Jane Berwanger, a lawyer representing the farmers, commented on the situation in a recent interview, saying, “Monsanto gets paid when it sells the seeds. The law gives producers the right to multiply the seeds they buy and nowhere in the world is there a requirement to pay (again). Producers are in effect paying a private tax on production.”
The continuous public opposition from small farmers in Mexico and Brazil, among other countries, continues to grow. Monsanto, however, has been given a strong bargaining position through previous international trade treaties favoring corporations.
The dubious legacy of NAFTA
Millions of Mexican farmers continue to reel from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which has already shrunk Mexican corn production. The treaty, signed by leaders of Canada, the U.S. and Mexico in 1994, lowered trade barriers, allowing for virtually unrestricted movement of goods among the countries.
While the policy generally provided consumers with a greater variety of products at lower prices, the treaty also had a negative effect on corn farmers in Mexico who were suddenly forced to compete with the highly subsidized corn industry in the United States. An estimated 2 million farmers have been forced out of corn production since the treaty’s adoption.
Writing about the effects of NAFTA, Roger Bybee and Carolyn Winter writing for Common Dreams say, “NAFTA was sold to the American public as the magic formula that would improve the American economy at the same time it would raise up the impoverished Mexican economy. The time has come to look at the failures of this type of trade agreement before we engage in more and lower the economic prospects of all workers affected.”
Continuing, Bybee and Winter contend, “NAFTA, by permitting heavily-subsidized U.S. corn and other agri-business products to compete with small Mexican farmers, has driven the Mexican farmer off the land due to low-priced imports of U.S. corn and other agricultural products. Some 2 million Mexicans have been forced out of agriculture, and many of those that remain are living in desperate poverty. These people are among those that cross the border to feed their families. Meanwhile, corn-based tortilla prices climbed by 50 percent. No wonder many so Mexican peasants have called NAFTA their ‘death warrant.’”
Although a quarter of Mexico’s 10 million independent farmers grow corn, Mexico is now a net importer of the crop. There are approximately 5 million tons of U.S. corn coming into Mexico every year as a result of NAFTA.
Indeed, the negative aspects of NAFTA appear to have had a multiplying effect as millions of unemployed Mexican farmers have contributed to the ongoing illegal immigration issue, trekking northward in the search for housing and decent work in the U.S.
The new proposed legislation granting Monsanto increased access to corn production represents another U.S. intervention in Mexican corn production.
Monsanto and other multinational corporations continue to dictate legislation in Washington D.C. Monsanto spent $6.3 million lobbying in Washington D.C. last year, surpassing every agribusiness company except the tobacco company Altria.