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Mexico denies request for pilot GM corn plotsqrcode

Feb. 1, 2011

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Feb. 1, 2011
 A Mexican regulatory body has denied an application from U.S. seed giant Monsanto Co. to expand to pilot planting projects of genetically modified corn in northern Mexico, officials said Wednesday.

Government experts say more experimental planting in very small, strictly controlled plots is needed to ensure the GM crops won't affect native corn varieties. The first such permits were granted for 22 experimental plots in 2009.

Mexico is the birthplace of corn, and scientists and activists worry that modified strains could contaminate or displace native varieties whose genetic content could prove valuable in the future for hybridization efforts.

Reynaldo Alvarez Morales, the head of Mexico's interagency commission on genetically modified crops, said companies will have to plan at least another cycle of planting in small plots of about 2 acres (1 hectare), before they can move on to "pilot" plots of as much as 50 hectares (124 acres).

If no risk is found at the pilot level, the next step could be monitored commercial planting in some areas.

"It is impossible, many times, to try to evaluate a crop based on one single experimental planting," he said, noting that annual variations in temperature, moisture and winds can affect the results.

While companies may have expected to go immediately from experimental to pilot to commercial plantings, he said such expectations were "hurried."

While there are fears that wind-borne GM pollen could cross-pollinate with native varieties, Alvarez Morales said he has seen no evidence that has occurred at any of the experimental plots yet.

The experimental plots in northern states like Sinaloa are usually planted a half-kilometer (500 yards) or from any other potentially at-risk crops, and tests are carried out after the experiments to see what effect the nonnative corn has had.

Alvarez Morales would not say how many such cycles would be needed for approval to be granted.

Monsanto did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the government decision, which was made about three weeks ago.

While there are fears that wind-borne GM pollen could cross-pollinate with native varieties, Alvarez Morales said he has seen no evidence that has occurred at any of the experimental plots yet.

Those experimental plantings are being carried out well to the north of the central Mexico highlands where modern corn was first hybridized between 6,000 and 8,000 years ago.

However, studies indicate what Alvarez Morales called "extremely low levels" of contamination have occurred in areas like southern Oaxaca state, possibly as a result of imported feed corn being planted by farmers. He said continuous testing for such traces amounts of contamination would not be cost-effective.

In a statement, Greenpeace Mexico said the decision not to grant the pilot permit "strengthens the scientific and technical arguments about the impossibility of having traditional and genetically modified crops coexist ... and so the other requests for planting GM varieties should also be denied."

But Alvarez Morales said there were some additional possible safeguards that could be applied to GM corn, such as growing it outside the rainy season when most native varieties are planted, to avoid cross-pollination.

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