The Laws of Nature
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 investments").

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 intellectuals.

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 stand.

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 controls.