Sunday, December 7, 2008

Transgenic Corn: The case of the United States, France, and Mexico

As the world’s population continues to grow, concerns for food have gone up. What will happen to the global population when in fifty plus years when the earth’s population nearly triples? Will we have enough food? Will we have famines and wars? These questions are questions that science hopes to answer. In the discussion of corn, one of the worlds’s most consumed crops, environmentalist and farmers around the world have brought up the solution of transgenics in corn. The bioengineering process and the manipulating of genes have brought up several concerns around the world; However, environmentalist from the three main producers of corn, the United States, France, and Mexico, have different views about the environmental and health issues that transgenic corn raises. While the United States falls in favor of transgenics, France and Mexico are against it for various reasons.

In the past twenty years science has continued to develop, especially in the case of agriculture and foods. In the case of corn scientist have been able to modify different characteristics of corn to yield favorable outcomes. This process of bioengineering happens in various different ways. In one, bacteria and viruses—which are naturally able to penetrate cells—are deployed as delivery vehicles to shuttle genes directly into plant cell genomes. In another, tiny particles coated with a gene are propelled at high speeds into cells to deliver the gene. In still another, electric shocks are used to destabilize cell membranes, making them permeable to deliver genes” (Schmidt, 2005). It is because of this bioengineering that much debate has been raised concerning the validity of the products and its effects on the environment and human health along with ethical issues. Originally transgenics started by combining of the same species, but as of late, it has started to combine genes of completely different species.

As current studies have shown, the United States produces over 63% of the world’s Genetically Modified (GM) corn, and is the number one producer, defender, promoter, and user of Genetically Engineered (GE) foods around the world; However, unlike that of other countries, environmentalist and farmers in the United States argue that GM corn and GM crops, in general, are beneficial to not only the United States but to the rest of the world (Herrera-Estrella & Alvarez-Morales, 2001).

While the United States argues that Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are advantageous to society, other countries raise questions on the basis of environmental repercussions, health risk, and loss of indigenous identity; However, US environmentalist suggest that the majority of the population are in opposition to GMOs because they focus their attention on the credibility of biotechnology and bioengineering rather than the direct benefits that GM crops yield. However, although activist have their doubts about transgenic corn and the environment, US environmentalist note that transgenics is environmentally safe and eco-friendly. They report that farmers, annually, clear over 11 million hectors (ha) of forest land to find more productive soil. With biotechnology, scientist can alter the plant genes to make plants productive rather than the soil. Moreover, in response to health issues, US environmentalist argue through scientific data that transgenic corn is just as good, if not better, than naturally harvested corn. Furthermore, nearly 45% of the corn in the US is genetically engineered, and for the past twenty years there have been no apparent health issues. Finally, environmentalists believe that these neo-biotechnological methods should be compared with the technology that it is replacing (Traditional Ecological Knowledge or TEK) rather than in isolation (Herrera-Estrella & Alvarez-Morales, 2001).

In addition to these arguments about health, environmental, and TEK issues, transgenic corn has other useful properties. US environmentalists find that transgenic corn allows for less tillage. In other words, less work needs to be done when killing off weeds. While regular corn would die concurrently with the weeds, GE corn can be altered to where the corn will resist the herbicide chemicals while the weeds die off. Another benefit of transgenic corn is ability to kill off harmful insect. With Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) genetically added into the corn strain, harmful insects will digest the poison causing their stomach walls to collapse, killing them. Moreover, fewer insects will result in less damaged corn which in turn yields more ears without fungus or intoxication. Since Bt only works through consumption, productive insects will be left unharmed (e.g. Monarch Butterfly). Furthermore, if GM corn is intercropped with non-GM corn, it would lower chances of insects building up a resistance to the Bt gene. Finally, another main benefit of transgenic corn is its ability to produce at higher rates than traditional corn. Moreover, by inserting certain genes, GM corn can yield more nutritious vegetation (Genetically Modified Corn, 2008).

While these benefits may seem a viable reason for GMOs, many people are still in shock from the “frankenfood” scare. Earlier on in the research of bioengineering, scientist from DNA Plant Technology of Oakland, California inserted genes from a flounder into a tomato to give the tomato “anti-freeze” qualities. The genes that help the flounder survive frigid temperatures was spliced and put into the cells of the tomato. Although this tomato never made it to market or caused any harm it remains the basis that many use today in their debate against GMOs (Schmidt, 2005).

Although the debate about whether GM corn is beneficial to society remains, there is one important factor that is constantly left out when discussing its usefulness in society. As afore mentioned, one benefit of transgenic corn is its ability to produce at much higher production rates. Research shows that corn is ranked first in production and third in consumption in the world followed after rice and wheat (Soleri et al. 2006). Through transgenics, enough corn can be grown to sustain not only the United States but also to the entire world. Studies have shown that global populations will increase by 2050 with an estimate of 9.3 billion people: 400 million more than previously estimated (Herrera-Estrella & Alvares-Morales, 2001). To prevent war and famine there needs to more food to sustain the population and US environmentalist argue that transgenics is a viable solution. Peggy Lemaux from the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology at the University of California, Berkeley comments about her work with transgenics in staple food of third world countries. “I want to help people,” Lemaux says. “I work for a land-grant university, and our charge is to develop varieties that help agriculture and consumers. If I can do this for countries that really need it, then that’s what I want to do” (Schmidt, 2006). While many may view America and its environmentalist as solely capitalist, there are some researchers out there that want to truly contribute to global society.

As I move on to further the discussion of GM corn, I now cross over the Atlantic ocean in to the heart of Europe. Over the years France has come to be known as the land of romanticism and passion. Not far from this moral is their love and determination toward pure foods. Moreover, being Europe’s number one producer of corn, France takes its food quality very serious. Although majority of the corn in France may be grown as animal feed, the question of human health still supersedes the notion of animal priority. In the early 1990’s France embraced this new technology and considered it beneficial to production, but in 1999 an outbreak spread out through the country that shattered the hopes of transgenic crops. During the later 19990’s France experienced hundred of deaths due to the Vache Folle or Mad Cow Disease virus. Although the outbreak had no relation to transgenic corn, it did raise awareness and vivified the issue of pure foods. Moreover, in 1999 UK scientific journal Lancet that showed transgenic potatoes caused rat cells to break down, and recent studies have shown similar results (Miller, 2007).

Before GMO hit the market different unions had arose to save farmers from large industries. Since then these organizations have grown and now protest against GMOs and transgenic corn. In 1987 a group called the Confédération Paysanne was formed and focused on restoring the pasaynne or the peasant farmers. Since the invention of biotechnology, the Confédération Paysanne have also come to protest that GM corn is uncultural rather than unnatural. The invasion of larger industries has left the pasaynnes without jobs and without pure corn. Now they exist as the second largest farmers union in France (Heller, 2007).

In addition to the rise in farmers unions, the president of France has noticed the rising concerns for pure foods and has taken action according to their laws. Because these transgenic foods have been found to raise questions, the president, in concordance with Article 23 of the EU Deliberate Release Directive (2001/18), has put a ban on all imports of GM corn for further testing. While many people in France are happy with the decision, the United States, Canada, and Argentina have brought it up to the World Trade Organization (WTO) as an infringement on their trade laws. Although there is a ban on GM corn, the only GMO grown in France, it will not be there for long. The ban is expected to lift in February of 2009, leaving unions and activist to come up with another solution to maintain pure foods (GMO Safety, 2008).

In comparison to the United States, France looks for quality, pure foods rather than quantity and utility. Although the main vox populi argue that GM corn is in fact harmful and unstable to the environment and human health, John Miller (2007) notes in his article GMO Safety that some farmers in France are in favor of GM corn as is does produce more yield; However, in contrast with the United States, the majority of people in France view GMOs as unsafe and few view otherwise, while in the United States the majority are for GMO and face little opposition. This goes to show that the United States hold the underlying mindset of a utilitarian while France, as well as Mexico, holds fast to tradition (Miller, 2007).

In the case of Mexico, corn takes on more than just a consumer resource position; it is a crop that is indigenous to Southern Mexico and it is one that flows throughout their cultural history, culinary identity, and economy. When considering the ramifications of transgenic corn in Mexico, one must realize that all of these aspects are affected. Mexicans have been growing maize from 5,000 to 10,000 years and over the years have grown what is now the most biodiverse crop in the world (Bradbury, 2006). The Mexican indigenous knowledge is what brought biodiversity to come so far, if transgenics takes over, that growing indigenous knowledge will eventually die. Moreover, maize is the number one staple in the Mexican diet. One study shows that in 2003 alone 12.7 million metric tons of maize was consumed in Mexico (Soleri et al. 2006). Throughout the years, Mexican farmers relied on their wives to decide what seeds to save and harvest for food (Bradbury, 2006). Transgenics in corn would make take away that biodiversity and replace it with the monocropping corn which would ultimately end up in a loss of culture and identity. In addition to the loss of traditional ecological knowledge and culture, Mexican farmers would also lose their sustainability of life. Unlike that of US mainstream companies, Mexican farmers chose to grow crops in smaller fields where crops are grown for subsistence. Any extra corn hat is left over is sold to provide for the family (Bradbury, 2006).

While their system of subsistence farming has sustained throughout the past 10,000 years, genetically engineered (GE) crops are changing the way Mexican farmers, campesinos, are living. In 1994 an agreement was signed between Canada, The United States and Mexico ultimately allowing the US government to provide large farming companies with subsidies for lower interest rates on loans. The North American Free Trade Agreement’s (NAFTA) permission of the government to distribute subsidies went toward the research and development of transgenic corn. As research progressed, the US companies were able to mass produce the corn and export it into Mexico. Because of the low interest rates and high production yields many campesinos are currently being undersold by maize from the US. This underselling of the campesinos by maize has led to the loss of jobs for these farmers and furthermore their culture.

Other than the opposition to transgenics due to loss of culture, identity, and sustainability, GE corn has led to concerns about the biodiversity. As seeds are imported into Mexico, it is very possible that the pollen from the transgenic corn could cross pollinate with the indigenous maize. This cross pollination could eventually lead to the destruction of biodiversity in maize causing all corn to be of the same strain. With all maize being of the same strain, one virus or disease could wipe out all of the vegetation, leaving all of the indigenous work to desolation (Bradbury, 2006; Peña, 2008).

Unlike the US where transgenics is thought to be a cornerstone in science or a solution to solve the world’s poverty, it in fact diminishes the life of traditional Mexican campesinos. Mexican environmentalists argue that GE crops and transgenic corn are not “fit” for the Mexican environment due to so much loss of culture and identity (Soleri et al. 2006). As an alternative to GE corn, three propositions have been made. Peña (2005), a professor at the University of Washington, proposes that farmers resort back to the ancient Mayan milpa system, where gardens and farms are made to resemble the rainforest (i.e. polyculture; consist of root, ground cover, middle layer, lower canopy, and higher canopy tops). Another solution proposed by Bradbury (2006) is the conservation of pure seeds in a seed bank, but in order for this to happen, manual monitoring of corn must take place to ensure no cross pollination occurs. Furthermore, this research is very much underfunded and would need a lot of money to prosper. The third solution proposed by Soleri (et al. 2006) is to integrate transgenes into the corn under certain conditions which would fall in favor to the campesinos.

In conclusions, the world’s population is increasing exponentially and food will be a definite concern. While the United States, biggest promoter of GE crops, suggest that we turn to the science of GE crops, other countries such as France and Mexico argue that transgenics is unsafe and uncultural. Environmentalist in the United States argue that transgenic corn has many valuable properties and benefits to society, but France argues that ongoing research has been showing negative affects to the cell structure and Mexico argues that it takes away from their traditional ecological knowledge and identity. Furthermore, both France and Mexico pose an Alter Native approach to GE corn (Peña, 2008). While France offers the solution of running more tests on GMO crops to understand its effects holistically, Mexican environmentalist offer three Alter Native approaches: Seed Banks, the Ancient Mayan milpa system, or integrating transgenic crops into traditional farming so that it works in favor of the indigenous peoples.

All three countries have very good reasons as to why or why not they want to accept transgenic corn. In the case of the United States I agree that there will be an inflation of people by 2050, and I believe that this is an issue that GE corn can fix; However, in listening in on the conversation of environmentalist in both France and Mexico, I do feel the need to sympathize with the uncooperativeness. Bioengineering is a fairly new technology and method and I firmly agree with France on the basis that GMO need to be further tested before mass production occurs. An argument that Peña (2008) mentions in his lecture is the importance of biodiversity. If transgenics completely takes over the production of corn, one disease or virus could wipe out every strain of corn ever made. Moreover, thousands of years of history will be lost for the Southern Mexican campesinos. After reviewing the arguments each country, I agree mostly with the United States. Global starvation is a major issue that we need to face, and it is a shame that thousands are dying of starvation in third world countries when we have the resources to fix it; However, I also believe that the best way to go about it is to take the Alter Native approach that Soleri et al. (2006) suggest. I believe that we should take the knowledge that we have obtained and collaboratively find a way to preserve not only the ever growing population but also the years of history that has made that population who they are.


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Herrera-Estrella, Luis; Alvarez-Morales, Ariel. (2001, April 15). Genetically modified crops: hope for developing countries? The current GM debate widely ignores the specific problems of farmers and consumers in the developing world. EMBO Reports. v.2, No. 4. p. 256-258. Retrieved on November 24, 2008, from

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Peña, Devon G. (2008).Environmental Anthropology. Lecture Series.

Peña, Devon G. (2005). Mexican Americans and the Environment, Tierra y Vida. University of Arizona Press. Tuscon, AZ. p. 50-57.

Schmidt, Charles W. (2005, August). Genetically Modified Foods: Breeding Uncertainty. Environmental Health Perspectives. Vol. 113, No. 8. Retrieved on November 24, 2008, from

Soleri, D., Cleveland, D., & Cuevas, F. (2006, June). Transgenic Crops and Crop Varietal Diversity: The Case of Maize in Mexico. Bioscience, 56(6), 503-513. Retrieved November 20, 2008, from Academic Search Complete database.

Unknown. (2008, January 14). GMO Safety. Retrieved on December 5, 2008 from

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-Adrian Cepeda

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