A few years of unlabelled US imports had transferred modified genes to local corn in the southern state of Oaxaca in Mexico, even though planting GM crops is banned in Mexico, the birthplace of corn.

A report by CNN says that the discovery, confirmed this month in the science magazine Nature, “caused outrage among Mexicans, whose ancestors believed the gods created Man from an ear of corn.”

The report notes that there is no evidence that GM grains harm those who eat them, “but some scientists worry that genetically modified strains could displace or contaminate Mexico#;s genetic warehouse of over 60 corn varieties – a wealth that enriches staple crops worldwide and includes wild varieties that have yet to be catalogued”.

Scientists fear that the accidental spread of laboratory-inserted genes could allow aggressive plants to crowd out other varieties, thus reducing biological diversity. “Diversity is prized as a hedge against disease, pests and climate change. While some plant strains may be vulnerable to one disease, others may have natural immunity that enables them to survive,” says the report.

The case of the modified corn in Oaxaca has drawn international attention: in an open letter, 80 scientists from a dozen countries have asked the Mexican government to stop the genetic contamination, the report says.

However, supporters of genetic modification say such crops may actually benefit the environment by allowing farmers to use less pesticide or soil tilling, cutting down on destructive soil erosion. The report adds that Mexico is a net importer of corn, about 6.2 million tonnes annually, almost all from the US. It states that “perhaps one-fourth of it is genetically modified” and notes that US grain growers are not worried by the contamination – and even want to charge Mexican farmers for it.

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The report notes that environmental activist group Greenpeace has called for a ban on imports of GM corn. As Mexico#;s staple crop, corn is imported mostly for human and animal consumption, not as seed. Yet several modified strains were found, including one that makes the plant produce a toxin to ward off corn borers. “It is unclear how far the genetically modified crops have spread. A study by the Mexican Environment Ministry earlier this year found them in 15 locations in Oaxaca, but in low concentrations of 3% to 10% of plants in most fields,” the report says.

Planting GM crops was banned in Mexico in 1998. Officials of Mexico#;s Agriculture Department said there were no plans to halt imports, or demand labelling of GM corn. Australia, according to the report, is imposing labelling requirements and has a partial ban on crops, and Japan has already such limits in place.

The report also comments that, “ironically, the Oaxaca Research Centre that is now fighting for biological purity was set up for an opposite purpose. It was created in the mid-1990s by the Swiss pharmaceutical giant Sandoz – which later became Novartis in a merger – to look for medically valuable plant species, a practice decried by some activists as ‘bio-piracy#;”. Local farmers later assumed control of the lab.

By Aaron Priel, just-food.com correspondent