Mexico and the World
Vol. 15, No 2 (Spring 2010)
Balancing Mega-Diversity and Agricultural Biotechnology:
A Comparative Overview of Bio-Safety Regulations and
Gene-Engineered Crops in Mexico and Brazil
By Margaret Carroll Boardman, Ph.D.
• The Many Diverse Types of Biotech Crops
Biotech crops are created by using gene-engineering technology to isolate and introduce new traits one at a time without complications from extra genes and extensive crossbreeding. Biotech crops (also referred to as transgenic or gene-modified crops) are distinct from hybridized crops that use traditional breeding methods. Under hybridization, plants exchange large unregulated chunks of their genomes. This can lead to both useful and unwanted traits in the offspring. This method requires lots of time as plant breeders need to study generations of plants to produce desired traits. With biotechnology, plant geneticists study the plant genome, isolate the desire trait and achieve the desire result within the first generation.
There are many different types of biotech crops. Some that are already commercialized or in development in the laboratory address pest resistant (BT), herbicide resistant (HT), virus resistant, drought tolerance, nitrogen efficiency, nutritionally enhancement (e.g. Golden Rice), and phytomediation (use of plants to mitigate environmental problems).
• Mexico – Botanical Center of Origin, Cradle of Corn Implements Bio-Safety Laws
Mexico is one of eight centers of plant origin. It has been classified by the United Nations as a mega-diverse country. Wild corn (also known as maize) originated in the region and it was Mexico’s ancient civilizations that domesticated the crop and over the centuries developed many native varieties.
Biotech crops were first planted in Mexico in 1996. In 1998, due to concerns that biotech corn would cross-pollinate with native corn varieties, Mexico banned the planting of all biotech corn. In the period between 1998-2009, Mexico engaged in political and scientific debate on the international and national level regarding bio-safety regulations and agricultural biotechnology. In the spring of 2010, experimental fields of biotech corn were planted in northern Mexico in areas distant from native corn varieties.
• Mexico and Brazil – A Comparison of Agricultural Biotechnology Policies
As a signatory to NAFTA, Mexico planted biotech corn in 1996, the same year that this crop was commercialized in the United States. Without a regulatory framework to assess the potential unknowns posed by this technology, it banned biotech corn in 1998. Other biotech crops such as BT cotton and HT soybeans were not banned. In 2009, Mexico was 15th on the list of countries growing biotech crops.
Like Mexico, Brazil is also a mega-diverse country. In the late 1990s, Brazilian soybean farmers began rapidly switching to biotech soybeans gene-engineered to be herbicide tolerant (HT). New bio-safety laws updating the regulatory framework were passed between 2005-2006. On the list of countries growing biotech crops, in 2009 Brazil was second largest. Other major biotech projects include sugarcane genome and bio-fuel research.