A week and a half ago, according to Mexican media reports, a federal district judge issued an injunction suspending field trials of genetically modified corn. It’s been illegal to grow GM corn for consumption in Mexico since 1998, so the decision effectively means no one can grow genetically modified varieties of Mexico’s national crop for any reason.
Contrast this with what’s happening in Brazil. There, Embrapa, the national agricultural research and development institute, is going full-tilt on a project to bring to market a bean genetically modified to fight off the golden mosaic virus, a plague that, according to the Financial Times, costs the country 8 percent of its average annual bean crop. (Beans are as ubiquitous on Brazilian dinner plates as corn tortillas are in Mexico.) Some 85 percent of Brazil’s soy crop is already GM, and the country’s Centro de Tecnologia Canavieira (CTC) is working on genetically engineered varieties of sugar cane, a major crop.
Amid the global debate over genetically modified foods (also called genetically modified organisms, or GMOs), it’s striking to see Latin America’s biggest economic engines going in such different directions on the issue. Throw the U.S. into the mix, and you begin to see just how many ways people can disagree about the acceptability of tinkering with DNA in search of higher yields and hardier plants.
In the U.S., the controversy pits agricultural giants such as Monsanto and commodity corn, cotton, and soy farmers against organic farmers and the consumers who favor their produce. The debate is playing out mostly in state ballot initiatives as to whether foods with GM ingredients must be labeled as such on store shelves.
In Mexico, corn stands at the center of the conversation: The staple crop originated there, a fact deeply bound up in the nation’s sense of itself. Patriotic fervor attends protecting the landraces, the crop’s many distinctive local varietals, making any threat of genetic contamination particularly pressing. ”There are lots of social issues, religious issues, ethical issues—philosophical issues, even—that arise any time you want to talk about corn in Mexico,” says José Falck-Zepeda, an agricultural economist at the International Food Policy Research Institute. Genetic modification in crops without corn’s special sociocultural significance hasn’t merited comparable outrage. Mexico allows the commercial cultivation, for example, of GM soybeans and cotton, Falck-Zepeda points out.
Notwithstanding Brazil’s unabashedly leftist government, the country has embraced GMOs with a vengeance. Partly that’s because Brazilian farmers, lacking the sort of subsidies and price supports that the U.S. government showers on its politically important farming class, are more price-sensitive when it comes to such things as seeds, pesticides, and herbicides. Brazilian farmers have that much greater reason to embrace seeds that yield more or require fewer pesticides and herbicides, as some GM varietals do, says Mark Langevin, director of Brazilworks and an international adviser to the Brazilian Cotton Producers Association. And the Brazilian government has made a priority of attaining energy independence through sugar cane ethanol, which is driving genetic modification programs such as that at CTC, a giant bio-factory.
These pressures don’t always push toward GM crops. While Brazil’s farmers and researchers are also exploring traditional hybrid crops, according to Langevin they are relatively more open to using GMOs as part of the agricultural arsenal. Brazil is a commodities-exporting powerhouse. Much of its produce ends up in China, but some goes to Mexico, including corn. So Mexico, while banning cultivation of GM corn, allows its import. The country doesn’t have much choice in the matter because it’s a net corn importer. The birthplace of corn—where much is still cultivated on small farms using artisanal landraces—doesn’t grow enough to meet its own demand.