By: Don Quijones

The global food wars are heating up. As I reported last September, Mexico is on the frontline of one of the most important global battles – the battle for the control and ownership of seed stocks.

In 2013 a collective of 53 scientists and 22 civil rights organizations and NGOs brought a lawsuit against some of the biggest players in the biotech industry. To everyone’s surprise the presiding judge in the case – a man by the name of Jaime Manuel Marroquín Zaleta – ruled in the litigants’ favor, suspending the granting of licenses for GMO field trials sought by Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow, Pionner-Dupont, and Mexico’s Environment and Natural Resources Ministry (Semarnat).

In defending his ruling, Zaleta cited the potential risks to the environment posed by GM corn. If the biotech industry got its way, he argued, more than 7000 years of indigenous maize cultivation in Mexico could be endangered, with the country’s 60 varieties of corn directly threatened by cross-pollination from transgenic strands.

In a world in which Monsanto is long-accustomed to pushing its weight and getting its own way, especially in Washington, Zaleta’s ruling represents a rare snub. Because of the ruling’s judicial nature, Mexico’s unashamedly pro-GMO government has little choice but to grudgingly respect Zaleta’s decision, writes Antonio Torrent Fernández, the president of Mexico’s Union of Scientists Committed to Society (ACCS), one of the organizations that brought the original lawsuit against Monsanto & Co:

The collective lawsuit has a very broad application, for two reasons: it both defends the natural right of allMexicans – and not just those alive today but those yet to be born – and includes a declarative interpretation. That means it does not seek the payment of damages but rather a blanket, permanent ban on the outdoor cultivation of transgenic maize on national territory.

The likes of Monsanto, Dow, and Syngenta did not get to where they are today by buckling at the first sign of resistance. Targeting the form rather than the substance of Zaleta’s ruling, they have launched a total of 91 challenges to date. As I reported in September, not only has Monsanto – helped along by its lackeys in the Mexican government – appealed Zaleta’s ruling, it also demanded his removal from the bench on the grounds that he had already stated his opinion on the case before sentencing. However, in yet another slight against Monsanto, the court convened to review Zaleta’s alleged bias ruled against the U.S. corporation.

Things did not stop there, though. When Big Ag’s lawyers fail to deliver the goods, there are always plenty of government agencies to pick up the slack. In Mexico one such organization is SAGARPA, the Secretariat of Agriculture, Livestock, Rural Development, Fisheries and Food. The federal agency has already launched four appeals against Zaleta’s ruling. As the Mexican news website Sin Embargo reports, in one of the cases SAGARPA has argued that judges have no legal obligation to warn about the risks posed by GMOs. Yet, as it notes, the precautionary ruling passed by Zaleta mentions the word “risk” more than 100 times.

The argument is clear: by seeking to protect Mexican farmers and consumers from risks that are still not altogether clear, Zaleta has overstepped his judicial authority.

According to René Sánchez Galindo, a representative of the collective of lawyers and social activists that brought the original suit against Monsanto & Co, the authorities have sought to wash their hands of pretty much all health and environmental responsibility. The government has even argued that GMOs pose no health or environmental risk whatsoever, despite growing evidence to the contrary (see this and this). In February last year the Federal Commission for Protection Against Health Risks (Cofepris) authorized the production of 135 kinds of transgenic produce without conducting the necessary research to determine the risks they pose.

Given that Mexico produces by far the greatest diversity of corn varieties on the planet, and the staple crop accounts for a staggering 53% of the average calorie intake and 39% of protein consumption in the country, even the slightest possibility that GMOs could pose a public or environmental threat should be reason enough, at least in a sane world, for any government to suspend its use until the nature and severity of the threat can be ascertained. However, as has already happened in the United States, Canada and a host of other Western countries, a small handful of multinational agrochemical and biotechnology corporations has subverted and infiltrated just about every level of federal government in Mexico – unfortunately no mean feat given the scale, scope and depth of corruption in Mexican politics.

Even on the rare occasion that a united front of civil society institutions is able to mobilize a sufficiently large movement against the global agribusiness lobby, and brave judges are willing to rule in their favor rather than those of Monsanto & Friends, the pressure applied by government can still be unbearable.

For the moment the combined forces of Mexico’s civil society, sceptical scientific community and rather fragile judicial system are holding firm: in total the legal collective has won 85 legal battles against the transnational seed corporations and many of the appeals and challenges being launched by Monsanto & Friends are now being unanimously rejected by the courts.

However, as Turrent Fernández writes in the Mexican daily La Jornada, Mexico’s anti-GMO front is engaged in a gargantuan battle against Goliath forces. For the moment it has won the first battle, but the war has only just begun.

Originally Published: Wolf Street