Mexico, the native home of corn, soon will enjoy a new beginning–and has a remarkable opportunity to join the revolution in farming that is sweeping the rest of the world.
Last month, Mexican voters elected Enrique Peña Nieto as our next president. The former governor of Mexico’s biggest state will take office in December.
Most of the political commentary has focused on the partisan basics: Peña Nieto’s triumph marks a return to power for the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which governed Mexico for more than 70 years before the National Action Party (PAN) won a historic presidential victory in 2000.
Peña Nieto now must confront a series of daunting challenges involving the economy, corruption, and drug-war violence.
He should also tackle agricultural reform–and in particular, he should push for greater acceptance of genetically-modified crops. Mexico previously benefitted from the 20th century’s Green Revolution. Now it’s time for my country to enter the 21st century and embrace the Gene Revolution.
Peña Nieto must guide us there.
To a limited extent, Mexico already has accepted the Gene Revolution. In 2011, its farmers planted more than 430,000 acres of biotech crops, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA). This was a staggering upsurge of 146 percent over the previous year, a rate of increase that led the world.
But it’s easy to lead the world when you start out small. This is Mexico’s main biotech problem: Its GM acreage is still puny. A tiny country like Africa’s Burkina Faso grows more GM crops than we do. So does Myanmar, in Southeast Asia.
Although Mexico has grown GM crops for years, our government has limited the types of GM plants that our farmers can grow. As a result, GM cotton is widely used but other crops–including corn, with its incredible biotech potential–remain out of reach for most farmers.
Even among Latin American countries, we trail in biotech acceptance. Argentina and Brazil are global leaders in GM crop production. They’re farming powerhouses, so perhaps it’s not entirely fair to compare Mexico to them. Yet Mexico doesn’t even finish third. Bolivia, Paraguay, and Uruguay also grow more GM crops. That puts us in sixth place. If we remain complacent, we’ll fall further behind as Chile, Colombia, and Honduras overtake us.
A few Mexican farmers have grown biotech corn, but usually in temporary field trials and trivial amounts. Permits to grow GM corn have come slowly, often with useless and ridiculous restrictions. We’ve fallen behind on research as well. This is not a problem of agriculture or science. It’s a problem of politics and government–and one that Peña Nieto, with his upcoming fresh start, has an opportunity to fix.
The spread of biotechnology through Mexico won’t require new spending, but it will demand tough decisions on regulatory approvals. Thankfully, Peña Nieto’s PRI has a tradition of biotech acceptance, dating back to Mexico’s earliest approvals of GM cotton in the 1990s.
Many of us would like to have full access to the yield-boosting varieties of GM corn that are now conventional crops in Canada and the United States, our NAFTA partners. When I travel north, in fact, I’m in awe of what our fellow farmers are able to accomplish with these amazing plants. I’m also jealous that we don’t share in this bounty–and wonder if domestic production can replace the roughly 10 million tons of corn we import for livestock consumption each year. Most of these imports, by the way, are the very types of GM corn we don’t grow ourselves.
I understand Mexico’s reluctance to welcome corn biotechnology with the fervor of other nations. Our ancestors domesticated the plant 10,000 years ago. Corn is one of Mexico’s great gifts to the world.
Biotechnology doesn’t change that, but it does mark an important turning point in the cultivation of this staple food. Either we accept a safe technology that boosts yield, reduces reliance on chemical sprays, and fights soil erosion–or we choose to watch farmers in other countries continue to pass us by.
Mexico deserves better. Peña Nieto must seize this unique moment and do what’s right for Mexico, its farmers, and its people.
Francisco Gurría Treviño is a veterinarian, a former Undersecretary of Agriculture and Livestock and Permanent Advisor to the Mexican Corn Producer Association in Miguel Hidalgo, Mexico. He is a member of the Truth About Trade & Technology Global Farmer Network. www.truthabouttrade.org
Veterinarian; consultant on agricultural water issues, Actively promoting technical assistance and technology transfer for the small farmer.