There was much discussion about what to do with contaminated plants. It was strongly felt that if a very old variety has been in your family for generations and all of a sudden becomes contaminated, this maize should not simply be destroyed. Contaminated maize is sick and needs to be cured, not killed. It may take a year or 100 years to cure it, but it has to be done, because the maize has been with their communities for generations.
The peasant communities of Mexico have probably developed the deepest strategies of any communities facing GM contamination around the world. There are many lessons that can be drawn from their struggle, with perhaps the main ones being:
1) The need to look at GM contamination as part of a wider attack on farmers and local communities. Defending your crops means also defending your land and your water, and this requires strong communities, strong collective decision-making processes, and strong networks with other groups at the national and even international level. Such a wide approach allows more people to participate in the struggle. Even if not everyone can take care of the seeds, there are other things that they can do.
2) The importance of not being beholden to time frames. For the Mexican communities, GM contamination is part of a war waged against them that is permanent, and so their approach has to be long-term and capable of being permanent. Their decision is to defend their maize, no matter how long it takes. As they see it, when deadlines are brought in, people are faced with what they cannot do, and usually little can be done in the short term, so they compromise. This the Mexican communities refuse to do.
3) The importance of looking at the issue from your own perspective. The communities in Mexico spent a lot of time in the early workshops discussing spirituality and their views on deities and creation. They talked about the rituals that could protect maize. Those invited from outside to participate had a hard time explaining the technicalities of genetic engineering, because the concept appeared so absurd. But, in the end, the communities arrived at their own core understanding of genetic engineering as a method of taking control over agricultural livelihoods, and this core understanding was far more important than the technical information.
5) The need to emphasise social struggles over legal struggles. Among the Mexican communities, there was a lot of discussion about biosafety laws, seed laws and other relevant laws. At a recent workshop dedicated to laws, a time line was presented of all the various laws that the Mexican government has passed in the last 15–20 years. From this picture, the communities came to a clear conclusion that the legal route was not an important route for their struggle. You may lose the lawsuit but if there is enough social pressure you may win in other ways. For them legal options are only effective when there is enough social pressure on authorities. So the tactic is not discarded, but it is not central.
An invasion of illegal GMOs into Thai farms
GM contamination was first reported in Thailand in 1999 after cotton samples from field research conducted by BIOTHAI and the Alternative Agriculture Network (AAN) were found to be contaminated with Bt cotton – a genetically engineered cotton variety produced by Monsanto. In 2004, tests made by Greenpeace revealed that a local farmer’s plantation in Khon Kaen province was contaminated by GM papaya. That farmer was one of 2,600 who had bought papaya seedlings from the Department of Agriculture’s research station where field trials of GM papaya were being conducted. At first, the government denied that GM crops were being grown in Thailand, but the contamination was so widespread that it reached another province, Ubol Ratchatani, where at least 90 farms had also received papaya seedlings. Most recently, in 2007, Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Science and BIOTHAI found GM contamination in maize, soya and cotton samples that they tested from provinces all over the country.
On the other hand, the Thais are working to increase local capacity to develop systems to detect contamination and deal with its impacts. The Khao Kwan Foundation (KKF), one of the founding organisations of AAN, has been mobilising farmers’ knowledge to identify contaminated seeds and to control or eliminate them. The KKF runs trainings and workshops on seed breeding and selection, which indirectly deal with contamination.
KKF believes that farmers are able to notice anything abnormal in their crops, because of their in-depth knowledge of seeds and their skill in selection. Whether it is the colour, the hardness or the smell, every variety has peculiarities that farmers who have been working on seeds know in detail. So any alterations will be easily detected, even before the plant starts to flower.
Daycha Siripatra, founder of KKF, says: “This is the principle of local adaptability. We’ve made our seeds recognise their environment and use that environment to express their potential. An alien seed, like a GMO, will not automatically thrive in our area and, even if it grows, farmers will be able to notice it right away, just from its appearance.”
Filipino farmers deal with contamination
In 2002, the Philippines had the (dis)honour of being the first country in Asia to authorise the commercialisation of GMOs, when it approved the release of Monsanto’s Bt maize amid nationwide protests. Since then, genetic contamination has been reported in maize-growing areas throughout the country.
In the north-western province of Isabela, a local variety of white glutinous maize grown by farmers for food has reportedly been contaminated by GM maize. No gene testing has been done but farmers identify the contamination by the yellow kernels that appear in the otherwise white maize. In Bayambang, Pangasinan, farmers typically plant maize after rice. But now they are complaining that they have lost practically all the traditional maize varieties in the province due to contamination by hybrid and GM maize. They also fear for their health, as there have been incidents of children being taken to hospital for incessant vomiting after accidentally eating GM maize. There was also a report of a farmer’s cow that became sick and eventually died after being fed with Bt maize.
MASIPAG is a national farmers’ network with a maize programme that collects and improves traditional varieties throughout the country. Recently, the group’s back-up farm in San Dionisio, Iloilo (not far from Capiz) was contaminated. The area is a major producer of hybrid maize, and about three years ago mass cultivation of GM maize began by way of a contract growing scheme managed by local elites.
At least three native varieties used for farmer breeding in the back-up farm were immediately contaminated by the GM maize. At harvest, it was observed that there were yellow grains mixed with maize ears of pilit-puti and mimis – these are traditional varieties used by farmers for food. The area planted with maize on the back-up farm was only 50–100 metres from the nearest maize farms. Bamboo trees along the creek serve as natural barriers, but since the neighbouring fields are sloping, MASIPAG believes that pollen from the GM maize could nevertheless have been carried to these fields by the wind.