Mexican farmers and scientists speak out against government’s anti-biotech agenda

The Mexican government’s nonstop attacks on genetically modified (GM) crops — resulting most recently in a ban on GM maize — has fueled concerns among many of the country’s farmers and scientists. Farmers are worried that they may not have access to innovative crop varieties needed in the fields, while scientists are facing severe funding cuts that curtail even basic research and development, jeopardizing Mexico’s scientific progress.

I recently spoke with some Mexican farmers and scientists who shared their perspectives on what is at stake for the country’s agricultural sector if GM crops are excluded, as well as the dangers of ignoring scientific research at the national level. They expressed concerns that anti-GM “activists who have a specific agenda are the decision-makers and are in strategic government positions that allow them to put obstacles to any development in the country.”

Others said that agroecology seems to be the only method of sustainable food production that the government supports, an approach they likened to “banning vochos (old cars) because they are old and pollute, but refusing to allow efficient, non-polluting vehicles like Teslas to enter the country.”

Perhaps most worrisome, they said, is that the ideological agenda endorsed by the Mexican government “romanticizes poverty in the countryside, and anything that differs from that image seems inappropriate. The idea that technology and sustainability can coexist is unthinkable for them.”

Gina Gutierrez is a fifth-generation dairy farmer who grows corn, barley, peas, triticale and ryegrass on her family farm to feed her 480 milking cows, 380 calves and 60 bull calves. Like many other Mexican farmers, she is concerned about the decisions the current Administration has been making over the last two years.

Gina Gutierrez with her milking cows.

“Producers are always looking for new tools that help them to be more efficient, and for that reason, the technological advances that represent the seeds produced through genetic engineering are an opportunity area,” she said. “Government had said that it wants to support seed production in Mexico and that we need to be more self-sufficient, to eventually someday achieve food security, but this never will happen if the decisions follow a wrong ideology, ignoring the scientific evidence and needs from the farmers and producers.”

Gutierrez said farmers have been seriously impacted by the government’s austerity policy, “suffering the cut of economic measures that used to help us in the past. The ban on technological tools impacts our income as well as the availability of food to the consumers, the depreciation of the Mexican peso and higher prices of agricultural supplies. If we reduce our productivity it affects everything.”

She added: “I think the politicians are forgetting that everyone needs food. With the actions that they are taking, they make us think that food is not essential. But you cannot play with the food because no matter what you do, you will always need food.”

He knows very well that GM crops could be an ally in addressing the problems that farmers are currently facing in the northern part of the country. “In my region, drought is the biggest problem. Without support from the government, and without improved seeds, it is a challenge we need to face by ourselves.”

Ricardo Charles inspects a plant on his farm in Coahuila, Mexico.

Farmers need real representation in government, he said. “We do not have a voice. The past decisions have been taken from a traditional populism representing the government leaders’ voice, not the farmers’ needs. The government is spreading myths about the consumption of GM crops to ban these crops from the Mexican fields. These actions are increasing the imports because the national production is not enough, and every year we are more dependent on other countries’ food production.”

Charles said it’s crucial to increase the link between biotechnology and Mexican agriculture. “We need more science communication efforts and more scientists working in the fields to show the efficiency of the biotech products.”

“The government is not giving agriculture the importance that it deserves,” he said. “If the right actions were taken it could boost the economic growth in the sector, as well as the quality of life of people working on the farms. Government is not investing in modernizing the food production system” and farmers cannot afford to subsidize modernization on their own.

Related article:  Viewpoint: Promoting CRISPR crops at the expense of GMOs to appease activists undermines both technologies
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Based on his experience, he thinks that “farmers are open to incorporate new technologies to improve the crop yields” and are willing to pay more for improved seeds that boost production. He worries that the government is “only giving support to like-minded people around them, leaving the farmers unprotected.” As an example of that, he highlighted the ban on glyphosate, which “shows that there is no interest from the government to reduce the use of toxic and dangerous agrochemicals in the Mexican fields.”

Jose Luis Quintana is Jose Quintana’s son. He’s a young biotechnologist and former iGem participant who is following the family tradition by becoming a fourth-generation farmer in Chihuahua.

Once he started to work in the fields, he quickly realized that “problems like the uncertainty, water availability, costs from agricultural supplies, the lack of interest from the government, and the migration are leaving the fields without young people. Now, what worries me most is that a high percentage of my classmates are trying to emigrate, at least to other cities, as well as other countries. What is the government doing to stop the brain drain? Nothing…”

Jose Luis Quintana is a biotechnologist and fourth-generation farmer.

Farmers aren’t the only ones who are adversely affected by government policies, he noted. Scientists are also being targeted by funding cuts. “Unfortunately, the mismanagement of government institutions such as CONACYT (National Council of Science and Technology) by the current administration leaves the future of science to officials who are just taking care of their own agendas.”

Daniel Dominguez is a biotechnologist, co-founder and director of Allbiotech —  an organization of young scientists with a presence throughout Latin America — and an iGem ambassador.

“Mexican agriculture is very unequal, and biotechnology offers solutions for all strata,” said Dominguez, who has been involved with Mexico’s process for adopting agrobiotechnology since the beginning of his career. “On one hand, the use of agricultural biotechnologies could provide greater opportunities for small farmers to increase their productivity and profits, making them more resilient and competitive. On other hand, biotechnology represents a great opportunity to take full advantage of the climatic conditions of the Mexican countryside, with less environmental impact.”

Biotechnologist Daniel Dominguez

He is concerned about the role that ideology plays in driving the government’s policies. “Decision-making in the country must be based on scientific evidence, not ideological biases. The ideological rejection of agricultural biotechnology results in the implementation of policies that affect its development in the country and are directly reflected in less public investment in research.”

Like many other young biotechnologists, and scientists in general, he is worried about “the message of rejection of agricultural biotechnology. Before taking office, they warned about the possibility of withdrawing support for projects that do not fall within the ideological line of the head of the state. So far we have seen the cancellation of scientific dissemination projects in agricultural biotechnology, and in the future, we can see the rejection of scholarships for postgraduate degrees in the field.”

Luis Ventura is a biologist with expertise in biotechnology, biosafety and science communication, born and raised in a small town near Mexico City. He is a Plant Genetic Resources International Platform Fellow at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. Follow him on Twitter @luisventura

A version of this article was originally posted at the Cornell Alliance for Science and has been reposted here with permission. The Cornell Alliance for Science can be found on Twitter @ScienceAlly

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