America is by far the world’s largest corn producer, growing more than twice as much of the crop as China. But despite the millions of Midwestern acres that are blanketed in Zea mays, and the myriad corn byproducts that are scattered throughout our food system, there’s never been a maize-specific protest held in the shadow of the Washington Monument.
Culturally, corn looms far larger in Mexico, where indigenous people first domesticated the plant over 7,000 years ago. That long history of farming and consumption—corn accounts for nearly half of the average Mexican’s caloric intake—has ingrained maize in the national identity. So the symbolism of peasant farmers protesting GMO corn with a hunger strike in front of a monument celebrating Mexico’s independence from Spain (Mexico City’s Angel of Independence) is significant. Maize is Mexico’s plant, it’s a cornerstone of the Mexican diet, and these farmers are willing to go hungry in order to convey their opposition to newfangled American gene tweaks infringing on the crop they and their ancestors have been growing for thousands of years.
Organized by the National Union of Autonomous Regional Peasant Organizations (UNORCA), the strikers, who began their protest on January 23 and will continue through today, have a goal not unlike that of the Mexican Revolution: liberation. When, on the first day of the hunger strike, anti-riot police forced protesters off of the grounds of the monument itself, UNORCA’s Albert Gómez Flores responded by saying, “They are preventing people of this country from being in front of the Monument of Independence from Spanish colonialism, and thus they are really serving their current masters, the new colonialist of Monsanto, DuPont and Pioneer.”
The protest was preceded by a flurry of anti-GMO communiqués, including the Maize Manifesto, which makes the case for keeping foreign seed companies from planting millions of acres of transgenic corn in Mexico, and an open letter to the people and Government of Mexico announcing the hunger strike. “We want to express our indignation faced with the terrible blow that would come with the imminent approval of large-scale commercial planting of GMO maize in Mexico,” the letter reads, “and we demand that the Mexican government place the interests of peasants and the majority of Mexican farmers above the interests of a few transnational corporations.”
Corn may be a livelihood in America, but it’s a lifestyle for Mexico’s campesinos. These farmers may work small plots, averaging 20 acres, but their land accounts for two-thirds of the country’s corn production. Many of these farmers grow true heirloom varieties—unique types of corn developed over the course of generations by saving seeds from one season’s harvest and planting them again the following year. Not only would the copyrighted genes of genetically modified corn create a need for farmers to buy seeds on an annual basis (or face potential lawsuits for germinating unlicensed seeds), but the presence of modified varieties would also put the extensive biodiversity of Mexican maize at risk of being overrun by genetic drift. As the Union of Scientists Committed to Society (UCCS) put it in a statement issued last November, “Such GM corn plantings would imply the infiltration and accumulation of transgenes into the genomes of landraces, with unpredictable and non-desirable consequences.”
As we reported in December, it had been expected that the administration of outgoing President Felipe Calderón would approve permits allowing Monsanto and subsidiaries of DuPont and Dow Chemical to plan a total of 2.4 million hectares in transgene corn. Instead, the issue was passed along to President Enrique Peña Nieto, who represents a new generation of the Institution Revolutionary Party (PRI); PRI ruled the country, notoriously, for 71 years. His administration still has not addressed the permit requests.
In the months that have passed since the July election and Nieto’s swearing in, in December, the opposition to GMO corn has only grown. In the southern state of Oaxaca, a number of farming organizations have declared 2013 the year of resistance to transgenic corn, according to the Mexico City daily La Jornada. The website Avaaz.org is hosting an open letter to President Nieto, asking him to deny the permit requests and “to not sell out the soul of Mexico to corporations that have none of your people’s best interest in mind.” Nearly 44,000 people have singed the letter.
And perhaps most significantly, the burgeoning student protest movement, Yo Soy 132, which grew out of opposition to Nieto’s presidential campaign, is taking up the anti-GMO maize cause. The group has published its own manifesto, which points out that, should the government allow Monsanto, et al, to plant their corn products in Mexico, it would be the first instance of a transgene crop being cultivated in its center of origin.
Verónica Villa, who works with Yo Soy 132’s environmental group, tells TakePart via email that she finds it interesting to contrast the growing opposition to genetically modified maize with Neito’s new anti-hunger campaign. Indeed, the President’s plan, announced earlier this month, calls for increased food production and reduced harvest losses—two problems that pro-GMO advocates would argue that transgene corn addresses.
Other critics of the hunger plan, like Julio Boltvinik, a professor at Colegio de México, can’t separate the food insecurity issue from agriculture policy. The professor, quoted in Argentina Independent, doesn’t mention GMOs directly, but he addresses the perception that Mexican agriculture is in a neocolonial state, asking how poverty can be dealt with if “the marketing of agriculture grains is in the hands of three or four transnational companies?”
Nearly half of Mexico’s population lives in poverty, and the issue underlies both sides of the GMO dispute. In front of the Angel of Independence, the hunger experienced by the protesting farmers will, as UNORCA’s open letter reads, “remind us of our almost 30 million fellow Mexicans who cannot find enough food to fill their stomach on a daily basis.” According to Yo Soy 132’s maize manifesto, the neocolonialism of post-NAFTA Mexican agriculture has “placed the Mexican countryside in a situation of extreme weakness, seriously deepening problems of various kinds,” including not only poverty and food insecurity, but domestic and foreign migration, and the loss of farm land. These issues go far beyond the fate of a single crop, but the dispute over maize has come to embody it all: identity, sovereignty, class, revolution.
It had appeared that the growing momentum of these like-minded opposition groups would culminate not today, with UNORCA’s hunger strike wrapping up with a march from the Angel of Independence to the Zócalo, but on February 7. That’s when the National Autonomous University of Mexico will host a public debate about GMO maize; it was supposed to be the first time officials from the Ministry of Agriculture engaged with the anti-GMO faction. But Villa tells TakePart that the government has backed out of the forum, and has yet to respond to a request from Yo Soy 132, which is organizing the event, to explain its reasons for cancelling.
The event will go on without the agriculture Ministers, featuring representatives from Red en Defensa del Maíz, Mexico’s Union of Concerned Scientists, ETC Group, and La Via Campesina—all anti-GMO groups.
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Willy Blackmore is the food editor at TakePart. He has also written about food, art, and agriculture for such publications as TastingTable, Los Angeles Magazine, The Awl, GOOD, LA Weekly, The New Inquiry, and BlackBook. Email Willy | TakePart.com