MEXICO CITY – Traditional Mexican maize, a fundamental aspect of national culture that is used in some 700 dishes and has 64 recognized strains and thousands of regionally adapted varieties, is at risk and in need of more federal support, activists consulted said on Thursday.
The “Sin maiz no hay pais” (No Corn No Country) campaign is calling on the lower house of Congress to pass a bill (already approved by the Senate) that would recognize access to that cereal grain as a “human right of the Mexican people” and create programs that benefit the small farmers and indigenous people who grow it, according to Malin Jonsson, who is coordinator of the Semillas de Vida (Seeds of Life) Foundation.
The bill needs to be passed soon because Mexico imports 34 percent of the corn it consumes, mostly from the United States, and “almost all of it is genetically modified and yellow,” said Jonsson, who also is a food security researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).
“The prices paid to producers are falling on the one hand, but also, with this genetically modified corn we’re importing, our corn is contaminated. The first contamination of native maize was found in Oaxaca in 2001. So we need to find the legal tools,” he said.
In September, Mexico’s Senate passed a bill on native maize that would create an organization – the National Corn Council (Conam) – responsible for setting public policies for protecting seeds from contamination by genetically modified organisms, promoting diversity of that grain, ensuring informed consumption and supporting small farmers.
Currently pending approval by the lower house, the legislative measure has sparked criticism from Mexico’s National Agriculture Council, which says the bill contains provisions that would put production of hybrid varieties of corn at risk and dismantle the infrastructure relied upon by large producers.
Jonsson, however, said the bill would not stymie innovation or technological development and that protecting native Mexican corn is “essential for developing new types of seeds” and opening markets for small farmers.
“This law is not regulating in that sense because it doesn’t ban genetically modified or hybrid (corn). Rather, what it does is support native maize. And I say that’s totally necessary,” he said.
TRADITION AND IDENTITY
The law also is a way of protecting Mexican cultural heritage, consolidating national identity and recognizing the human rights of indigenous and peasant communities, said Xavier Martinez, technical director of the Mexican Center for Environmental Law.
“Cultivation of native maize in Mexico is associated with the different cultural identities of indigenous people and campesinos, and with the cultural identity of the mestizo population,” the specialist said.
Although he sees the legislation as a “step in the right direction,” Martinez said the bill has weaknesses that include the absence of a budget allocation, the lack of linkage with the Law on Biosecurity of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO Law) and the scant involvement of campesinos and indigenous people in the drafting process.
The activists are urging Congress to the give final approval to the bill before a new trade deal linking Mexico, the US and Canada takes effect, since they argue that free trade is one of the factors contributing to the abandonment of Mexico’s culinary traditions.
“The problem we’re facing now in terms of health, the issue of diabetes in Mexico and obesity has to do with a transition from the traditional Mexican diet to fast food. And so one of the things we should do is promote traditional cuisine,” Martinez said.