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NAFTA Report on Corn Contamination Rocks Biotech Industry

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Mon, Nov. 08, 2004

Report on protecting Mexican crops from modified corn criticized

BY HUGH DELLIOS
Chicago Tribune


MEXICO CITY - (KRT) - An international agency issued a report Monday
recommending controversial measures to protect Mexico's native corn species
from U.S. imports of genetically engineered corn, but it was quickly
criticized by U.S. officials and industry groups.

The report by the Commission on Environmental Cooperation, an agency
established to advise the United States, Canada and Mexico on the
environmental impact of free trade, found no evidence of risk to Mexican
crops from modified corn being imported now, but warned of potential future
threats.

Among the recommendations to assure that the imported corn does not get
planted and contaminate Mexico's native corn were milling all U.S. corn upon
its arrival in Mexico, better labeling of the imports and extending a
moratorium on commercial planting of lab-engineered corn until more
safeguards are in place.

"With the current varieties being imported, we haven't found an impact, but
they haven't really been studied either," said Chantal Line Carpentier, head
of the agency's environment and trade programs. "The concern is for what
(engineered corn) varieties are coming down the line."

The report was originally to be released in June, but U.S. officials
condemned the science behind the report as faulty and asked for more time to
study it. That angered the report's authors, a distinguished group that
includes geneticists, ecologists and a former executive of Monsanto, a
company that produces modified corn genes.

Some of them accused the Bush administration of trying to bury the report,
at least until after last week's presidential election. They also noted that
the report could hurt the United States in a pending World Trade
Organization suit in which the Bush administration is challenging European
bans on importing modified food products.

On Monday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the office of the
U.S. special trade representative again condemned the report, saying it is
"fundamentally flawed and unscientific" and contradicted the findings of the
national science academies of the United States, Mexico and other countries.

"Biotechnology offers the world enormous opportunities to combat hunger and
protect the environment," the agencies said in a statement. "Implementing
many of the report's recommendations would cause economic harm to farmers
and consumers in all NAFTA countries and restrict international trade."

Ricardo Celma, the Mexico representative to the U.S. Grain Council, said
that milling the 6 million metric tons of corn expected to be imported this
year would cost about $20 million. Up to 50 percent of that corn is
genetically modified to make it pest resistant or give it other special
traits.

U.S. officials Friday agreed to the release of the report, three weeks after
it was leaked to the Greenpeace environmental group and published in the
Mexican news media. Officials denied trying to obstruct its release, saying
they needed the extra time to "set the record straight on this issue."

Mexico's federal environmental agency welcomed the publication of the report
after it was leaked in October. It said it was already carrying out some of
the report's recommendations, such as educating small farmers about the
risks and benefits.

The study began in 2002 after a team of California scientists claimed to
have found U.S. lab-modified genes mysteriously growing in corn in the
remote hills of Oaxaca. The government confirmed the genes' presence, but
insisted it did not threaten native corn in Mexico, the birthplace of the
crop.

"We stand by our report," Carpentier said.

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© 2004, Chicago Tribune.

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Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.