Mexico's Chefs Are Fighting a Future of Genetically Modified Corn

In August, a Mexican federal district judge repealed a two-year-old ban on genetically modified maize, leading many of the country's chefs to worry about GM corn replacing indigenous varieties.

Lisa Abend

Photo via Flickr user David Boté Estrada

"Transgenic?" Tonio Luna paused to weigh a stack of tortillas, still warm from their conveyor-belt oven. "What's that?"

From his stall inside Mexico City's San Cosme market, Luna sells roughly 400 kilos of tortillas every day. And unlike those flabby white wrappers that pass as tortillas at Taco Bell, his are all made of maize. Corn, in fact, is Mexico's principle staple; the average citizen consumes roughly a pound of it a day, mostly in the form of tortillas like the 22-year-old Luna makes. Yet to hear many of the country's top chefs (along with many scientists, farmers, and environmentalists) tell it, the crop is under dire threat.

In August, a Mexican federal district judge repealed a two-year-old ban on genetically modified maize, ruling that those who supported it had failed to show that the planting of transgenic seeds caused harm. For the biotech companies behind the suit (including Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow, and Dupont), the judge's decision was a victory. But for opponents, who quickly lodged an appeal that halted implementation of the measure, the decision represents an attack not just on the country's most important crop, but on the very essence of Mexican identity.

Controversy about genetic modification is not, of course, limited to Mexico. Globally, supporters argue that crops that are engineered to be drought- or herbicide-resistant, for example, or to contain greater nutritional value, can increase farmers' yields and help curb hunger and malnutrition. Opponents, however, contend that transgenic crops and the herbicides used with them pose risks to human health, farming economies, and food sovereignty.

'The cultivation of transgenics is an attack on the diversity of our native maizes,' write the chefs.

All of those concerns are in play in Mexico, but none dominates the discussion like worries about biodiversity. Corn, after all, is believed to have first been domesticated there; well before the Spanish arrived, the crop was viewed, as one scholar puts it, "as the food with which the gods had chosen to feed mankind." Landrace maize—those varieties that, through natural cross-pollination, have evolved to be perfectly suited to their environment—is at its most diverse in Mexico, and biotech crops, opponents argue, threatens those native breeds.

"On this point, there is no debate: transgenic corn has and will contaminate other varieties," says Elena Alvarez-Buylla, a biologist at the Autonomous National University of Mexico, and coordinator for the Union of Scientists for Social Commitment, an anti-GMO organization. "If it's planted in an open field, it will cross-pollinate with native varieties and accumulate in their gene makeup. It will cause the destruction of landrace maizes that farmers have protected for centuries."

That prospect worries many of the country's most prominent chefs. In the wake of the court's decision, 82 of them—including Enrique Olvera, Monica Patiño, Jair Tellez, and Robero Solís—banded together to form the Collective of Mexican Chefs. As an organization, they wrote a letter to the Mexican government expressing their concerns. "The cultivation of transgenics is an attack on the diversity of our native maizes," the document states. "And puts in danger their very existence."

The issue took center stage at a recent international chefs' conference, called Mesa Redonda, held in Mexico City on September 21. Designed to serve as a forum for discussing some of the key questions in the industry, the conference had Michel Bras talking about responsibility in the kitchen, Ruth Reichl discussing how how food writing has changed over the course of her career, and Wylie Dufresne frankly revealing how the experience of closing two restaurants in two years made him re-examine the balance between creative expression and business. All of the talks generated debate—sometimes heated—about where the industry was going and the proper role for chefs in it.

Except one. Within the room, there was near unanimous opposition to the introduction of transgenic corn. When, early in the day, writer Nicola Twilley asked them if they thought GMO crops were sustainable, only three hands among hundreds went up. And a documentary critical of biotech maize was met with resounding applause.

As part of the food chain, we have a right to say what kind of food we want to eat and to serve.

For Olvera, the question of protecting indigenous landraces is especially resonant. At his restaurant Pujol, he creatively reimagines the traditional flavors and ingredients of Mexican cuisine; dinner there starts with a whole gourd—brought smoking to the table, that opens to reveal tiny corncobs smeared with ant mayonnaise—and finishes with a plate of slowly aged mole sauce served with nothing more than a basket of warm tortillas. So maize matters to him, enough not only to work solely with small farmers who grow landrace varieties, but to stick his neck out to protect them.

"There are people who say we're just cooks, and we shouldn't get involved in this kind of things," Olvera says. "But as part of the food chain, we have a right to say what kind of food we want to eat and to serve. And as chefs, we have a kind of influence. We haven't asked for it, but we can use it to protect the foods that matter to Mexico."

Jorge Vallejo has also thrown his hat into the anti-GMO battle. There is little maize on the menu at his restaurant Quintonil, which, with its inventively delicious takes on the Mexican repertoire, has risen to number six on the Latin America 50 Best list—he too have increasingly felt the need to help preserve the crops that have gotten him there. "When you look at all the risks this poses," he says, "You have to ask yourself, 'How can I be a factor for change?'

And for the Argentina-born Dante Ferrero, chef of Alodé in Monterrey, Mexico, it too comes down to protecting biodiversity. "There are 58 different varieties of maize in Mexico. That's 58 different flavors, which is something that we as chefs of course care about."

Not everyone who works with food, however, is ready to become an activist, nor is even aware there's a cause worth fighting for. At the Tortillería Cordoba, in the Mexico City neighborhood of Roma, the tortilla maker, who gave his name only as Jorge, said he was too busy to talk. He did have his hands full, what with the conveyor belt that presses, cuts, and cooks tortillas running at Lucy-in-the-candy-factory speed. Pressed about genetically modified corn, he was dismissive. "I've never heard of it." It was the same answer Carolina Santiago gave, from her unnamed tortilleria in San Rafael. Wrapping hot tortillas in the hand-embroidered napkin that one customer had brought for transporting them, she smiled shyly and shook her head. "Transgenic maize? Who knows what that is?"

Memo García, a trim 69-year-old (he likes to pat his belly and say that tacos have kept him in shape) hasn't heard of it either. For the past 50 years, García has served tacos from his eponymous stand on tortillas he buys several times daily from Tonio Luna's. But being unaware of transgenic maize and the legal battle that surrounds it didn't stop him from having an opinion. "Human beings like money," he said sanguinely. "They forget that it will lead them to evil." Stopping to serve up a heaping plate of juicy carnitas, he pondered the question further. "I live on maize. Can you imagine what will happen if, instead of being a good food, it becomes something to regret?"

And that is exactly the chefs' point. Olvera recognizes that they have a long way to go in educating the public—even, or especially, the tortilla-making public—about the risks they perceive in genetially modifed corn. "In Mexico, the lack of education is what has allowed the big biotech companies to act with impunity," he says. "It's up to us to change that. It's going to be a long and difficult fight. There are powerful monetary interests behind it. But once society understands what is happening, it's going to defend its maize. We can't live without our tortillas."