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Martha Wilcox dips her hand into the baskets she has laid out on the table, trickling their red, white, yellow, black and brown contents like gemstones through her fingers. With their colourful hues — some like little bubbles, some elongated, others pointed — these heritage Mexican maize kernels are agricultural treasures in the country where corn was born nearly 9,000 years ago.
Ms Willcox works to protect and promote heirloom corn at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), an independent research station based in Texcoco, Mexico. The country is home to 59 so-called “landrace” types of corn — local varieties of domesticated plant species — which are a crucial source of biodiversity.
“Native maize . . . really has to do with the identity of Mexico,” says Ms Willcox. “The culture of Mexicans was based on the growth of maize . . . that has developed both religious and culinary traditions around [the crop], so it’s almost unthinkable to have a Mexico without the diversity of maize.”
But activists fear ancient varieties of one of the world’s most produced and consumed grains could be wiped out if a ban on genetically modified (GM) maize is lifted in Mexico.
Mexican farmers have been sowing GM cotton since 1996, but culturally sensitive corn is a different story. Despite trials that took Monsanto, the world’s largest maker of genetically-modified seeds, as far as requesting GM permits for five areas in northern Mexico, a legal battle has put GM maize cultivation on hold for the past two and a half years.
In August 2015, a Mexican judge overturned a 2013 ban on sowing GM corn, but his decision was appealed by a coalition of activists. The ban remains in force, pending a ruling on the appeal but the case could still end up in the supreme court.
More than 80 of the country’s top chefs, including Enrique Olvera, whose Mexico City restaurant, Pujol, was ranked 16th among the world’s best restaurants in 2015, wrote to President Enrique Peña Nieto spelling out their opposition to GM maize.
Opponents argue that GM crops will be less able to withstand the effects of climate change, whereas a diversity of crops will allow farmers to dip into a biological “reservoir” of varieties that have adapted to local conditions.
“In the US, more than 90 per cent of corn is transgenic [genetically modified],” says René Sánchez Galindo, a lawyer who is part of the opposition coalition. “If you gave me an imported tortilla,” he said, referring to the ubiquitous Mexican corn wrappers that are typically loaded with meat and cheese or used to scoop up salsa, “I wouldn’t eat it”.
But advocates of GM crops say such a stance is naive. Mexico imports about a third of the maize it consumes every year — and much, if not all of that, is GM, although a lot is used for animal feed. “Most people don’t even realise . . . GM corn is already on Mexican tables,” says Francisco Javier Mayorga, who, as Mexico’s agriculture secretary from 2009 to 2012 oversaw GM trials.
Mr Mayorga points out that Mexican maize farmers have differing requirements. As well as the subsistence farmers growing native crops on a small scale, there are the high-yielding, mechanised farms in northern areas, where farmers use commercial, “hybrid” seeds that have been improved through selective breeding but are not genetically modified. These hybrid seeds are sold by Monsanto, the US biotechnology group which backs GM crops, and a range of other companies.
Monsanto is now advertising GM corn as a ticket out of poverty for small farmers via higher yields and profits. “It’s incredible that we are not giving [small farmers] the option to cross the poverty line,” says Monsanto’s chief executive for northern Latin America, Manuel Bravo. He admits Monsanto has had to change tack and try to win hearts and minds: “We’re the company that employs the most PhDs in the world after Nasa. We’re good at talking to Petri dishes, but we were no good at communicating.”
GM critics note that the World Health Organisation last year branded as “probably carcinogenic to humans” glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, which growers must use to kill weeds around Monsanto’s herbicide-resistant GM crops. Monsanto rejected the claim.
Meanwhile, while the legal battle between the pro- and anti-GM camps drags on, one entrepreneur has taken a different approach to help farmers sustain traditional farming methods.
Jorge Gaviria, a native of Miami, set up his Masienda business in late 2014 to open new markets in the US for producers of about a dozen varieties of native Mexican corn sourced mostly from the southern state of Oaxaca. After importing 400 metric tonnes into the US to supply restaurants last year, he is aiming to exceed 1,000 tonnes this year.
Masienda is milking a growing gourmet market for rare, fair-trade, products, he says: “In reality, no matter what anyone says, this will help offset GM corn.”