December 28, 2001

Scientists Say Mexican Biodiversity Is Safe; Concerns About Cross-Pollination Unfounded

AUBURN, Ala. — Following allegations that genes from biotechnology-improved crops have been found in varieties of corn grown in Mexico, scientists around the world are re-affirming that Mexico's biological heritage is safe and that biotechnology will actually protect biodiversity, not harm it. "Organizations with a vested interest have used these tenuous claims and a campaign of hysteria to discredit modern biotechnology," said C.S. Prakash, a professor of plant genetics at Tuskegee University and president of the AgBioWorld Foundation.

Activist groups claim they are concerned that gene flow will destroy biodiversity in native varieties of corn. However, corn itself is a wholly un-natural plant created by thousands of years of selective breeding by farmers. In Mexico, farmers reproduce their varieties by carefully selecting the seed they save from year to year. Thus, if an undesirable gene is transferred into certain plants, seed from those plants will not be planted the following year and will be eliminated from the gene pool. This cultural practice explains why Mexican farmers can plant many different varieties next to one another, without worrying about cross-pollination.

"There is no scientific basis for believing that out-crossing from biotech crops could endanger maize biodiversity," said Luis Herrera-Estrella, a noted plant scientist and director of the Center for Research and Advanced Studies (CINVESTAV) in Irapuato, Mexico. "Gene flow between commercial and native varieties is a natural process that has been occurring for many decades. Nor is there reason to believe that these genes will become fixed into landraces unless farmers select them for their increased productivity," added Herrera-Estrella. "In the end, that would result in improving the native varieties."

The claims of cross-pollination have not been verified and have been called into question by scientific experts. That has not stopped the Mexican Congress, or Greenpeace and other anti-technology activist groups, who have called for a ban on the import of biotech corn varieties. Such a move would do nothing to protect biodiversity. It would, however, damage agricultural production and trade — ultimately harming Mexican farmers. "The biggest threat to Mexico is not out-crossing from biotech crops, but activism that prevents farmers from adopting more productive agronomic practices," said Dr. Prakash. "That's the only real damage this whole scenario will cause."

Thousands of scientists from around the world — including Nobel laureate Dr. Norman Borlaug, who has worked in Mexico for the past five decades — have endorsed biotechnology as a safe and productive means for helping to improve food security, while reducing pesticide use and improving biodiversity. In the meantime, the Mexican government has established a program to verify the allegations and to determine whether such out-crossing could cause any possible harm. "The most responsible step right now would be to postpone potentially harmful legislation and other action until this full and independent analysis is conducted," concluded Dr. Prakash.

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