Mexico’s Agriculture Ministry has approved the country’s first pilot program for growing genetically-modified (GM) corn, a controversial move that small farmers and environmental groups see as an attack on the highly valued native strains.
US biotech seed maker giant Monsanto has been given the green light to grow GM yellow corn on a one hectare (2.47 acres) plot of land in the northern Mexican state of Tamaulipas, thanks to a permit granted by the Agriculture Ministry.
“It is the first permit to be issued for the pilot phase,” the ministry said in a statement, according to Agence France Presse (AFP). The ministry added that three previous requests had been rejected.
The pilot phase is the second step for the GM process in Mexico. The Mexican government has issued 67 permits to grow GM corn in the experimental stage, the first phase. The experimental stage has been ongoing since 2009 on more than 70 hectares (173 acres) in the northern part of the country.
According to AFP, the ministry is of the belief the pilot program will be conducted under conditions of strict bio-security as it evaluates cost benefits of the program.
The ministry statement added: “It is necessary to advance the use of biotechnology to reduce imports and promote national production,” according to Reuters.
Environmental groups have protested the GM projects in Mexico, saying it will lead to widespread planting of the GM product, contaminating or eliminating the country’s rich numbers of open-pollinated varieties known as landraces.
Subsidies from the US government to its farmers allows them to sell their corn more cheaply than Mexican farmers can grow it. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that took effect in 1994 has opened a market for large commercial farmers in the US to flood Mexico with cheap, government-funded corn.
In 2003, the Carnegie Endowment reported that NAFTA forced 1.3 million Mexican farmers to give up their livelihood, thanks to the US corn pouring into their country. These farmers joined Mexico’s vast numbers of unemployed or traveled north, looking for work in the US.
Reuters reports that Mexico imported more than 7 million tons of yellow corn from the US last year, primarily used as feed in animal feedlots. The increase of feedlots in Mexico, dependent on the cheap corn, has created other woes. Sewage concentrations have increased, as well as water and air pollution.
Corn production in Mexico is revered, dating back thousands of years. Its mythology tells that people were created from corn. The Huichol Indians hold corn, along with the deer and peyote, as a sacred part of their spiritual beliefs.