By Kary Vannice
On the day I arrived in Mexico, I saw a sign that read “Sin Maíz, No Hay País.” I knew enough Spanish to know in English it meant, “Without Corn, There Is No Country.” I remember thinking it was a cute rhyme. At the time, I didn’t understand just how profound a statement it was for the people of this country.
Corn is, without a doubt, the cornerstone of Mexican cuisine. In ten years, I have yet to sit down to any meal with a Mexican that did not, in some way, include corn. Mexicans are proud of their corn. And it really is “their” corn. About 5000 to 7000 years ago, the people of central Mexico started cultivating a wild grass named teosinte. This grass produced a small “ear” with small, but savory kernels; about 10 per ear. However, though selective planting, farmers were able to select, from year to year, the plants that produced the largest grains and plant them again the following year. Each successive planting yielded larger ears and larger kernels, until what emerged was the corn we know today.
From its humble beginnings as teosinte, corn has become the number one grain produced worldwide, with over 28,000 varieties of corn in the world today. Corn is the number one grain produced globally. The United States alone (the world’s largest producer) grew 370.96 million metric tons of corn last year, about one-third of the world’s total production.
Many of the countries that top the corn production list are growing genetically modified (GMO) corn. Corn that has had its genetic coding changed in a laboratory, making it more resistant to drought, pests, and plagues. Also allowing it to grow in regions of the world where it would otherwise not grow. And, according to Time magazine, corn is the most genetically modified gran of all.
Supporters of GMOs claim they are the answer to global hunger and food scarcity. Opponents say they are unsafe and anyone who eats them is at risk of illness and disease.
So, what does that mean in a country whose slogan is “Sin Maíz, No Hay País” and where corn is the foundation of every meal from sun up to sun down, every day of the year?
Where does Mexico stand on GMO corn?
Well, in 2009 a change in legislation allowed biotech companies to conduct trials of GMO corn in select regions of Mexico, and the threat of contaminating native corn began. Then, in 2011, biotech companies used loopholes in the law to expand the cultivation of their GM corn into more even more states. That meant that even more pure strains of heirloom corn were at risk of cross contamination with GM strains. Corn pollen is transferred from plant to plan via the wind and GM corn pollen can easily be transferred to a pure-strain heirloom plant in the near vicinity.
In a country were families’ corn seeds have been saved and replanted on the same plot of land for centuries, this didn’t sit well with many small, local farmers and coalitions were quickly formed to fight the legislation and save Mexico’s traditional corn culture and economy. They also began working with seed banks to preserve the pure strains of Mexican corn before it became cross-contaminated.
In July of 2013, a lawsuit was filed that challenged the government’s process for permitting the planting of GM corn. The suit stated that GM corn threatened the biodiversity of current and future generations of corn. In September of that same year, a federal judge in Mexico City issued a temporary injunction on GM corn, writing that the genetically engineered corn posed “(a) risk of imminent harm to the environment.”
By 2015, the behemoth of biotech, Monsanto, was back in court hoping to overturn the ban and bring GMO corn back to Mexican soil. In August, the ban was overturned. However, by November, the pendulum had swung again when a higher court upheld an earlier provisional suspension of GM corn.
The courtroom war raged on until 2017 when Mexican Supreme Court refused to hear the biotechs’ case. GM corn was, finally, officially off the table in Mexico!
But is it, really? Does that mean that GMO corn is off your table, if you’re eating in Mexico?
In 2017, a study conducted by the National Autonomous University of México (UNAM) found that “…over 90% of tortillas sold in Mexico contained traces of GM corn. And 82% of all corn products, such as tostadas, flour, cereals and snacks, contained some level of genetically modified sequences.”
How can this be? Well, Mexico still imports 10 million tons of corn from the United States every year.
The UNAM study focused on commercially sold corn products, like the ones you would buy in the super market or tortilleria, not handmade tortillas made from home grown corn.
Even though Mexico has officially said “no” to GMO corn, that doesn’t mean it’s not still making its way on to your table, if your buying commercially sold corn products. If you want to be certain you’re not eating GMO corn, buy your corn products from local growers and producers. That way you’ll know you are not only eating a piece of Mexican history, you are also supporting the ancient tradition of corn cultivation that gave birth to the slogan, “Sin Maíz, No Hay País.