When I arrived in Mexico City nine years ago to research the effort by citizen groups to stop multinational seed companies from planting genetically modified corn in Mexico, the groups had just won an injunction to suspend planting permits. Monsanto and the other companies, supported by the Mexican government at the time, appealed and the farmer, consumer and environmental groups were awaiting a judicial ruling.
I asked their lead lawyer, Rene Sánchez Galindo, how he thought they could hope to overcome the massive economic and legal power of the companies and government. He said with a smile, “The judge surely eats tacos. Everyone here eats tacos. They know maize is different.”
He was right. The next day the judge upheld the precautionary injunction. And he is still right: Ten years after the Demanda Colectiva, a collective of 53 people from 22 organizations, filed their class-action suit to stop GM corn, the precautionary injunction remains in effect despite some 130 company appeals.
Today in Mexico City, the Pax Natura Foundation, founded in 1996 to “create peace with nature on all levels for the preservation of life on this beautiful Planet Earth,” is presenting its annual environmental prize to the Demanda Colectiva.
Previous prizewinners include biologist Jane Goodall and former Costa Rican president Oscar Arias. The foundation selected the Demanda Colectiva to join such esteemed company, according to president and founder Randall Tolpinrud, for its “courage and wisdom to resist the ravages of industrial agriculture that degrades the land, destroys biodiversity and encourages increased carbon emissions.”
The ceremony will take place October 16 at the Franz Mayer Museum in Mexico City at 11:30 am local time. It can be streamed live.
The Demanda Colectiva is certainly worthy of such recognition, as I learned in several years of research for the chapter on the campaign in my book, Eating Tomorrow. (The book chapter is available here.) Not only did they hold the line on GM corn planting during five years of hostility from their own government, they also helped open the door to a new government that takes native corn and its protection seriously.
Since the election of Andrés Manuel López Obrador and his Moreno movement in 2018, there has been a sea change in government policy toward rural Mexico. As I outline in an extensive interview with Victor Suárez, Undersecretary of Agriculture for the new post of Food Self-Sufficiency, government programs now favor small and medium-scale producers, promote agroecology and agroforestry, offer support prices for key food crops, and promote laws to enshrine such policies. A right to food law is nearing approval in the Mexican legislature.
López Obrador has also backed the Demanda Colectiva, withdrawing government support from the companies in the legal dispute. Some of the 53 plaintiffs, such as Suárez, now find themselves in key government ministries. Most dramatically, the president has issued a presidential decree that not only bans GM corn planting but also its consumption in tortillas and other basic corn preparations.
It is a dramatic shift after three decades of neoliberal, pro-free trade governments in Mexico. And it has provoked a strong backlash from the U.S. government, which is taking Mexico to an arbitration panel under the renegotiated US-Mexico-Canada trade agreement to try to stop the GM corn decree.
That legal process will unfold over the next six months, with Mexico vowing to present evidence for its public health concerns about the consumption of GM corn and its associated herbicide, glyphosate, in tortillas and other preparations made from minimally processed corn. They intend to show that there are no studies that demonstrate the long-term safety of GM corn in the ways Mexicans consume it. So precaution is warranted.
They will also argue that precautionary measures are needed to protect the country’s wealth of native maize diversity, which is threatened by uncontrolled GM cross-pollination. That is the central claim in the Demanda Colectiva’s case, which deliberately chose to focus on the environmental threat to corn diversity rather than health risks. Citing a bevy of research, including a massive trinational study of native corn contamination from GM corn pollen, the plaintiffs argued that that the Mexican constitution guarantees the right to a clean environment, and in Mexico that right has to include the integrity of its cherished native corn.
Judge Walter Arrellano Hobelsberger’s January 2014 decision was eloquent in upholding the injunction: “The use and enjoyment of biodiversity is the right of present and future generations.”
The fights are not over, either from the companies or from a U.S. government committed to supporting their interests. Monsanto has since been swallowed up by Bayer, but its Mexico office still uses the Monsanto name. They have a lawsuit pending in Mexico to stop the presidential decree.
And a Mexican judge recently gave the companies a temporary win, rejecting the Demanda Colectiva’s original lawsuit in its first full hearing fully ten years after it was filed. He did so despite new evidence of uncontrolled GM contamination of native corn in the majority of Mexico’s states.
The irony was lost on no one in Mexico that the ruling was handed down on September 29, Mexico’s official National Corn Day. Demanda’s legal team quickly appealed, citing an earlier Supreme Court ruling upholding the injunction, so the precautionary ban on GM corn planting remains in place.
Maybe that judge didn’t eat his tacos. One of the original plaintiffs, Elena Alvarez Buylla, who now heads Mexico’s national science agency, told me in May that when the Demanda Colectiva would appear in court to defend the injunction against GM corn planting, they would always make a point to bring the judges two plates of tortillas. One from the supermarket, the other made from native Mexican corn. She wanted them to taste the difference.
Hopefully they still will.
Whatever the courts decide and no matter how a trade tribunal rules, Mexicans will keep resisting the imposition of GM corn. As Adelita San Vicente, the Demanda Colectiva’s former spokesperson, who is now in the Environment Ministry, told me, “No country in the world has mobilized as much resistance as Mexico to the planting of transgenic maize. We will defend our seeds and our sovereignty, not just in the courts but in the fields, in the streets, and in our collective demands for government policies that respect our rights.”
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Photo courtesy of Sunira Moses