Mexican groups appeal to NAFTA environmental commission to force action against genetic contamination

Press release - 23 April, 2002

Mexican indigenous communities, supported by Greenpeace and local environmental organisations, announced their intention today to appeal to the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)(1). The groups are demanding an immediate assessment of the damage caused by the contamination from genetically engineered (GE) maize in the Centre of Origin and Diversity of Maize, which was discovered over six months ago.

A positive decision from the CEC would push both the Mexican and the US Governments to take the action that is long overdue to seal off the source of the genetic pollution and to find a solution to the current situation in the provinces of Oaxaca. Over 300 local and wild maize varieties are in jeopardy due to contamination that most likely has originated from US imported GE maize. The appeal will be formally issued on Wednesday, 24th April.

The appeal requested the Commission for Environmental Cooperation to review the impact of the genetic contamination on maize and ecosystem biodiversity, to explain how the indigenous varieties have been contaminated with genes of GE varieties, and to include recommendations to avoid the further spread of contamination.

Speaking in the Hague, the Netherlands, at the intergovernmental conference discussing the implementation of the UN Biosafety Protocol, Miguel Ramírez Domínguez, President of the Communal Property Commissariat of Capulalpan de Méndez, Ixtlán, Oaxaca, one of the communities affected by the contamination said: "We call for a thorough investigation about the consequences of the presence of genetic contamination in the indigenous maize varieties and effective remedial measures. The investigation should be managed by an independent and credible organisation, such the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) of NAFTA. This pollution not only affects Mexico but puts the world's food security at risk since farmers around the world rely on these genetic resources to create new varieties, which adapt to changing environmental conditions."

In September, the Mexican Government confirmed that indigenous Mexican maize varieties in 15 out of 22 communities tested in the states of Oaxaca and Puebla are affected by genetic pollution of GE traits. The latest information from a government source indicates even higher levels of contamination than originally feared - up to 20-60 percent in four communities tested. This is the first case of genetic contamination of a centre of origin and diversity for one of the world's most important food crops.

Because of the high risk GE maize poses to local varieties and wild relatives, Mexico prohibited field trials and commercial planting in 1998. However, each year approximately 6 million tonnes of maize to be used for food and animal feed are still imported from the United States, at least 25% of which is GE.(2)

The UN Biosafety Protocol recognises the crucial importance of the centres of diversity to humankind but the Protocol is still ineffective as the ratification process has been at standstill for two years, halting real progress in implementation. (3)

"Despite the gravity of the current situation threatening one of the world's main food crops, the international community remains paralysed without the Biosafety Protocol being in force. We urge the world Governments to implement the spirit of this agreement immediately. They need to agree on preventative measures to avoid further outbreaks of contamination in the other centres of diversity by banning all imports and releases of genetically engineered organisms into these areas. They must also enforce the demand to remedy the current situation in Mexico and hold the contaminators responsible, " said Dr. Doreen Stabinsky, Science and Biosafety Expert for Greenpeace International, attending the UN Biosafety meeting in the Hague this week.

Notes: 1. 13 communities affected by the contamination in Oaxaca had signed the appeal by Monday; further 30 were expected to sign it before Wed 24th April. The final appeal can be viewed on The Commission for Environmental Cooperation of NAFTA has a mandate to represent the environmental interest of the signatory countries, Canada, the US and Mexico. This includes the protection of their shared natural resources and enhancement of their joint efforts to solve environmental problems. The appeal relates to the Article 13 in the North American Environmental Co-operation Agreement. 2. More than 80 scientists and plant breeders from different countries call on world Governments "to employ all means possible to prevent the contamination of Mexican maize and its wild relatives by genetically engineered corn varieties." Greenpeace, along with 40 Mexican groups, have proposed an emergency plan, which calls for the Mexican Government to stop importing GE maize, undertake a rapid assessment of the scope and magnitude of the contamination, develop and implement a national decontamination plan, and file a legal action on behalf of the affected communities against Monsanto, Syngenta and Aventis, responsible for the production of GE maize. 3. The United Nation's Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety was established to ensure that the development, handling, transport, use, transfer and release of any genetically engineered organisms is undertaken in a manner that prevents or reduces the risks to biological diversity, also taking into account risks to human health. The Protocol also makes a special reference to the crucial importance to humankind of centres of origin and centres of genetic diversity. The intergovernmental conference to discuss implementation of the Protocol (ICCP-3) takes place 22nd - 26th April, 2002, in the Hague, the Netherlands.