I am walking through Olga Maldonado's field in Capulalpan. A Zapotec Indian with a broad, weathered face, Olga now approaches her field, where her ancestors have farmed for centuries, with a new diffidence and uncertainty. "I only know that I am afraid," she says.
Her field is on a hillside over the town, with a sweeping view of the Sierra valleys below. The field itself is a patch of perhaps 200 plants; you can walk from one end to the other in about a minute. But it's enough to produce food for her, her husband and their young children for most of the year.
The problems surfaced when Olga first discerned that some of the corn in her field did not have the hardiness to which she was accustomed. Several others in the village were having similar problems: nothing devastating, just that their yields were off, and in an area where corn is central to the region's economic and cultural life, that registers as a significant event.
How could transgenic crops have made it into the fields in this remote location in Mexico? In Capulalpan, Olga herself remembers buying some corn from the local store, where imported kernels are sold by the crate (and are, legally, only supposed to be ground up for food). She didn't know about the government ban on planting, and she figured she'd try some of it out in her fields. "I planted that corn out of curiosity," she says. "I bought it at the government store and planted it to see if it was better than ours. And because there was more corn in each plant."
But later, when the corn had problems maturing, she had her plants tested at a small laboratory located on the cusp of a hillside overlooking the Sierra valley, in the town of La Trinidad. There, the UC Berkeley microbiologist Ignacio Chapela had helped to establish a genetic testing facility as part of a successful effort to demonstrate to Japanese buyers that the large, brimmed fungi that grow wild at the foot of the trees in the surrounding forest and look like shiitake mushrooms actually are shiitake mushrooms. Every month traders make the trek to Capulalpan to purchase mushrooms, which are flown express to Japan, providing much-needed cash to the community. This time, however, the lab discovered something it didn't want: Within the genome of Olga's corn kernels--varieties that have grown here for centuries--was, suddenly, evidence of genetic manipulation. The lab ultimately found that fifteen of the twenty-two corn samples it tested from the surrounding mountain communities also had traces of transgenes.
Genetic engineering has transformed American agriculture: In just six years, 34 percent of our corn, 75 percent of our soy, 70 percent of our cotton and 15 percent of our canola is genetically engineered. Genetically engineered potatoes, tomatoes and wheat are also headed toward mass production. The critical forces behind the development of the technology itself are just five companies--Dow, DuPont, Syngenta, Aventis and Monsanto--which control three out of every four patents issued over the past ten years for genetically modified crops. And fully 90 percent of the genetically modified seed technology planted around the world is either owned by or licensed by one company, Monsanto, according to the ETC Group (erosion, technology and concentration), a sustainable-agriculture NGO that has followed changes in the seed industry over the past two decades. According to an assessment by Chemical and Engineering News, just two companies--DuPont (owner of Pioneer and other smaller seed companies) and Monsanto--control nearly three-quarters of the US corn-seed market. These companies are now anxious to export the rapid advances the technology has made across America.
But the very idea of manipulating the genetic structure of a living organism has caused unease around the world. While I and a production crew from the PBS newsmagazine show NOW With Bill Moyers (which aired a version of this story on October 4) were visiting Olga Maldonado in Mexico last summer, half a world away, two southern African countries, Zambia and Zimbabwe, were refusing to accept American donations of genetically engineered corn to help them contend with a food crisis that was sending tens of thousands of people into starvation. The European Union was facing down a possible US challenge at the World Trade Organization over European restrictions on imports of genetically engineered food. In countries as far afield as France, India and New Zealand, the new technology was sparking anti-American demonstrations. The release of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) into the environment would later emerge as one of the most contentious issues to be discussed at the Earth Summit in Johannesburg, South Africa. Altogether, more than thirty countries have imposed either a total ban or heavy restrictions on GMO imports from the United States.