Thursday, November 29, 2012

Monsanto targets Mexican maize in bioethanol push

On a visit to one of Glasgow’s B&Q stores, alongside the electric and gas fires, I noticed modern looking glass and metal bioethanol burners, quite cheap and offering a “living flame”. Clearly, bioethanol has entered the mainstream.

It is made from a variety of food crops, depending where you are. In the US it is maize (sweet corn) and in Europe it’s wheat or barley. In Brazil, the world’s largest user and producer of bioethanol, it is sugar cane.

This is produced using an industrial agriculture system. Since the start of the 1980s, bioethanol production has cleared huge areas of virgin forest and savannah, creating vast machine-managed fields.

It has contributed to dangerous greenhouse gas emissions and the loss of biodiversity is almost unbearable to contemplate. Vast quantities of fertiliser and water are used.

Small farmers and hunter-gatherers lost their livelihoods. With machines doing the work, they were pushed into the slums round Brazil’s cities. The only sustainable thing about this business is the profits of the global corporations and local energy businesses like Petrobras.  

The US is also expanding bioethanol but this year, the maize crop was hard hit by a heat wave. Still, 40% of it will go for biofuel - 5 billion bushels of edible corn turned into 13.5 billion gallons of fuel.

Genetically engineered (GE) corn is the norm in the US. As the north American market demands more imports from Latin America, corporations like Monsanto and Cargill are going all out to force countries there to accept GE.

A new report from GRAIN, which supports the rights of small farmers, says the GE corporations are “bearing down on Latin America with a force recalling their initial assault under the banner of the ‘green revolution’ in the 1960s”. Grain says:

Nearly every country in the region is in the sights of the agribusiness transnationals, the most recent example being Paraguay, where a parliamentary coup d’état took as one of its goals that of gaining approval for GE maize – and the de facto government is now preparing to grant that approval. In Argentina, Monsanto wants to build the largest GE maize processing plant in Latin America; the government is set to amend the Seeds Act to adapt it to that company’s needs. In the Andean region, there are worrisome attempts to overturn the bans on GMOs in Bolivia and Ecuador using bogus arguments. In Costa Rica, too, the Biosafety Commission intends to approve a GE maize variety.

Mexico is their biggest priority and in September, Monsanto applied for permits to plant 700,000 hectares of GE maize in Sinaloa province. The larger Mexican farmers and farm companies have already been softened up to accept this.

They were cut out of the supply chain for the last two years because their prices were “too high”. They already buy seed from the multinationals. All the corporations have to do is to cut off the supply of traditional seed and make only GE available.

Small farmers planting traditional varieties on family subsistence farms fear their maize will become contaminated with GE. This is of international importance because Mexico is the genetic cradle of maize, with many varieties grown. It would only take one pest or disease to arise in the GE variety and maize could cease to exist as a food crop.

So there you go – it seems a long journey from a B&Q in Darnley to Mexican farmers defending maize diversity on behalf of us all. In today’s globalised economy, these are the interconnections you encounter every day.

Penny Cole
Environment editor

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