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Multicolor maize,corn varieties

This article is part of a 3-part series on familiar foods with surprising backstories. Part Three: Mexico is the birthplace of corn, and corn is the "source of life." But the unique genetic resources of native maize — and the social structure and cultural identity that evolved along with the crops — are under threat from powerful agribusiness, global trade agreements and GMOs.

Read Part One: Is Synbio Vanilla "Natural"? Heck, No! and Part Two: What Does Bill Gates Have To Do With Ethiopian Chickens?

Did you know a full third of the human population depends on corn as a staple food? It's one of the most commonly grown grains in the world, second only to rice. Corn is also considered a high-risk for being GMO.

Genetically modified corn became available in 1996, engineered to tolerate chemical weed killers or produce their own insecticide. Today, at least 92% of U.S.-grown corn and more than 80% of Canadian-grown corn are genetically modified to do one or both of these things. But the ubiquity of GMO corn stops at the southern border. Mexico is both the birthplace of corn and the repository of thousands of invaluable, locally-adapted varieties. 

Cultivating GMO corn for commercial use is prohibited on Mexican soil, and President Lopez Obrador has pledged to end imports of GMO corn — most of which come from the U.S. It takes some serious grit to banish the pet technology of powerful agri-chemical corporations. The reasons behind this bold move reach deep into the soil, into the rural landscapes of Mexico's small-holder farmers, and into the past.

Maize in Mexico

Corn is part of a family of cereal grain domesticated in Mexico close to 9,000 years ago. Indigenous Taino people called it mahiz, meaning "source of life" in the local dialect, from which we get the modern term, "maize." 

Today, maize production is critical to food security and political stability in Mexico. It is at the heart of Mexican cultural, agronomic and gastronomic life. 

This spiritual and social importance contrasts deeply with genetically modified corn's commodification, degradation and devaluation — a difference that was already palpable when the North American Free Trade Agreement ("NAFTA") nearly destroyed traditional Mexican agriculture.

NAFTA and native maize

In the early 1990s, NAFTA — the first iteration of a trade agreement between Mexico, Canada and the United States — was a mere glint in the eye of North American leaders and lobbyists. Mexican farmers grew enough maize for most domestic consumption, saving and sharing seed as part of the stewardship of small-holder farming. The government protected the market by only allowing foreign corn imports if the domestic supply faced a shortfall. 

North of the border, American farmers also grew corn. U.S corn, however, was a far cry from the 21,000+ native varieties grown in Mexico. It was a commodity crop grown from high-yield hybrid seeds, destined for biofuels, animal feed and highly processed packaged goods, or sold to overseas markets. Robust federal insurance programs and subsidies made U.S. corn cheap. 

NAFTA opened Mexican markets to highly subsidized U.S. corn. American agribusiness giants flooded the Mexican market at less than the cost of production. The Counter describes NAFTA's impact during its first decade, when "U.S. corn exports to Mexico quadrupled, while the price of domestically-grown corn in Mexico crashed by nearly 70 percent." With their livelihood all but wiped out, many agricultural workers abandoned farming altogether, migrating to urban centers — and eventually across the border — searching for jobs. And when farmers leave the land, native maize loses its key caretakers.

Native maize varieties have much to recommend them: They often perform better under difficult conditions, in poor soil and mountainous areas. On the other hand, modern hybrids prefer flat plains and mechanized harvesting. Native maize varieties are optimized for a range of local conditions, fostering unique traits that are crucial as we adapt to climate change. 

Diversity is the bedrock of native maize varieties, but in global markets that favor consistent output, it sometimes works against producers. Foreign buyers look for massive quantities of identical ears and kernels that can be processed and packaged at scale. The things that make native maize genetically valuable can also make it a niche product. 

And once GMOs arrived on the scene, that cornucopia faced a new threat. 

Contamination nation

Foreign seed has long posed a threat to native maize. In 2005, Mexico passed a biosecurity law to limit genetically modified corn cultivation in Mexico. Sadly, the law was not iron-clad, and Big Ag already had its eye on the Mexican market. Before long, biotech corporations planted experimental plots of GMO corn in Mexico's northern states, and pollen from the genetically modified corn ultimately contaminated native maize.

Wind pollination isn't the sole source of contamination. According to agribusiness writer and researcher Tim Wise, "The most pervasive form of [contamination] isn't pollen on the wind, it's kernels of maize in people's pockets." When people carry corn seed over longer distances, it becomes that much harder to maintain the integrity of native maize varieties. After all, no one can tell if a kernel nestled in the palm of their hand contains patented DNA. And once that kernel grows, it can contaminate nearby stalks. GMOs that are released into the environment cannot be recalled. 

While GMOs spread north of the border, the kernels traveled south. Contamination by modified and patented DNA is well documented, threatening the genetic resources of one of the world's most important crops.

Glyphosate, be gone!

The preservation of Mexico's cultural and genetic heritage is only gaining steam. On the last day of 2020, Mexico's president announced the phasing out of GMO corn imports as well as glyphosate, the weedkiller most commonly used with GMO crops. Mexican courts rejected the move by corporate giants to lift Mexico's biosecurity restrictions, ruling instead to protect biodiversity and the right to a healthy environment. 

These decisions reflect the knowledge that the "source of life" is inextricable from Mexico's cultural heritage and social fabric. The team at A Growing Culture argues convincingly that culture and agriculture are inseparable:

"The gateway to environmental erosion is cultural erosion. When the fabric of communities is weakened through industrialization, the careful stewardship of the land, the embeddedness, and the knowledge of these communities are weakened as well."

A truly nourishing and equitable food system emerges from the essential interconnectedness of people and land, tradition and innovation. Industrial-style agriculture driven by transnational corporate interests disrupts this interconnectedness, with devastating consequences for both people and the planet. The triumph of culture and biodiversity over capitalism and Big Ag signals a brighter future.

 

This article is part of a 3-part series on familiar foods with surprising backstories. Part One: What is the past, present and future of the humble vanilla bean, a tasty and lucrative crop that pits biotechnology against traditional knowledge and sustainable farming?

Read Part Two: What Does Bill Gates Have To Do With Ethiopian Chickens? and Part Three: GMOs and Heritage Corn: Protecting the Source of Life

There's a new genetic engineering technique in town: Synthetic biology, or "synbio" — and it's already on store shelves. Synbio techniques generally exploit genetically modified microorganisms such as yeast or algae to produce compounds for industrial or commercial use. On ingredient labels, these compounds might even be listed as "natural flavors"! In 2014, synbio vanilla became the first product of this technique on the market.

How, you may wonder, can a synbio product created by engineered yeast microbes be marketed as a natural flavor? The dubious description is based on the molecular makeup of the finished compound — not on the method of production, and definitely not on the genetic engineering that made it possible.  

Synbio is a new twist in the winding road of biotechnology. What does synbio mean for the future of the most popular flavor in the world?

Biopirates of the Caribbean

The flavor many of us know and love comes from the beans of a flowering orchid vine native to Mesoamerica. Europeans landing in the Americas in the 16th century took vanilla away with them. They distributed vines throughout the tropics, following the routes of imperial expansion: The British, Spanish and Dutch all tried to produce vanilla in colonized lands in Southeast Asia. 

But, for 300 years, the vines remained fruitless. 

We know now the missing ingredient was the pollinator. Flowers don't produce beans without pollination. Vanilla's natural habitat is also home to unique insects, perfectly sized and shaped to access the deep recesses of the flower. Foreign pollinators couldn't do the job, and vanilla production stalled. 

This drought would have continued if not for the innovation of a 12-year-old boy named Edmond

How a slave created an industry

For centuries, horticulturists and naturalists tried to coax vanilla vines into productivity. The breakthrough finally came when a slave in the French colony of Bourbon developed the hand pollination technique still used today. Le geste d'Edmond, or "Edmond's gesture," was fundamental to the lucrative natural vanilla market, but Edmond himself never benefited from it. Because he was a young Black slave, his innovation was doubted, derided and ultimately appropriated. 

The modern vanilla market is centered in the region where Edmond lived, where a subtle flavor once harvested by Indigenous peoples, taken by colonizers and finally brought into production by a slave still flourishes. 

Natural vanilla is the most popular flavor in the world, and demand far exceeds what the vines produce. To supply the difference, chemists developed artificial versions derived from wood pulp or petrochemicals. Artificial vanilla appears in a range of products, from candles to candy.

However, artificial vanilla made without genetic engineering doesn't displace natural vanilla farming because labeling restrictions prevent it from being called a natural flavor. Synbio vanilla, on the other hand, is the product of new and insufficiently regulated technology. Corporate marketing materials use language such as "all natural" to describe their product, ignoring that synbio products are created in vats in warehouses. This puts synbio vanilla directly in the path of the natural vanilla market — and the 200,000+ jobs in sustainable agroforestry that go with it.

Savor vanilla. Save the world.

Vanilla vines thrive in rainforest conditions where they climb native trees. They coexist happily with flora and fauna and can even be grown alongside coffee or other food crops. Traditional vanilla farming is a low-impact, high-benefit farming system that supports the conservation of biodiverse rainforests.

The people who grow vanilla mostly do so in developing economies where jobs and security are rare. They apply specialized skills to support their families and preserve diverse ecosystems. In some regions, vanilla farming also has a profound cultural significance, as one farmer explains: "For my community, the value of vanilla goes way beyond economic factors. It has a cultural value and really it represents an identity for us." 

Why synbio is a no-go

Reliance on synbio vanilla would destroy the livelihood of skilled farmers in the Global South. Vibrant forest farms would likely be converted into sugar plantations, supplying fuel for those modified yeasts bubbling away in distant warehouses. Deforestation, industrial agriculture and genetic engineering would replace diverse and healthy forest farms.

And then there is the loss of the incomparable taste and scent of natural vanilla, a complexity that comes from the soil where it grows, the vegetation it neighbors, and the diet of the pollinators in its Mexican homeland. These kinds of dynamic, interactive systems can never be replicated in a warehouse.

Monarch butterfly on flower

On April 21, 2021, the USDA invited public comments on the future of the food system: From commodities and food crop production to the supply chains that process crops and transport them. This kind of comprehensive look at critical systems is both timely — with lessons learned from the global pandemic — and crucial to our collective welfare and security as we face a changing climate. 

Among the Non-GMO Project's guiding principles is the belief that everyone deserves access to good food. Food security, climate change and social justice are inextricably linked, and each element inevitably impacts the others. 

We are in a moment unlike any other in human history. The interconnected impacts of our choices and the consequences of "business-as-usual" lie in sharp relief. There is a shared sense of purpose and a renewed appetite for change, drawing us toward systemic reforms that benefit producers, workers and consumers alike.

In support of a truly resilient, regenerative food system that supports jobs and wellbeing today and for generations, the Non-GMO Project advocates for: 

Industrial agriculture is currently the dominant practice in the United States. While this system has produced high-yield, low-cost commodity crops, a closer look reveals exorbitant hidden and externalized costs, including environmental degradation, biodiversity loss and increased health risk to millions of consumers.

Because of the systems of centralized power that "lock in" industrial agriculture, change will be most effective when economic and social policies are grounded in ecological principles. 

Here, we offer our vision for the future.

A systemic shift toward diversified farming systems

While uniformity is the basis of an industrialized system, diversity is the basis of resilient agriculture.

Agriculture occupies more than 900 million acres of land in the United States, the overwhelming majority of which is used for livestock and the production of a few GM commodity crops. 

This homogenous and extractive model squanders natural resources, devastating biodiversity above and below ground. Industrial-style crop production degrades soil and hastens erosion. Monoculture planting creates ideal conditions for destructive pests and pathogens because it works against the natural inclination of the landscape towards diversity. 

Biodiversity is critical to successful and sustainable agriculture. Pollinating insects and birds are responsible for a third of the food we eat, while crops rely on healthy soil that is home to billions of invertebrates and microorganisms. 

Diversified farming systems that integrate livestock and crop production drastically reduce the need for costly synthetic fertilizers while supporting healthy soil. A growing body of evidence indicates diversified farming systems can provide a diverse and healthy diet with sustained yields over time and strong performance under environmental stressors. 

Healthy ecosystems provide a range of services that support human health: water and air purification, nutrient cycling, habitat and food for diverse species and billions of soil microorganisms that are the basis for new medicines. Support for these activities is vital: There is more crucial natural infrastructure in a healthy landscape than we could ever hope to construct by artificial means. 

The challenges we face in the coming decades require bold action. We must provide economic incentives for farmers to rebuild healthy ecosystems in their operations. Subsidies for commodity crops — many of which are overproduced — should be redirected as incentives for diversification: promoting crop rotation, nutrient-dense fruits, nuts and vegetables, as well as non-GMO and organic foods. Using more acreage for domestic consumption will revitalize rural economies.

Moving from an extractive model of agriculture toward a diverse and regenerative one will improve soil, water and air quality, restoring them as high-quality resources just as valuable as the crops. By adopting a holistic view of our food system and optimizing production practices, we will build a sustainable and resilient system — aiding our work to heal a broken planet.

Regional food hubs

The Covid-19 pandemic illuminated and exacerbated our food system’s pre-existing flaws. Consolidation in food processing has produced brittle supply chains, unable to adapt to disruptions. More disruptions are coming: The form may vary, but disruption has become a recurring variable rather than an outlying event. 

During this time, there were also success stories. Small-scale and organic operations pivoted during the pandemic, meeting the needs of farmers and their local communities.  What worked provides a blueprint for a truly resilient and nimble food system.

We must create a strong network of regional, mid-size processing, storage and transportation infrastructure to protect the supply chain, enhance agility and create markets for small and mid-sized producers. Designed strategically, smaller processing plants also offer safer work environments — an important consideration given the increased frequency of emerging zoonotic diseases.  

By intentionally building a diverse and regionally-based production and processing system, we bolster the supply chain against future disruptions and create market opportunities for smaller operators.

Everyone deserves access to nutritious food

The elements of a nutritious diet are well-known: regular, moderate meals with an emphasis on plant-based foods. But our agricultural landscape doesn't reflect our goals. It reflects the reality of unbalanced, unsustainable and unhealthy food choices, prioritizing high-yield crops with lower nutrient density.

For example, of more than 900 million acres of agricultural land*: 

If every American voluntarily switched to a healthy, flexitarian diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables, there would not be enough produce to feed them. 

We eat what we grow, and we are as sick as our landscape. 

Food issues emerge in different forms: Food insecurity stems from poor access, often due to poverty or the absence of grocery stores. Nutritional insecurity, on the other hand, when we rely on low-quality foods. A poor-quality diet may meet our caloric needs, but fresh foods and essential nutrients are lacking. Diet-related diseases are the number one cause of mortality in the States. 

Food insecurity increased dramatically during the pandemic — particularly in families with young children and in Black and Hispanic households. We've seen government programs and private entities scramble to provide meals to those in need. If we transition acreage to diversified farming systems and strengthen regional food networks, federal and state initiatives such as SNAP, WIC and school meal programs could create markets for locally-produced, nutritious food. By building these intersecting systems across the supply chain, we can move beyond food security and toward true nutritional security, crop diversification and secure markets for nutrient-dense fruits, vegetables and nuts — a triple win.

The solutions to food and nutrition insecurity are often regionally specific. These are unique situations determined by population density, social dynamics, geography or myriad other factors. A "one-size-fits-all" approach to food and nutritional security simply doesn’t work. 

However, fantastic organizations across the country are already deeply engaged with the communities they serve. We must increase support and funding for regional food hubs that prioritize local and nutritious food, food sovereignty, and food justice, elevating this expertise to benefit the communities that need it the most.

Workers' rights: Seed saving, secure incomes and support for BIPOC farmers

Through land theft, dispossession and exploitative working conditions, the modern food system has been devastating to the people whose labor sustains it. Black farmers saw an erosion of ownership and food sovereignty over the past century. Millions of essential workers who earn their living doing hourly work in the food sector — from on-farm to processing and service jobs — make some of the lowest wages in the country. 

Discriminatory laws fail to provide some of these positions with basic protections and marginalized and BIPOC workers disproportionately bear the impact. The continued denial of rights and protections to an essential sector of the workforce sustains inequalities that have been part of the agricultural system since this country's founding. We must build something better for the workers who feed us.

Owners and operators on agricultural land are also struggling. For 19 of the past 20 years, the average farmer spent more to produce crops than they earned from their operations. Subsidy programs improved the financial outlook of commodity farmers, but these programs prop up an inherently unsustainable system. By redirecting support to promote diverse farming systems, farmers gain income security, produce more nutrient-dense food and regenerate their land.

Ultimately, converting acreage toward diversified operations reduces mechanization and leads to more hands-on jobs. It is essential to create a labor market that does not rely on exploitation. Through legislation and policy development, we must increase support for groundbreaking nonprofits like the Fair Food Program, a highly successful certification and enforcement program that improves conditions for workers. 

Our vision for the future of our food system relies on integrated systems and a bold commitment to social and environmental justice. It is a heavy lift. But the challenges we have faced during the past 18 months are proof of just how quickly systems can change in a crisis. Adaptation saves lives and livelihoods. When the initiating event is not a once-in-a-century pandemic but an existential threat to humanity in the form of climate change or the ongoing nutritional deficiencies and food insecurities that stifle our potential, surely we can act just as decisively. 

As the Covid pandemic recedes, we welcome the Biden Administration's efforts to "Build Back Better." We respectfully ask for bold action to ensure nutrition security for all and to restore our environment.

 

*Sources: 

USDA, Agricultural Statistics Board, NASS, Prospective Plantings, 2021.

USDA, ERS, The Adoption of Genetically Engineered Alfalfa, Canola and Sugarbeets in the United States: Report Summary, 2016.

USDA, NASS, 2017 Census of Agriculture, 2019.

In the past 25 years, genetically modified organisms have transformed the agricultural landscape, figuratively and literally. The greatest impacts have come from some of the earliest and most widely adopted GMO crops, which now take up over 90% of U.S. cropland. While the trend toward crop uniformity did not start with GMOs, this technology has certainly accelerated it, posing severe threats to biodiversity, food security and human health.

Why is biodiversity important?

Millions of years of evolution and cohabitation have left an extraordinary abundance of life on this planet. The word "biodiversity" includes all of Earth's living organisms — plants and animals, soil microorganisms, bacteria and fungi — plus all the genetic variation within those species and the ecosystems that are home and habitat to all of this life. These ecosystems can be incomprehensibly complex. The presence — or absence — of a single organism can ripple outwards to affect the whole. 

A great example of this is shown in a short PBS video about wolves' reintroduction to Yellowstone National Park. While the wolves were gone, dynamics between the plants and animals had fallen badly out of whack. Not even the scientists who planned the wolves' re-entry imagined the far-reaching effects: improved water quality, more pollinator habitat or stronger amphibian populations. With biodiversity restored to Yellowstone, there are more — and healthier — species in residence. 

In the last century, human activity has devastated global biodiversity. Due to unsustainable resource use, habitat destruction and a changing climate, species are disappearing much faster than at any other time in the last 10 million years. The impacts aren't restricted to national parks or faraway lands, either — the loss of biodiversity poses dangers to both food security and human health.

How do GMOs impact biodiversity?

"Agriculture is this ironic field that requires genetic diversity to persist, but also is always reducing this diversity down. That reduction has to do with our modern system, with technology and the fact that you need uniformity in the field to make industrial-scale agriculture happen." researcher Colin Khoury to Civil Eats

Industrial-style agriculture focuses on standardized processes, efficiency and resource extraction. It was already in place by the time GMO crops came on the scene. The practice of "monocropping" — cultivating a single crop, year after year, on the same land — might seem efficient, but it ultimately decreases both biodiversity and soil health. Monocropping also increases insect pests because, as Colin Khoury puts it, "If you have the same plants in the field, it’s a lot easier for a pest to 'unlock' that variety and eat it all. Diversity enables agriculture to deal with pests and diseases."

The most common traits engineered into GMO crops make these problems worse, such crops that generate pesticides within the plant cells. Sold as targeted tools that killed only particular insects, in practice, these GMOs have far-reaching impacts: The toxins can be far more potent than expected, and they never wash off.

Farmer spraying a fieldMost GMO crops are engineered for herbicide resistance, so fields can be sprayed liberally with weedkillers that eliminate everything but the cash crop. Weeds are a huge problem for farmers — they compete with cash crops for nutrients, water and light. But diverse plant life also protects the soil from erosion and nutrient loss. It supports the pollinators and other beneficial insects that do so much of our agricultural labor. While "welcoming the weeds'' isn't a practical solution, neither is wiping out plant life with toxic chemicals. Between herbicide tolerance and built-in pesticides, GMOs are a double-decker biodiversity-wrecker. 

For more on alternative, non-GMO farming systems, check out this recent blog

GMOs are widespread in grocery stores, with an estimated 80% of processed foods containing GMO ingredients. Given their ubiquity, it's surprising that fewer than a dozen widely cultivated GMO crops dominate North American agriculture. Of these, only 3 GMOs occupy most U.S. cropland, an area estimated in the hundreds of millions of acres. These 3 GMO crops — corn, soy and cotton — are herbicide-tolerant, pest resistant, or a combination of the two. They possess all the destructive traits that accompany traditional GMOs, and 3 of anything isn't enough to support biodiversity

Of course, there are more GMOs in development and several crops are being added to the Non-GMO Project's high risk list within the year, but genetic modification will never provide the kind of diversity needed for a truly robust ecosystem. In the industrial model, diversity simply isn't the goal — uniformity is. "Sameness" is seen as the driver of productivity, even as surpluses of low-nutrient crops drive prices down and commodity agriculture leaves farming communities struggling to feed themselves.

Going non-GMO for a diverse and plentiful future

Perhaps the greatest folly of the industrial-style, GMO-reliant food system is that it so persistently tries to overthrow the laws of nature. The more humans try to monopolize the landscape, the harder nature pushes back to restore balance — it does this through weeds and pests and diseases. Changing our approach is no small thing. Simply accepting that change must occur requires accepting that stewardship and regeneration of the land have value that is equal to, if not greater than, the resources we draw from it. 

If this seems difficult to take in, remember that we depend on biodiversity, soil and ecological health for our very existence. A system of extracting resources that fails to restore what is taken will ultimately fail to produce anything at all. Regenerative, non-GMO agriculture is the future. 

We can choose to leave more life for future generations — that's what biodiversity is all about.

 

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