High Risks, Few Rewards for Mexico with Monsanto’s Maize

Timothy A. Wise

Triple Crisis contributor Timothy A. Wise’s analysis of genetically modified maize and the risks to Mexico, the world’s cradle of maize cultivation, continues. His previous posts on the topic can be read here and here.

I had come to Mexico to investigate the ongoing controversy over the proposed introduction of genetically modified (GM) maize into the birthplace of this important global food crop. The issue was hot, because last October a Mexican judge had issued an injunction halting all experimental and commercial planting of GM maize, a process that was well underway in six northern states. The ruling cited the need for precaution to ensure that Mexico’s rich diversity of maize varieties were protected from inadvertent “gene flow” from GM maize.

As I began to investigate this most controversial of biotech initiatives, the question that most puzzled me was: why anyone in Mexico thinks the country needs anything that transgenic maize has to offer?

Monsanto, of course, had an answer to that question. I met with a group of company officials in their high-rise offices in Mexico City’s transnational business district of Santa Fe. They offered their “Vision 2020,” in which transgenic maize is key to feeding the world. In Mexico, they argued, it would help double Mexican maize production, reduce persistent rural poverty among the country’s small-scale maize farmers, restore the country’s self-sufficiency in its key food staple and reduce the negative environmental impacts of maize farming. They even used the term “food sovereignty” to describe their goal for Mexico. This was more than a vision; this was a hallucination.

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Global Food Security Needs States to Ally with Family Farmers

Sylvia Kay, Guest Blogger

Sylvia Kay is a researcher at Transnational Institute (TNI). She works on a wide range of issues including land grabbing, water, and agricultural investment.

South Africa’s most famous cleric, Desmond Tutu, in his inimitable style, once said, “If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” His blunt speaking has particular relevance to important negotiations taking place in Rome this week at the United Nations Committee on World Food Security, which will define principles for “responsible agricultural investment” (known as RAI) in the context of an ongoing food crisis and an unprecedented wave of land grabbing.

When it comes to agriculture and food, the elephant is agribusiness. Just three companies control 50% of the commercial seed market; only four companies control 75% of the global trade in grains and soya. Their argument is that the state’s role should be that of a neutral broker, encouraging primarily private investment in agriculture. They are willing to accept guidelines for “responsible investment,” but within a model that sees ever increasing levels of foreign direct investment and the deepening and further integration of national agricultural sectors into global commodity chains and markets. Theirs is essentially a business-as-usual approach which seeks to retrofit the RAI principles to existing agribusiness initiatives.

While such principles will boost the profits of some corporations, the evidence shows that it will not deliver on the CFS mandate to realise the right to adequate food for all. One in eight people in the world are currently undernourished—and this has worsened in recent years. In fact, reliance on global markets led to global food prices in 2007 rising to levels in real terms not witnessed since 1846. This has not only added between 130 to 150 million people to those living in extreme poverty, it has also fueled an unprecedented wave of land grabbing across the global South by governments seeking security from food riots and corporations seeking profits from perceived scarcity.

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Mexico and Monsanto: Taking precaution in the face of genetic contamination

Timothy A. Wise

Regular Triple Crisis contributor Timothy A. Wise leads the Globalization and Sustainable Development Program at the Global Development and Environment Institute (GDAE), Tufts University. This is the second installment in his series on Mexico, genetically modified organisms, and genetic contamination of native maize. See his earlier post on the subject here.

To listen to the current debates over the controversial requests by Monsanto and other biotech giants to grow genetically modified (GM) maize in Mexico, you’d think the danger to the country’s rich biodiversity in maize was hypothetical. It is anything but.

Studies have found the presence of transgenes in native maize in nearly half of Mexico’s states. A study of maize diversity within the confines of Mexico’s sprawling capital city revealed transgenic maize in 70 percent of the samples from the area of Xochimilco and 49 percent of those from Tlalpan.

Mexico is the “center of origin” where maize was first domesticated from its wild ancestor, teocinte. The country is arguably the last place you’d want to risk the possibility that its wide array of native seeds might be undermined by what indigenous people have called “genetic pollution” from GM maize.

Last October, a judge issued an injunction putting a halt to all experimental and commercial planting until it can be proven that native maize varieties are not threatened by “gene flow” from GM maize. The precautionary measure comes more than a decade too late.

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Monsanto Meets its Match in the Birthplace of Maize

Timothy A. Wise

On April 21, a Mexican judge dealt a blow to the efforts of agricultural behemoth Monsanto and other biotech companies to open the country to the commercial cultivation of genetically modified (GM) maize. The ruling upheld the injunction issued last October that put a halt to further testing or commercial planting of the crop, citing “the risk of imminent harm to the environment.”

In a fitting tribute to Mexican surrealism, Monsanto had accused the judge who upheld the injunction of failing to be “impartial.” I don’t know if the presiding judge smiled when he denied Monsanto’s complaint, but I did.

I had just arrived in Mexico to look at the GM controversy, and I could tell it was going to be quite a visit.

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Cultivating Responsibility: Where Does the Buck Stop in Agricultural Investment?

Jennifer Clapp

A recently published Oxfam briefing paper, Smallholders at Risk, challenges a number of mainstream assumptions about the role of private-sector investment in developing country agriculture. The conventional wisdom from the World Bank and other powerful actors is that private investment in the sector will benefit smallholders and enhance food security.

Oxfam’s research shows that, even in cases where private investors claim to be investing “responsibly”, the outcomes can nonetheless be harmful to food security and smallholder livelihoods. This happened in the cases the organization examined in Paraguay, Guatemala, and Colombia involving large-scale private investments in soy, oil palm, and maize that displaced farmers, degraded the environment, and contributed to hunger.

The general response to this kind of outcome has been to promote voluntary initiatives that encourage more responsible investment. A spate of recent initiatives explicitly seek to promote responsibility among investors in the sector: the responsible agricultural investment (RAI) principles currently being developed by the Committee on World Food Security, the Principles for Responsible Agricultural Investment (PRAI) promoted by the World Bank and UNCTAD, as well as a range of other initiatives including commodity specific certification schemes.

These efforts aim to ensure that private sector investment avoids the kind of pitfalls that Oxfam’s research highlights. But voluntary initiatives alone are unlikely to make much of a difference, no matter how strongly they are worded.

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Malawi's Paradox: Filled With Both Corn and Hunger

Timothy A. Wise

Cross-posted from Global Post.

LILONGWE, Malawi — Visit this small, landlocked country in late January and you will have a hard time believing its people often go hungry.

It is mid-rainy season, and in and around the capital city the landscape is lush and green.

Look more closely and you’ll notice that nearly every inch of unpaved space seems planted with maize (corn); the green stalks rise up to five feet above moist, rich soil. Outside of the city, along the road leading south toward the former colonial capital of Zomba, the hills roll with maize, not in vast tracts reminiscent of Iowa but in small, neatly bordered plots.

It certainly doesn’t seem like a land that cannot feed itself. But until recently, that is what Malawi has been.

Droughts often threaten the country’s one rainy season, and with per capita incomes at around $900 per year, hunger, and even starvation, stalk the countryside. The World Food Program has permanent offices here, and for good reason.

Even this season, when the rains have come strong but late, more than 10 percent of the country’s 16 million people face severe food insecurity. According to news reports, some have starved.

It is paradoxical only to outsiders that this greenest of seasons is also the hungriest. By planting time late in the year, many peasant farmers have consumed the last of their saved grain, even following a decent harvest like they had last year. Until the new crop comes in late March or April they have to rely on meager cash income to feed themselves and their families.

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Malawi’s Paradox: Filled With Both Corn and Hunger

Timothy A. Wise

Cross-posted from Global Post.

LILONGWE, Malawi — Visit this small, landlocked country in late January and you will have a hard time believing its people often go hungry.

It is mid-rainy season, and in and around the capital city the landscape is lush and green.

Look more closely and you’ll notice that nearly every inch of unpaved space seems planted with maize (corn); the green stalks rise up to five feet above moist, rich soil. Outside of the city, along the road leading south toward the former colonial capital of Zomba, the hills roll with maize, not in vast tracts reminiscent of Iowa but in small, neatly bordered plots.

It certainly doesn’t seem like a land that cannot feed itself. But until recently, that is what Malawi has been.

Droughts often threaten the country’s one rainy season, and with per capita incomes at around $900 per year, hunger, and even starvation, stalk the countryside. The World Food Program has permanent offices here, and for good reason.

Even this season, when the rains have come strong but late, more than 10 percent of the country’s 16 million people face severe food insecurity. According to news reports, some have starved.

It is paradoxical only to outsiders that this greenest of seasons is also the hungriest. By planting time late in the year, many peasant farmers have consumed the last of their saved grain, even following a decent harvest like they had last year. Until the new crop comes in late March or April they have to rely on meager cash income to feed themselves and their families.

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Most African Leaders Not Making Promised Investments in Agriculture

Timothy A. Wise

Cross posted from Global Post.

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — The African Union commemorated the 10-year anniversary of the Maputo Declaration on agricultural development with the launch of the “Year of Agriculture and Food Security” last week at its summit in Addis Ababa.

Around the summit, following discussions of the political and humanitarian crises in South Sudan and the Central African Republic, I heard the talk turn to agriculture. And African governments certainly have a lot to talk about.

Since Maputo, which mandated that African governments commit to spending at least 10 percent of their budgets on agriculture by 2015, 20 nations have pledged to do so under the rubric of the Comprehensive African Agricultural Development Program (CAADP). Agricultural spending has doubled across the continent, a notable achievement that has shown solid results in increased food production and economic growth for those countries that have fully invested in the sector.

But there is a long way to go. According to a new report from the nonprofit ActionAid, most governments are not “walking the talk” – they are failing to live up to their CAADP commitments.

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The Danger of Trusting Corporations to Lead the Fight Against World Hunger

Timothy A. Wise

Cross-posted from Global Post.

GENEVA — The world’s elites gathered in Davos, Switzerland last week for the annual World Economic Forum (WEF), paying $20,000 a person for the privilege of offering grand solutions to other people’s problems.

I was down the road in Geneva attending a decidedly low-brow, two-day expert workshop on agricultural trade and development. But downwind we could almost smell their champagne fondue, which no doubt helped the powers-that-be focus on the global food crisis.

WEF’s “New Vision for Agriculture” is their answer, which, along with the G8 nations’ “New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition,” represent the bold new initiatives from the rich world to solve poor people’s hunger.

For all the newness, the world’s small-scale farmers can be forgiven for seeing little more than new bottles for some old wine, which they still can’t afford. The old wine includes an overwhelming focus on technological solutions, industrial-scale farms, and high-input methods often poorly suited to small-scale farmers.

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Battle Won, The War Goes On

India has only managed a short-term reprieve from the WTO to implement its Food Security Act

Timothy A. Wise, originally published at BW|Businessworld

In the courtyard of the bali International Convention Centre, just outside the hall where World Trade Organization (WTO) delegates were negotiating a modest, if controversial, agreement, someone had erected a small impromptu shrine, replete with flower petals and other offerings. The memorial was for Lee Kyung Hae, the Korean farmer who, ten years earlier, had scaled the barricades keeping the masses from WTO negotiators in Cancún, Mexico. He pronounced the simple indictment that “WTO kills farmers,” then took his own life.

With a reported quarter-million farmer suicides since 1990, Indian negotiators may well have had Lee Kyung Hae on their minds as they arrived in Bali, Indonesia for the WTO’s ninth ministerial. The country’s National Food Security Act was under threat from the WTO’s arcane rules, and Indian negotiators came to fight.

So did India’s Right to Food Campaign, which sent two representatives to object to the intrusion of the global trade body in India’s domestic policy-making. The act was the result of a decade of organising and lobbying. How could a distant trade body undermine its simple principles of paying hungry farmers a decent price for their grains and distributing it to India’s millions of hungry?
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