January 27, 2005

A New Chapter in Biotech History is not Written in  English

The  Laws of Nature


The document below is based on a public  letter 
written in Spanish (by Ignacio Chapela, 
translated by  John García) as a response to a 
flash-track vote on a  law presented by the 
Senate majority to the Chamber of Deputies  in 
the Congress of the United States of Mexico. The 
legislation  in question is entitled the "Law on 
the Biosecurity of Genetically  Modified 
Organisms" (Ley de Bioseguridad de Organismos 
Genéticamente  Modificados). For presentation, 
the law was packaged with heavy  legalistic 
padding, which resulted in a larger document 
through  which Congress would establish its 
intent with regards to GMOs  and lay down the 
framework through which transgenic organisms  can 
be legally released into the environment of the 
Mexican sovereign State.

It might not be self-evident  why such minutiae 
of local politics in a country well within  the 
"developing world" would deserve an English 
translation,  let alone the attention of the 
English-speaking world. But the  ways of a 
globalized ecology, rigged as it is upon a 
patchwork  of political boundaries, works often 
delusively, rarely inscribing  itself in a single 
language. We believe that the complex piece  of 
legislative performance playing out on the 
Mexican stage yields  up many clues to what the 
future of GMOs holds in store for the  world. 
After the resounding failure of the Biotech 
industry to  launch the world-wide release of 
transgenic organisms "English-only",  such a 
future is now often to be read more commonly in 
other  languages: Spanish, Mandarin, Tagalog, 
Swahili, pidgin English,  pidgin French. For 
English-speakers, the history of the transgenic 
transformation of the Biosphere is "going 
underground",  and the battles of resistance are 
slipping out of record in a  multitude of 
tongues, just as the transgenic infiltration of 
the environment moves from the familiar maize, 
soybean, canola  and cotton and into the 
innumerable species of real-existing  biology: 
fish. insects, microbes, trees. In the usual 
spirit  of a New Year, we feel that it is timely 
and relevant to provide  a sample from this 
History: a look into one development that  is 
likely to resonate around the world albeit in 
this silent-because-not-in-the-dominant-language 
kind of way.

This law lives up to its name  as a piece of 
legislation which secures the existence and 
further  development of transgenic organisms in 
Mexico, and by extension  much of the developing 
world. In a year 2001 personal communication  to 
one of us (ICh), the then-Executive Director for 
Mexico's  "Biosecurity Commission" (CIBIOGEM), 
Fernando Ortiz  Monasterio, made it clear what he 
believed "biosecurity"  ("bioseguridad") meant to 
officialdom in that country:  referring to Mr 
Alfonso Romo -one of Mexico's billionares with 
deep investment in the global biotechnology 
industry- by his  nickname, Mr Ortiz suggested 
that in Mexico "la bioseguridad  significa 
asegurar las inversiones de Poncho Romo" 
("biosecurity  means securing Mr Romo's 

To this lofty end, the specific  piece of 
legislation discussed here was quickly voted on 
and  approved within the last session of the 
Mexican legislature for  the year, on December 
14, the day before the beginning of the 
traditional Christmas Processions, the 
fortnight-long Posadas,  and the longer Winter 
break of the Legislature. It is not surprising 
that the law should have passed easily, 
considering the importance  of the AgBiotech 
industry for key players in the ruling PAN party; 
the years-long maneuvering by the industry, the 
US State Department,  and the PAN leadership to 
secure favorable legislation; and the  eventual 
cave-in of the Mexican Academy of Sciences. The 
outcome  of the last-minute vote can be explained 
as a simple consequence  of partisan votes and a 
few horse-trading deals on an issue that,  for 
many representatives in the Chamber, still sounds 
esoteric  and remote although vaguely fraught 
with undefinable political danger.

What is surprising under  such conditions is the 
actual level of resistance and activism  within 
the legislative Chambers and out in the streets 
and fields  of Mexico and beyond. As politicians 
weighed their decision,  campesinos, indigenous 
people, and urban citizens were doing  what they 
could to express their disapproval to the release 
of  transgenic living organisms into their 
environment, something  that thousands of people 
in Mexico see clearly as wildly out  of control. 
In Mexico, where people believe themselves to be 
physically and spiritually one with maize, 
campesino actions  and street demonstrations on a 
scale seen elsewhere only in the  peace rallies 
preceding the US invasion of Irak have steadily 
punctuated the development of this History. 
Meanwhile, a full-blown  CD was produced 
collecting the inspiration of twelve different 
traditional singers and regional bands, all 
decrying the release  of transgenic maize into 
the Mexican landscape. An example from  the 
domains of English: a landmark exhibition at the 
New York  Guggenheim Museum on the Aztec Empire 
was visited by the soul  of this dissent in the 
form of performance-protests by leading  Mexican 

As all this unfolds, other  developing countries 
and their governments maintain a watchful  eye on 
Mexico, because Mexico conjoins a series of 
characteristics  which make it more than a mere 
test-case; this country has become  a major 
gateway for the transgenization of the developing 
world.  Since the discovery of widespread 
contamination of corn with  transgenic DNA in 
this, the very cradle of maize, a source of 
diversity for the world's second most important 
crop, the struggle  over the Mexican beach-head 
has represented the "worst-case  scenario" for 
the uncontrolled release of transgenics into  the 
environment. **This is why this battle has been 
fought so  ardently not only by campesinos and 
indigenous people who see  their very existence 
under deadly threat, but also by the biotech 
industry activists, who see in this struggle a 
prize too important  to lose. If this, of all 
cases, could be navigated with winds  favourable 
to the industrial activists, it stands to reason 
that  no other country in the developing world 
could possibly muster  the capacity to argue 
against the contamination of their landscape  on 
purely rhetorical grounds. And since most of the 
developing  world does not have the technical 
establishment to approach the  problem with an 
independent praxis, little opposition could be 
expected from a practical, scientific approach. 
Furthermore,  Mexico's highly qualified 
scientific and regulatory establishment  is also 
one of the strictest to be found anywhere in the 
world;  displaying such an establishment's 
acquiescence in the contamination  of a highly 
valued and delicate environment would further 
solidify  the claims to victory by industrial 
promoters. To raise the stakes  even higher, the 
insertion of Mexico as a partner in the North 
American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), together 
with the strenuous  lobbying by a coalition of 
indigenous and campesino organizations,  urban 
activists and the international GMO campaign of 
Greenpeace,  placed Mexico and its travails over 
transgenic organisms as the  premier case study 
of global aspects of transgenic release.

So it might come to pass that  2005 could see one 
of the most important turns in the 30-year-old 
history of the transgenization of the biosphere 
evolve under  cover of legalistic language, in 
the darkness of the Winter still,  within the 
labyrinths of the Mexican legislature, and in a 
tongue  other than English. The market-makers, 
who need to see their  transgenized organisms 
(and the profits and control they represent) 
take a hold over the land, have learned enough 
during this time  to know that transparency, 
truth and knowledge are their enemies.  It 
remains to be seen where those who would ally 
themselves to  these very values will take their 

So far, to be sure, the traditional, 
English-speaking "popular movements" have not 
spoken  with conviction or unanimity on the 
question of transgenics.  Some intellectuals 
continue, at this late hour, to harbor 
fantastical  and archaic illusions about the 
benefits to that coming age of  economic and 
social justice of an exuberant industrial and 
technological  development guided by the caprice 
of 21st-Century capital. But  there are other 
wisdoms about technology; vast numbers of people 
live in their environment through a knowledge and 
technological  prowess rooted not in profit but 
age-long survival. The stories  of these 
technologies have been -and will continue to be- 
told  in many tongues besides English.

The Law in question proposed  by the Mexican 
Senate is now approved by the Chamber of 
Deputies,  and will be back for a vote on the 
Senate floor early in February,  after which it 
will be ready for signature by a President who 
has more than tangential interests in seeing the 
biotech industry  grow in the country he now