Associated Press Writer
MEXICO CITY—Capping a decade-long battle, private companies in Mexico have begun the first legal plantings of genetically modified corn, the Agriculture Department said Wednesday.
Environmentalists and farm groups announced they have filed an appeal with the Inter-American Human Rights Commission, arguing the government has been unwilling or unable to halt the illicit spread of GM crops in Mexico, the birthplace of corn.
They say the government shouldn't authorize legal plantings until it investigates contamination from past, illicit biotech planting.
In a written response to The Associated Press, the Agriculture Department said planting has begun on some of the two dozen experimental plots granted approval late last year. They are mostly in Sinaloa and Sonora, northern states that government studies say are likely outside corn's "birthplace" region in central Mexico.
Opponents say modified genes could spread and contaminate genetically valuable native varieties, from which modern corn was first hybridized between 6,000 and 8,000 years ago. The native genes could be needed someday to help strengthen hybrids.
GM supporters say the genetic contamination theory has been overblown and that such crops can safely be planted in areas where corn is not native. Current law allows only carefully controlled planting in areas far from the central highlands, until the risk can be assessed.
Florencio Cruz Cortes, a weather-beaten Raramuri Indian farmer who says his small communal farm in the mountains of northern Chihuahua state has been planting corn "forever," claimed contamination has already happened.
"The corn was coming up different, it had changed," Cruz Cortes said of the 2004 crop in the hamlet of El Consuelo, Chihuahua. "It was smaller. It was no good anymore."
Cruz Cortes' community joined Greenpeace Mexico and several other environmental and farm groups Wednesday in announcing the complaint filed with the rights commission — an arm of the Organization of American States — against several Mexican agencies.
The suit argues the government violated the human, economic, social and cultural rights of farm communities and consumers by failing to investigate widespread illegal planting of biotech corn starting in the early 2000s.
None of the agencies named in the suit could cite a single arrest or prosecution for illicit use of biotech seed, though government investigations show it has happened.
"We have had to take this to an international tribunal to demonstrate the lack of action on the part of the Mexican government in the face of the illegal introduction and planting of genetically modified corn," said Pedro Torres, president of Democratic Farm Workers Front.
The rights commission can recommend a government take action, and refer cases to the Inter-American Human Rights Court if a country does not comply.
Farmers say that in the broad, semiarid plains of Chihuahua seed dealers have been bringing in thousands of sacks of GM seeds for years, and the government has failed to stop them.
Farm leader Gabino Gomez said he went to one of the sites slated for experimental planting and found it not isolated as the law demands, but "surrounded by other crops. If they plant there, it will violate the law."
The planting permits were granted for a relatively small total area of about 31 acres (13 hectares) split evenly between Dow AgroScience/PHI Mexico and Monsanto. Officials at both companies were unavailable for comment.