Greenpeace yesterday called on Mexico to adopt emergency measures to combat the first serious outbreak of genetic pollution in the centre of diversity of maize, located in several communities in the state of Oaxaca. Testing of maize varieties from 22 communities in the area have revealed genetic contamination in 15 of them: 13 samples showed up to 10% levels of contamination, in two others the contamination level is known to be even higher, but no details have been published yet. The contamination originates from genetically engineered (GE) maize grains imported from the United States to Mexico to be used for food.(1)
Greenpeace urged the Mexican government to unequivocally acknowledge the magnitude of the problem and as a first step eliminate the source of contamination by banning all GE and GE contaminated maize imports to the country recognised as the centre of diversity for maize.
The environmental organisation also appealed to the governments participating in the next week’s meeting on the Biosafety Protocol in Nairobi, Kenya, to assist Mexico to protect one of the world’s most important food crops as well as to speed up the ratification and implementation of the protocol.(2)
“The world is at risk of losing unique diversity of maize to genetic pollution. Mexico is the steward of the global maize diversity. It is Mexico’s responsibility to take all necessary measures to protect this crop,” said Raul Benet, Executive Director of Greenpeace Mexico. “This diversity ensures global food security now and in the future. As Jack Harlan(3), the pioneering American botanist and plant breeder has stated, genetic diversity ‘stands between us and catastrophic starvation on a scale we cannot imagine’. We cannot afford any more delays.”
Last week Greenpeace warned that Mexican traditional maize is already contaminated. The Mexican government has confirmed the contamination of at least in 15 communities in Central Mexico but has taken no action to eliminate the source or to implement any other emergency measures to control the damage to the environment and food chain.
Even a low level of genetic contamination is highly significant in a centre of diversity and origin: The genetic contamination is likely to multiply through pollen flow and spread further to other traditional varieties and wild relatives growing in the area. Crop diversity is essential in the continuing pursuit of food crop varieties resistant to new pests, diseases, changing climatic and environmental conditions.
The tests on Mexican maize from Oaxaca have shown at least the presence of genetically engineered Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) genes. The contaminated varieties may now produce this Bt toxin, potentially affecting beneficial insects; the contaminated varieties have great potential to spread their foreign genes to traditional varieties with unpredictable consequences.
“This contamination will not disappear by itself but spread further. It is likely to be only the tip of the iceberg of contamination in traditional varieties, as the plants in other parts of Mexico have not yet been investigated, ” said Dr Doreen Stabinsky from Greenpeace USA. “Mexico may need support to set up an infrastructure for testing plants. All maize affected by genetic contamination, including wild plants, needs to be identified. It also goes without saying that the source of contamination needs to be sealed by banning all imports of GE and GE contaminated maize to the centre of diversity.”
The UN Biosafety Protocol recognises the crucial importance to humankind of centres of diversity but is still ineffective, as the ratification process has been at a standstill for almost two years halting real progress in implementation.
“The international community must now agree on immediate preventative measures to avoid further outbreaks of contamination into other centres of diversity by banning all imports and releases of genetically modified organisms into these areas,” added Stabinsky.
FOR FURTHER INFORMATION PLEASE CONTACT:
In Mexico, Raul Benet, Executive Director of Greenpeace Mexico,
Tel: +525-579-6405 or -6868;
Greenpeace delegation at the Biosafety meeting: Dr Doreen Stabinsky,
Greenpeace USA, Mob: +1-202-285-7398;
Greenpeace International Press Office, Teresa Merilainen,
More information available from Greenpeace’s Genetic Engineering web site.
Photos available from Greenpeace International Picture Desk,
John Novis, Tel: +31205249580 or Mob: +31653819121
NOTES TO EDITORS:
(1) The Mexican government tested maize varieties in 22 communities in Oaxaca. In 13 of them the genetic contamination detected was between 3 to 10%. In two of the communities the level of contamination was even higher, but no details have been published yet.
(2) The United Nations Cartagena Biosafety Protocol was established to ensure that the development, handling, transport, use, transfer and release of any genetically engineered organisms are undertaken in a manner that prevents or reduces the risks to biological diversity, taking also into account risks to human health.
The protocol also makes a special reference to the crucial importance to humankind of centres of origin and centres of genetic diversity. The intergovernmental conference to discuss implementation of the protocol (ICCP-2) takes place 1st – 5th October in Nairobi, Kenya.
(3) Fowler C, Mooney P (1990) Shattering – Food, politics and the loss of genetic diversity, University of Arizona Press, Tucson, USA.