Written by and posted at GRAIN.
Ever since GMOs were first introduced in the mid-1990s, farmers’ groups and NGOs have warned that they would contaminate other crops. This has happened, just as predicted. In this article we look at how communities in different parts of the world that have experienced contamination are developing strategies to fight against it.
[Three videos accompany this article which can be viewed here: http://www.grain.org/videos/?id=195]
When GM crops are planted they contaminate other crops with transgenic material. In places where GM crops are grown on a large scale, it has already become almost impossible to find crops of the same species that are free of GM material. And the contamination spreads even to areas where GM crops are not officially permitted.  The GM Contamination Register, managed by GeneWatch UK and Greenpeace International, has documented more than 216 cases of GM contamination in 57 countries over the past 10 years, including 39 cases in 2007. 
Monsanto and the other biotech corporations have always known that their GM crops would contaminate other crops. Indeed, it was part of their strategy to force the world into accepting GMOs. But around the world people are refusing to lie down and accept genetic modification as a fact of life; instead they are struggling against it, even in places subject to contamination. In fact, some communities experiencing contamination are developing sophisticated forms of resistance to GM crops. These usually begin with short-term strategies to decontaminate their local seeds, but often seek over the long term to strengthen their traditional food and agricultural systems.
We look at the experiences of communities in different parts of the world in dealing with GM contamination to see what insights they can offer others faced with similar situations. Each situation is unique, and gives rise to different processes. Common to all of them is the primary importance of collective action – of communities working at the grassroots to identify their own solutions and not depending on courts or governments, which, without strong social pressure, tend to side with industry.
The experience of communities in Mexico
For the indigenous peoples of Mexico and Guatemala, maize is the basis of life. In the creation story of the Maya, maize was the only material into which the gods were able to breathe life, and they used it to make the flesh of the first four people on Earth. For other peoples of Mexico, maize is itself a goddess. The plant has been the fundamental food of Mexicans for centuries, and thousands of varieties provide an amazing range of nutrients, flavours, consistencies, recipes, and medicinal uses.
In January 2002, researchers at the University of California in Berkeley announced their discovery that local varieties of maize in the highlands of Oaxaca state had been contaminated. Other communities of small farmers carried out tests on their own crops and were shocked to find that they too had been contaminated. For these people, it was a deep blow to their culture. They could not sit back: something had to be done.
At first, though, they did not know what to do. GMOs were new to them. They started by bringing together the nearby communities that might also have suffered contamination, as well as NGOs that they were close to. Workshops were held and people were mandated by their local assemblies to discuss on behalf of their communities. The strategy was thus collective from the beginning. This is the first point to be noted about the Mexican experience.
One fundamental point of agreement reached early on was that this GM contamination needed to be viewed as part of a war. It was not an accident or an isolated issue, but part of a war against farmers and indigenous peoples – in their words, a war against the people of maize. They needed to respond accordingly – defending not just their seeds but their livelihoods, their cultures, their whole way of life.
Initially, though, there were few practical ideas about how to decontaminate their maize and prevent further contamination. Concern was expressed that the communities might not have the technical capacity to deal with such a complex problem. But these communities and the NGOs working with them had a great deal of experience in finding grassroots solutions to the problems affecting them, and so, rather than look to outside experts, they turned the question upside down, focusing not on GM maize, which they did not know, but on their own varieties of maize, which they knew intimately.
They began by sharing their own knowledge of maize and what maize needs to be healthy. The most basic point was that to keep their maize alive and well they had to sow it and eat it. In many communities, traditional maize was disappearing because people were sowing it less. The first step in defending their maize was thus to plant more of it. It was also felt, in response to GMOs, that seeds were dangerous when their history was not known. So it was agreed that seeds should be planted only when their history was known, or when they came from a source that was well known to them.
As the communities put these principles into practice, they began to pay closer attention to the crops in their fields, and became aware of all kinds of serious malformations. They tested the deformed plants and found a high rate of contamination, so they began watching for these plants and weeding them out.
Another thing they knew about maize is that it out-crosses, so, to prevent GM contamination, they would have to keep GM maize from crossing with their maize. They began by implementing simple techniques such as planting trees around their fields. Some of the techniques they developed could be applied everywhere, whereas others were specific to certain communities. But the important thing was that they were setting up a system to avoid contamination.