Tortillerias in San Cristóbal are like Starbucks in Seattle, in that they are color-coded and all over the place. The only difference, as I learned over friendly Thanksgiving food-conversation, is that Maseca’s tortillerias use genetically modified (GMO) corn flour imported from the U.S. to produce this staple in the Mexican diet. Starbucks might do that, too. It’s hard to say these days.
Coming from the U.S., I had pretty much accepted that most of the things we grow and eat are genetically modified. This is not the case in Mexico, yet, and the increasing presence of GMO’s is a big issue here. Health issues aside, patenting seeds criminalizes seed-saving practices, manufactures dependence on companies like Monsanto, and effectively wrecks biodiversity in agricultural systems. Here in Mexico, the expansion of GMO corn and soy also has an unexpected impact on beekeepers.
Mexico is the third largest exporter of honey in the world, and 85% of our export goes to Europe. Because the European Union is strongly opposed to GMO products, labeling laws mandate that packaging must indicate when GMO ingredients constitute greater than 0.9% of any given product. This includes honey. When honey bees forage on GMO soy (official reports suggest that they don’t; official research demonstrates that, actually, they do), trace amounts of the pollen are tracked into the honey stores. If the pollen comes from a GMO plant, according the EU standards, the honey is considered ‘contaminated,’ and contaminated honey is difficult to sell (price drops between $300-400/ton).
This scenario has already played out in Argentina. Once third in worldwide honey export, the industry still hasn’t recovered. Tricky thing is, beekeepers have little control over the land where their bees forage, and as land use changes and GMO crops become increasingly common, there is not much they can do. Because open-pollinated GMO plants hybridize with native varieties, once a GMO species is established, it is difficult to contain. The best solution seems to be preventative, and in this respect beekeepers have organized with some success.
In 2012, representatives from some 59 beekeeping, agricultural, environmental, and governmental organizations managed to suspend GMO planting from 253,000,000 hectares in Southern Mexico. Researchers at Ecosur are also supporting this effort, collaborating with beekeepers in Campeche to test pollen for presence of GMO soy.
In order to determine whether pollen from GMO soy is truly affecting their apiaries, beekeepers use traps to collect pollen samples during the soy bloom. Pollen traps come in many shapes and sizes but generally include layers of wire mesh which create a kind of obstacle course for foragers returning from the field. As they scramble through the wire, the foragers’ pollen baskets are knocked from their legs, and the pollen falls down into a drawer or a box to be collected and analyzed. A good pollen trap should be effective, but not too effective, making sure that the bees can save some pollen for themselves.
Eric Vides, a masters student here at Ecosur, coordinates pollen collection and then sends samples in for genetic analysis. Another researcher uses primers – specific DNA starter sequences – from GMO strains to search for signs of genetic modification in the pollen grains. Eric also collects honey samples from the pre-harvest ‘cleaning’. The ‘cleaning’ harvest serves to remove the honey potentially contaminated with GMO pollen. Beekeepers sell this honey separately so as not to contaminate the honey crop that comes in after the soy bloom has finished.
Results from the GMO-pollen study demonstrate the wide-ranging impact of planting GMO crops; these results can potentially be used as hard evidence to support regulation efforts. Perhaps most importantly, this study serves to organize and educate beekeepers around an issue that may have a profound impact on their economy.