An empty office building in a rough section of Mexico City was not the place where Ignacio Chapela expected to be on a rainy evening early last September. The microbial ecologist from the University of California at Berkeley had traveled to the capital to meet with Mexican scientists who were working to verify some disturbing findings that had turned up in his research. DNA from genetically modified corn, Chapela discovered, is contaminating local varieties developed over centuries in the remote mountains of Oaxaca. The implications are far-reaching: If GM corn can find its way into such an isolated region, scientists warn, then it can go anywhere.
The discovery was especially startling because Mexico has banned the planting of GM corn for nearly four years while it considers how best to safeguard the natural varieties grown in Oaxaca. But instead of sounding the alarm over Chapela’s findings, a government official named Fernando Ortiz Monasterio summoned him to the deserted building. There, to Chapela’s surprise, Ortiz suggested he withhold his research. Mexico’s biosafety commission, Ortiz explained, was preparing new rules that would end the government moratorium on planting GM corn. “Everything is going fine, except we have this one hurdle,” Chapela recalls Ortiz telling him, “and that one hurdle is you.”
The warning rattled Chapela. “For him to say this to me in an empty building was intimidating,” he says. He ignored the pressure, however, and published his findings in the November 29 issue of the journal Nature.
The Mexican government, for its part, has continued its efforts to squelch the news. When scientists from Mexico’s biodiversity commission and the National Institute of Ecology found the spread of GM corn to be even more extensive than Chapela reported, top-level officials pressured them to keep quiet. Three government scientists who helped verify Chapela’s findings told Mother Jones that they have been told not to discuss their research. “The biosafety commission and other parts of the government have said this is something we shouldn’t be talking about,” says Jorge Soberon, director of Mexico’s biodiversity commission.
The Mexican government did not respond to requests for interviews, but documents show that officials are more concerned about preventing publicity than addressing the findings. In a letter to Chapela last November, Mexico’s then-undersecretary for agriculture, Víctor Manuel Villalobos, said the government was working to undo “the damage to agriculture and the economy caused by the publication” in Nature.
A major issue in the debate over genetically modified foods is whether consumers and farmers can choose unaltered seeds and food products. But if GM corn has spread to Oaxaca, the region where corn originated, choice may be on its way to irrelevancy. Agrochemical companies acknowledged last summer that they can’t guarantee the conventional seed they sell is free of genetic modification, and organic crops labeled “GM Free” are testing positive for altered DNA.
The Oaxaca discovery has sparked a new drive for labeling and segregating crops and food products in Mexico. Opponents of lifting the ban on GM corn in Mexico are also pushing the government to further examine the extent of the contamination. “We have been telling the government that this is technology we can’t control,” says Soberon.