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Context of 'October 2000: Genetically Modified Genes Found in Native Mexican Maize'

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In Montreal, Canada, the Ad Hoc Working Group on Biosafety (BSWG) continues negotiations on the text of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (CPB), the first protocol to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The conference is the last in a series of BSWG discussions that began on February 22, 1999 in Cartagena, Colombia. It is attended by over 750 participants, representing 133 governments, NGOs, industry organizations, and the scientific community. The purpose of the protocol is to develop a set of international minimum safety standards for the regulation of trade in genetically engineered organisms (GMOs). The major points of contention during the negotiations relate to (1) the obligations of an exporter to inform importers of shipments containing GMOs, (2) the rights of an importer to reject GMO imports, and (3) whether CBD or World Trade Organization (WTO) regulations have primacy in cases where there is a conflict between the two. The two main negotiating blocks are the “Miami Group” (which includes the GMO-exporting countries of the US, Canada, Australia, Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay) on one side and the European Union and the Like Minded Group (which includes most developing countries) on the other. The Miami Group had formed earlier in Cartagena in order to prevent genetically modified agricultural commodities from being included within the scope of the Protocol, preferring that their regulation remain solely under the jurisdiction of the WTO. The delegates agree on a final draft during the early morning hours of January 29. [Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (CPB), 6/5/1992; IISD Linkages, 2/18/2000; EAAP News, 8/2000; Genewatch, 3/24/2004; Convention on Biological Diversity, 2/26/2005; Biowatch, 3/26/2005] The Protocol will enter into force on September 11, 2003, ninety days after receiving its 50th ratification. [Convention on Biological Diversity, 2/26/2005]
Biodiversity Clearing-House - The CPB establishes a “Biodiversity Clearing-House” to facilitate the exchange of information on GMOs and to assist countries in the implementation of the Protocol. [Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (CPB), 6/5/1992; Genewatch, 3/24/2004; Biowatch, 3/26/2005]
Advanced Informed Agreement (AIA) - The Protocol requires exporters of GMOs to seek permission from the importing country before the GMOs are exported. For most GMO exports, the exporter will be required to follow a set of procedures referred to as the “Advance Informed Agreement” (AIA). However, for GMOs intended for food, feed, or processing (LMO-FFPs), and not planting, a different, less rigorous notification system applies. For these types of GMOs the CPB only requires governments to notify the Biodiversity Clearing-House when they have decided to permit the use of a GMO in their own country and to supply certain information about it. This alternative notification system for food, feed, and processing GMOs was a concession negotiated by the GMO-exporting Miami Group. Pharmaceutical GMOs, GMOs-in-transit, and GMOs intended for use in a laboratory, are also subject to fewer, less stringent regulations. [Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (CPB), 6/5/1992; Genewatch, 3/24/2004; Biowatch, 3/26/2005]
The Precautionary Principle - The CPB permits countries to restrict or ban a GMO if they believe there is a potential for the GMO to cause adverse affects. Conclusive scientific evidence is not necessary. “Lack of scientific certainty due to insufficient relevant scientific information and knowledge regarding the extent of the potential adverse effects of a living modified organism shall not prevent that Party from taking a decision, as appropriate, to avoid or minimize such potential adverse effects.” [Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (CPB), 6/5/1992; Genewatch, 3/24/2004; Biowatch, 3/26/2005]
Multilateral Trade Agreements vs. Convention on Biological Diversity - The Cartagena Protocol contains provisions that address circumstances that would also be under the jurisdiction of certain trade agreements. But it does not address the issue of which set of regulations should take precedence, only stating that “trade and environment agreements should be mutually supportive with a view to achieving sustainable development.” [Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (CPB), 6/5/1992; Biowatch, 3/26/2005]

Entity Tags: Ad Hoc Working Group on Biosafety, World Trade Organization

Timeline Tags: Seeds, Neoliberalism and Globalization, US International Relations

Dr. Ignacio Chapela, a microbial ecologist, and his assistant, David Quist, a graduate student at UC Berkeley, discover the presence of genetically modified (GM) genes in native Mexican maize growing in the remote hills of Oaxaca, Mexico. The contaminant genes contain DNA sequences from the cauliflower mosaic virus, which is often used as a promoter to “switch on” insecticidal or herbicidal properties in GM plants. Contamination is also found in samples from a government food store that purchases animal feed from the US. The Oaxaca region is considered to be the birthplace of maize and the world’s center of diversity for corn, “exactly the kind of repository of genetic variation that environmentalists and many scientists had hoped to protect from contamination,” the New York Times reports. Scientists worry that the genes could spread through the region’s corn population reducing its genetic diversity. Critics of genetically modified crops have long argued that the technology cannot be contained. According to Dr. Norman C. Ellstrand, evolutionary biologist at University of California at Riverside, the discovery “shows in today’s modern world how rapidly genetic material can move from one place to another.” The findings are not good news for the biotech industry which is currently lobbying Brazil, the European Union, and Mexico to lift their embargoes on genetically modified crops. [New York Times, 10/2/2001; Manchester Guardian Weekly, 12/12/2001; BBC, 3/13/2002] It is later learned that the contamination resulted from Oaxacan peasants planting kernels they purchased from a local feed store. Though there’s a moratorium on the growing of GM crops, there’s no such ban on animal feed containing GM seed. [Cox News, 10/2/2001]

Entity Tags: Bivings Group, Monsanto, David Quist, Ignacio Chapela, Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources

Timeline Tags: Seeds

Mexico’s Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources announces that it has found genetically modified (GM) corn growing in 15 different localities. It began investigating potential GM contamination after two Berkeley scientists found maize growing in Oaxaca (see October 2000) that was contaminated with genetically engineered DNA sequences from the cauliflower mosaic virus. [New York Times, 10/2/2001] Mexico does not release its study until January 2002 (see January 2002).

Entity Tags: Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources

Timeline Tags: Seeds

When Dr. Ignacio Chapela, a microbial ecologist who recently discovered the presence of genetically modified (GM) genes in Mexican maize (see October 2000), meets with a Mexican agricultural official to discuss the GM contamination, he is warned not to publish his research. Chapela later recalls in an interview with BBC Newsnight, “He [told] me how terrible it was that I was doing the research and how dangerous it would be for me to publish.” When he refuses to back off the issue, the official suggests that Chapela join a research team tasked with proving that the suspected GM genes are actually naturally occuring gene sequences similar to the ones in GM corn. “We were supposed to find this in an elite scientific research team of which I was being invited to be part of and the other people were two people from Monsanto and two people from Dupont supposedly… .” Monsanto denies its scientists were involved in any such study. Chapela also meets with Mexico’s Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources, whose officials are concerned about the discovery. They launch their own investigation and also find evidence of contamination (see September 18, 2001). [BBC, 6/2/2002]

Entity Tags: Ignacio Chapela, Mexico, Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources

Timeline Tags: Seeds

Berkeley grad student David Quist and Dr. Ignacio Chapela, a microbial ecologist, publish the results of a study (see October 2000) finding that native Mexican maize has been contaminated with genetically modified genes. The study—published by the British journal Nature after an eight-month long peer-review process—presents two arguments. In addition to reporting the discovery that some of Oaxaca’s maize contains transgenic material, the paper says they found transgene fragments scattered throughout the plants’ modified DNA. [Quist and Chapela, 11/29/2001 pdf file] The study’s second conclusion causes a controversy because it contradicts the assertions of the biotech industry that genetic engineering is a safe and exact science, and that the technology is capable of controlling precisely where the modified sequences are positioned, how they will be expressed, and whether or not they will be passed on to successive generations. One of the main arguments of the technology’s detractors is that the methods used to insert trangenic genes into an organism’s DNA cannot be done with accuracy and therefore are liable to produce unpredictable and undesirable effects. Following the publication of Quist and Chapela’s article, other Berkeley biologists—who work in a Berkeley University program partially funded by Syngenta, a major biotech firm—criticize the study, leading Quist and Chapela to acknowledge that the analyses of two of the eight gene sequences in their paper were flawed. However they stand by their conclusions that the remaining six sequences contained scattered modified gene sequences. Critics of the article also note that both Quist and Chapela strongly oppose the genetic engineering of crops and participated in an unsuccessful effort to block the Berkeley-Syngenta partnership. The issue soon grows into a very large controversy that some suggest is fueled by the efforts of the biotech industry, and in particular, the Bivings Group, a PR firm on Monsanto’s payroll. Forum postings at AgBioWorld.org are reportedly traced to a Bivings’ employee. It is also noted that another person posting on the forum makes “frequent reference to the Center for Food and Agricultural Research, an entity that appears to exist only online and whose domain is [allegedly] registered to a Bivings employee.” Bivings denies that it is in any way connected to the forum postings. In spite of the controversy surrounding the article’s second finding, the other conclusion, that Mexico’s maize has been contaminated, is largely uncontested, and is buttressed by at least three other studies (see January 2002; February 19, 2003-February 21, 2003). [Associated Press, 4/4/2002; East Bay Express, 5/29/2002; BBC, 6/2/2002; Mother Jones, 7/9/2002]

Entity Tags: Monsanto, Bivings Group, David Quist, Ignacio Chapela, Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources

Timeline Tags: Seeds

Mexico’s Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources publishes the results of its study (see September 18, 2001) on transgenic contamination in Oaxaca and nearby Puebla. The study found contamination levels between 3 and 13 percent in eleven communities and between 20 and 60 percent in four others. Tests conducted on maize sold in government food stores revealed that 37 percent contained the GM genes. [East Bay Express, 5/29/2002]

Entity Tags: Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources

Timeline Tags: Seeds

In an unprecedented move, Nature runs an editorial pulling its support for a controversial study by Berkeley scientists David Quist and Dr. Ignacio Chapela on genetic contamination of native Mexican maize. The study, published the previous fall (see Late November 2001), reported that native maize in Oaxaca had been contaminated with genetically modified (GM) genes and that transgene fragments were found scattered throughout the plants’ modified DNA. Immediately after being published, the article came under attack by pro-GM scientists who disputed Quist’s and Chapela’s second finding. “In light of these discussions and the diverse advice received, Nature has concluded that the evidence available is not sufficient to justify the publication of the original paper,” the journal’s editor, Philip Campbell, writes. “As the authors nevertheless wish to stand by the available evidence for their conclusions, we feel it best simply to make these circumstances clear, to publish the criticisms, the authors’ response and new data, and to allow our readers to judge the science for themselves.” Though the journal withdraws its support, it does not retract the article. [Associated Press, 4/4/2002; East Bay Express, 5/29/2002; Mother Jones, 7/9/2002] The decision to withdraw support is based on the opinions of three unnamed independent experts whom Nature consulted. Only one of those experts, however, disputed Quist’s and Chapela’s finding that there was evidence of contamination. All three agreed that the second finding—that transgene fragments were scattered throughout the plants’ modified DNA—was flawed. [BBC, 6/2/2002]

Entity Tags: David Quist, Ignacio Chapela, Philip Campbell

Timeline Tags: Seeds

Jorge Soberon, the executive secretary of Mexico’s biodiversity commission, announces that government scientists have confirmed that genetically modified (GM) corn is growing in Mexico. The finding supports what two US scientists reported several months earlier (see Late November 2001) in a highly controversial paper published in the journal Science. Calling it the “world’s worst case of contamination by GM material,” he says 95 percent of the sites sampled in Oaxaca and Puebla were found to have GM maize. Samples taken from these sites indicated a contamination level as high as 35 percent. [Daily Telegraph, 4/19/2002; Mother Jones, 7/9/2002]

Entity Tags: Jorge Soberon, Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources

Timeline Tags: Seeds

An ad hoc expert panel created by the sixth conference of the Biodiversity Convention convenes in Montreal to consider the impact that genetic use restriction technology (GURT), also known as terminator technology, would have on small farmers, indigenous peoples, and local communities. The expert panel hears from 11 groups including the US, Canada, two individual farmers, an indigenous rights group, four civil society organizations, the International Seed Federation, and the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV). [Collins and Krueger, n.d. pdf file; ETC Group, 4/17/2003; Convention on Biological Diversity, 9/29/2003 pdf file] The paper presented by UPOV, completed in January (see January 10, 2003), is not well-received by the US or industry representatives. Though the UPOV is generally an ardent supporter of intellectual rights protections, its analysis argues that GURT technology could threaten the interests of small farmers. The paper is so unwelcome, in fact, that the US and the International Seed Federation will succeed in pressuring the UPOV to revise it (see March 13, 2003-April 11, 2003), eliminating all references to GURT from the body of the paper. Prepared by Monsanto’s Roger Krueger and Harry Collins of Delta & Pine Land (D&PL), the International Seed Federation’s analysis takes the position that GURT technology would be advantageous for small farmers. Their paper argues that GURT would benefit small farmers and indigenous peoples by providing them with more options. “The International Seed Federation (ISF) believes that GURTs have the potential to benefit farmers and others in all size, economic and geographical areas… In reality, the potential effects of the GURTs may be beneficial to small farmers… ,” the paper asserts. “It is the strong belief and position of the ISF that GURTs would potentially provide more choice, to the farmers, rather than less choice.” Kruefer and Collins also say the technology could be used to prevent the contamination of non-transgenic plants with genetically modified genes and thus could be “quite positive for the environment and biodiversity.” [Collins and Krueger, n.d. pdf file; ETC Group, 4/17/2003; Convention on Biological Diversity, 9/29/2003 pdf file] The expert panel’s final report will list 35 “potential negative impacts” of GURT on small farmers and local communities and only nine “potential positive impacts.” It will recommend, among other things, “that parties and other governments consider the development of regulatory frameworks not to approve GURTs for field-testing and commercial use.” [Convention on Biological Diversity, 9/29/2003 pdf file]

Entity Tags: International Seed Federation, International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants, Roger Krueger, Harry B. Collins

Timeline Tags: Seeds

The US, Mexico, and Canada enter into a trilateral agreement that allows food and grain shipments to have GM contamination levels as high as 5 percent. Shipments containing less than the five percent level will only have to bear a label indicating that the grain may contain genetically modified organisms. Additionally, accidental contamination of corn shipments into Mexico will not trigger any labeling requirements. Only the distributor will have to be informed of the contamination. The Mexican government enters into the agreement without the Mexican Senate’s approval. [Associated Press, 2/26/2004] Critics of the deal say the US is attempting to protect agricultural biotech companies and US agriculture. A large percentage of the country’s crop is genetically modified and as a result US farmers and biotechs are having a tough time finding markets abroad. Raising the acceptable contamination limits in other countries will help increase US grain exports. Critics also say that the deal could have a dramatically adverse effect on the genetic diversity of Mexico’s maize. It could result in the planting of more genetically modified corn since small farmers have been known to occasionally plant feed as seed. A few years before, maize growing in Oaxaca and Puebla was discovered to contain genetically modified genes (see October 2000; April 18, 2002). It is believed that the contamination was caused in part by farmers who had planted feed from local stores selling grain imported from the US. The ETC Group, a Canadian-based organization that is opposed to genetically modified crops, warns that if Mexico permits the import of grain with such high levels of contamination, the country’s “maize crop would be riddled with foreign DNA from the Rio Grande to Guatemala in less than a decade.” [ETC Group, 2/26/2004] Greenpeace believes that US efforts to convince countries to lower the accepted levels of contamination are aimed at undermining the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (see January 24-29, 2000), which has been set up to regulate transboundary shipments of genetically modified organisms. [Greenpeace, 2/11/2004]

Entity Tags: United States, Mexico

Timeline Tags: Seeds

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