Retreat to Subsistence
In New York City I asked the Mexican economist Juan Carlos Moreno-Brid why the Mexican export-oriented economy had not been able to grow the way China's export-oriented economy has. China, he explained, has followed an industrial policy that has created "linkages" requiring foreign investors to buy materials in China. The effect has been to spread around the export growth. NAFTA, by contrast, was deeply rooted in the philosophy of free trade (economists speak of it as one of the most extreme free-trade agreements ever negotiated) and specifically precluded any such arrangements. Mexico developed an export sector, Moreno-Brid told me, but it consisted largely of maquiladora plants assembling imported components. These plants generated relatively few, relatively low-paid jobs, and their influence has not spread into the larger economy.
There are, of course, other problems with NAFTA. The economist Thomas Palley refers to it as "a watershed in international agreements," a new type of treaty in which production floats between countries "always threatened by competition from poorer countries below." Palley's point is well illustrated in Murder City, Charles Bowden's chilling book about the border city of Juárez. Over the past decade, according to Bowden, approximately 100,000 jobs have left Juárez for China because China's wages are only a quarter of the already punishingly low wages in Juárez. The main consequence of Juárez's low wages and disappearing jobs is the drug business. "In Juárez," Bowden writes, "the payroll for the employees in the drug industry exceeds the payroll for all the factories in the city."
Genetically modified corn was first commercially planted in the United States in 1996. By 2000 it already accounted for 25 percent of the US crop, and according to The Impact of Genetically Engineered Crops on Farm Sustainability in the United States, a recently released report from the National Research Council, by 2009 it accounted for 85 percent. Virtually all genetically modified corn is of two technologically simple types: a corn implanted with a Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) gene that imparts resistance to several insects; and another implanted with a gene that creates tolerance to glyphosate, an herbicide. The latter allows farmers to spray entire fields without damaging the crop. The National Research Council report points out that even though genetically modified corn seed costs considerably more, it saves farmers the costs of other, often more environmentally damaging pesticides and herbicides and the labor costs of applying them. "It's a business model, really," a prominent biologist explained to me.
After harvest in the United States, genetically modified and non–genetically modified corn are freely mixed, and without elaborate testing it is impossible to tell the difference between them. At the time NAFTA was negotiated, genetically modified corn had not been an issue, but as corn from the United States began to inundate Mexico, the Mexican government became concerned that it could crossbreed with Mexican landraces, possibly leading to hybrids that could overrun native corn. In 1998 the government issued a moratorium on planting genetically modified corn. By then, however, the United States was shipping millions of tons of corn to Mexico, any single kernel of which could be genetically modified. The moratorium proved unenforceable. (It has recently been rescinded—although only in areas deemed not to be "centers of origin" of corn.)
Scientists with reservations about genetically engineered crops maintain that the ways in which transgenes—the packages of genetic material implanted in a host plant—interact with the genome of the host are little understood. Transgenes, they argue, are inserted into the host genome largely at random and could make their way to unintended parts of the host genome and switch on unintended genes. "We know very little about what happens after the transgenic insert," Paul Gepts, a professor of plant science at the University of California, Davis, told me.
A larger concern with genetically modified crops is spelled out in Environmental Effects of Transgenic Plants, a 2002 report from the National Research Council. It describes the tendency of introduced crops to hybridize with populations of their wild relatives. In a number of instances, this led to the creation of weedy hybrids that overran local wild populations and made them extinct, sometimes within a decade or less. The report refers to the field of "invasion biology" and notes that there's more to learn about the reasons for different degrees of invasiveness. The tendency of hybrid species to invade populations of their wild relatives is well documented, however, and the report noted that there was no reason to believe transgenic plants would behave any differently.
These concerns had special resonance in Mexico. Corn cultivation here differs radically from that in the United States. In the United States, commercial corn is grown each year from new seeds. At the end of the year, whatever traits corn possesses—or may have picked up—disappear. In Mexico, by contrast, seed preservation and exchange is central to indigenous corn culture. Landrace corn, moreover, is "open pollinated": through the exchange of pollen, it can pick up and pass along whatever traits happen to be in adjacent plants—including genetically modified plants. If landrace corn happened to pick up genetically modified genes, those genes could be passed through seeds to subsequent generations.
In the United States, moreover, there are virtually no wild relatives of corn, and the possibility that transgenes might move from modified to wild corn plants has been little studied. Regulatory policies are based, as Kathleen McAfee puts it, on the idea that transgenes "will remain confined to the crop and the harvest cycle into which they were intentionally placed." In Mexico, by contrast, there are dozens of landrace corns with which genetically modified corn might interbreed. The Mexican government's concern, therefore, was that if genetically modified genes were to get into landraces, not only would they not be removable but they could lead to their extinction.
In the late 1990s Zapotec farmers in Oaxaca began to notice what they thought were unusual numbers of mutant plants in their fields. Already inflamed by the government's agricultural policies, the Zapotecs were deeply suspicious of genetically modified corn and approached two scientists then working in the area, Ignacio Chapela and David Quist of the University of California, Berkeley, and asked them to test the plants for evidence of transgenes.
In their lab, Chapela and Quist found not only evidence of transgenes but also, to their great surprise, what they considered to be clear evidence that the genetically modified genes had fragmented and become redistributed within the host plants. This seemed to fulfill the worst fears of those concerned about genetically modified crops: that implanted genes were unstable and could run wild inside related genomes. In November 2001 Chapela and Quist published their findings in Nature. Their paper caused an immediate uproar. Both scientists had been outspoken in their opposition to a recent funding agreement between their department and Novartis, whereby in exchange for millions of dollars the department had given the agro-biotech giant a significant stake in its research. Reactions to Chapela and Quist's paper depended largely on how people felt about the Novartis controversy. Critics argued that the article's evidence failed to support the authors' second point—that genetically modified genes were unstable within the genomes of their host plants.
Under tremendous pressure, Nature published an unprecedented statement criticizing the evidence for this assertion. Chapela and Quist stood by their findings, and supporters of the two scientists argued that Nature's statement was inappropriate: the paper had been peer-reviewed; postpublication debates often discover weaknesses in published research, and the normal procedure would be a follow-up article. The controversy was unusually bitter and personal, and raged far beyond the pages of Nature. Eventually, the Guardian reported that among the most persistent of Chapela and Quist's critics were a pair of fictitiously named web posters connected to a Washington PR firm hired by Monsanto, the world's leading producer of genetically engineered seeds.
Chapela and Quist's paper nevertheless generated further studies—some confirmed transgressed genes, but others did not. Most recently, a study by an international team led by Elena Alvarez-Buylla of the National Autonomous University of Mexico and published in the journal Molecular Ecology seems conclusively to support Chapela and Quist's findings. Ultimately, the resolution of the issues raised by Chapela and Quist is less significant than the agitation their Nature paper caused in the Mexican countryside. In 2002, not long after the paper appeared, a group of Zapotec leaders from the municipality of Ixtlán de Juárez, supported by three Mexican environmental groups, filed a petition with the Commission for Environmental Cooperation to conduct a study of the implications of the genetically-modified-corn problem.