notes from the mexican kitchen

A Sad Day in Mexico

In Mexico yesterday turned out to be a very sad day–some would say a day of immeasurable cruelty. A judge overturned the 2013 ban on growing GMO corn, in the country that gave us corn, that offers us more corn diversity than anywhere on the planet. What do we have to look forward to now?

Several things, I think.

First, fewer of Mexico’s unique landrace varieties will be grown. GMO corn is so seductive to farmers. It’s usually easier to grow, more disease resistant and more productive. Why bother, then, with all the hundreds of local varieties, each evolved to provide Mexico’s grain staple for a unique parcel of land, a unique climate, a unique community?

If we’re only talking productivity, there’s little reason to bother with them. But a myopic pursuit of productivity hasn’t always proven wise. Especially when a crop is so thoroughly identified with a culture. As they say in Mexico, “Sin maíz, no hay país,” “Without corn, there is no country.”

If (when?) GMO corn eventually blankets mountains and valleys, high plains and jungles of Mexico, what will this uniquely diverse “culture of corn” have become? Perhaps more than anywhere on earth, Mexico has experienced thousands of years of vital cultural heterogeneity–Aztecs, Mayas, Zapotecs, Mixtecs, Totonacs, Huichols, Triques, Purepechas, to name a few, overlaid with Spanish, French, North American, Lebanese and more). Will we see that Mexico’s beautiful diversity has faded into bland homogeneity, bland and characterless as the lab-manufactured corn that’s providing daily nourishment?

Second, no matter what you think of GMOs (I think the topic is way more complex and less straightforward than some may suggest), we can be certain of one thing: Genetic drift from GMO corn will likely contaminate some of the Mexico’s hundreds of unique corn varieties, rendering them compromised at best when we need these uniquely hearty soldiers to defend against unforeseen blights or to offer unthought-of options as climates and soils change.

And third, I think it’s pretty certain that GMO corn in Mexico will rob us of flavor. Now, I know in the United States until recently, we’ve opted for big and beautiful and durable and shipable over anything flavorful. But now there is a groundswell of voices who are taking a stand for quality of life. Delicious flavor makes life worth living, and anyone who says differently is either a ruthless capitalist or simply not paying attention.

Until someone offers me a GMO corn with the wonderful richness of bolita from Michoacan or popcorn nuttiness of tuxpeño from Oaxaca, I think that corn has little to offer. Maseca brand masa harina has sadly already had far too much luck convincing Mexico that one single, solitary bland corn flavor is all Mexico needs. Planting GMO corn through out the country may be the last and final argument in that discussion.

We all do what we can. At our restaurants in Chicago, we buy organically grown landrace corn from Michoacan (thank you Masienda for searching it out and importing it for us!). It’s boiled and stone-ground in the ancient style. And we hand-press and griddle-bake tortillas from that beautiful nixtamalized corn during lunch and dinner service. Preserving heritage, whether in Mexico or here in Chicago, preserves not only a way of life, but the opportunity to appreciate the full range of delicious flavor this world has to offer us.


  1. A sad day indeed.
    I would be interested in knowing the rationale of the judge who overturned the ban and truly hope it is not something as sad as an underhanded payoff by some large agribusiness trying to get their hooks into Mexico.

    1. The rational of today’s judges is one and only one thing-$-and how much $ Corporations who are funding their re-election campaigns, or their pet projects are willing to give. Judges forget they owe anything to the American People, it is we, the American People, who put them there in the first place. Shamefully, many Judges in the USA have been compromised, and no longer care for the people they should be serving; they choose instead to chase the almighty dollar.

    2. Cargill finances farmers in Mexico and is increasing investment in physical assets which employ people. Not necessarily “underhanded payoff”.
      Does anyone even remember what GMO means? In the agribusiness world, there is no such thing as Genetically Modified Organisms. They are genetically “enhanced”.

    3. That was MY first thought, as well! And it’s my belief that it could be closer to the truth than we dare imagine.

    4. The “rationale” is that anti-GMO is pseudoscience at it’s most damaging. There is ZERO scientific evidence that GMOs are bad for anyone. This is a 1st world “problem”.

      1. Whether one consider’s GMO crops to be bad for anyone or not, there is little argument that the use of GMO crops tends towards fewer strains and varieties. Diversity is reduced and non-GMO varieties fade away and in some cases disappear.

  2. Mexican farmers are very adept at keeping individual corm germplasms separate. that is why there are thousands of different cron germplasms(varieties) grown throughout the country.

    Second point is Bt will help farmers grow healthy corn without the use of broad spectrum insecticides, so why are some people against this environmental benefit?

    Love to discuss this with you Rick

  3. 1. “GMO corn in Mexico will rob us of flavor” I’m old enough to remember eating a lot of mealy, starchy corn as a kid (in New England). The sweet corn you can get now is immeasurably better and consistently so. It may or may not be GM, but I wouldn’t trade the modern variety for the earlier. You might be thinking of tomatoes (also of American origin) which have indeed had all the flavor bred out of them. But you know what? There are no commercial GM tomatoes. This “syllogism” is just wrong.

    2. If you’re buying some sort of exotic corn for your elite clientele, presumably you can keep those farmers in business, supplying your guests (at $30 for a 1″ cube of something twee). (Having been to Commis in Oakland not long ago, I confess a fondness for this kind of thing, but I think I’m self-aware enough to recognize my privilege.)

    3. This essay smacks of the romantic pastoralism that infects so much rich first world urban thinking about agriculture. You would prefer the farmers to continue to live in some sort of agrarian idyllic poverty so that your corporate lawyer clients can enjoy a vision of their food coming from the sunburned hands of an honest laborer. If the farmers want that themselves, nothing’s stopping them. Monsatan isn’t forcing anything on them. But if more efficient and productive means are available, should they really be beholden to our urban fantasies and forbidden to use them?

    4. My understanding is that much of the motivation for the earlier GMO ban was fear of being locked out of the European market, itself governed by protectionism under the guise of caution. See here, for example:

    5. Part of the problem here is implicit in your use of the word “contaminate”. I note that you nowhere expressed concern about growing hybrid varieties developed elsewhere, which could equally cross-pollinate with local varieties and “contaminate” them. Of course, they’re entirely unregulated, so we have no idea what sort of “contamination” has already happened.

    1. BT can be applied to a crop without the GModification of incorporating it into the plant. BT is Bacillus Thuringiensis and is readily available in a form that can be sprayed.
      A few years ago when GMO was just beginning to be known I wrote a note on FaceBook objecting to unlabeled GMOs. A physician friend sent back a note saying GMO should be fine and why would I object? I replied by asking if a patient were allergic to peanuts and had a life threatening reaction to something but swore he had not had any contact with peanuts but in fact had unknowingly eaten corn modified with the nitrogen fixing gene from peanuts, how could a doctor know how to diagnose/treat such a reaction? It was something my friend had never considered.

      And I don’t know how they know the difference, bur squirrels won’t eat GMO corn. Something must be wrong with it for this to be true.

      1. There are so many myths on the internet about GMO’s (squirrels is a perfect example)
        Look up:

        “Not all science created equal: the genetically engineered crop story”

        It can help.

      2. Re: Squirrels and GMO corn.

        1. Yes they will: Therefore, applying your own conclusion, nothing must be wrong with it.

        2. Supposing for a moment it were true. Isn’t that supposed to be a good thing that pests are kept away from crops?

        3. So what? I wouldn’t eat steak and kidney pie if my life depended on it. Therefore, applying your own conclusion, something must be wrong with it and I guess it should be banned or something.

      3. Genes responsible for allergens in peanuts have nothing to do with nitrogen fixation. Not too mention that GE crops are tested very thoroughly, they’d have found any known allergens.

        As for your claim about squirrels not eating GE corn, that’s a debunked bit of anti-science propaganda. Animals DO willingly eat GE corn. Happens every single day.

    2. Wow – someone responded that actually has a clue! Great job Foster!
      Sad that only about 2% of the US and Canada is rural and the other 98% really don’t have a clue about farming – thereby leaving them helpless to be preyed upon by the scum “organic” activists that want to scare you into buying their shit for twice the price.
      What anyone with an inkling of experience would gather from this story above is that this is just another case of the same – repeating blatant lies to try to sway more “uninformed” urbanites to the church of “organic” the school of paying twice the price for the same thing.

      If cross pollination with GM varieties were a concern – one has to wonder how they managed to keep many separate seed line going in the first place – doesn’t it???

  4. GMO corn is not the threat to Mexico’s amazing corn diversity. Any modern corn varieties, not just varieties with one GMO gene, can cross pollinate with the local varieties and dilute their unique characteristics. Corn has tens of thousands of genes.

    What needs to happen is for Mexico and other countries to invest in saving seeds from the diverse Mexican varieties. And make sure that both farmers growing any modern corn varieties (GMO or not) and farmers growing local corn varieties take steps to avoid cross-pollination. There are established practices, such as making sure that the corn fields are 660 feet apart, that are proven to keep the varieties separate (and many Mexican farmers already know these methods).

    I say this as an independent corn geneticist, with a PhD in genetics, and I studied corn breeding and sustainable agriculture in graduate school. I want to help make sure that these special varieties are protected for future generations.

    I applaud you both for paying attention to this important issue. However, the focus on GMOs will not protect the Mexican corn that you love so much. Please work with scientists to help make sure that the corn really is protected.

    Please, Chef Bayless, consider speaking with me and I can connect you with other corn geneticists, ones who are working actively in this field.

  5. ANY contemporary dent corn will cross-pollinate with landraces. Biotech corn does not present any new challenge on that front. Current biotech traits in corn have nothing to do with flavor. The loss of flavor has been due to conventional breeding decisions to elevate yield and durability over flavor. That’s a response to market forces. You want better tasting field corn, create the demand. That’s something high profile chefs can do. But it may as well also have the Bt trait so local farmers don’t need insecticides to deal with crop loss.

  6. Corporations robbing us from our flavors, culture and heritage. Judges once again choosing money over culture.

    1. I know! Let’s all go back to trying to eat teosinte. That’s what corn used to be before corporations started “improoooving” it!

  7. Dear Rick,
    I have always admired you as a Chef you are quite remarkable and I do understand your passion about the cultural identity of locally grown corn. I will however take exception with the GMO issues you pose. One drift is not the issue frequently claimed as the farmers can still sell as Organic at least in the US if trace genetic material is found in their plants, and farmers that wish to grow their usual corn will certainly be able to do so. It is a statement of fact that Mexico does not grow enough corn for its population they currently import over 400,000 tons of GMO corn annually to feed their people. So yes some diversity will be lost but if it helps feed more people at less cost that might be a good thing. I personally believe there can be a balance maintained but that will be up to the farmers and whether there is a market for their products. GMO is a very complicated subject on the whole it provides great benefits, the down side is loss of diversity because of cost more than anything else. We need both and I hope that somehow we will find that balance in our agricultural practices.
    With regards,

  8. Some of you may not understand exactly why this is such a tragedy. Mexico, the only place in the world where the native grass teocintle was domesticated over the course of hundreds or thousands of year until more than 9000 years ago that grain became what we know today as *maíz nativo*, has sold its soul to the producers of GMO corn.

    “So what?”, you might well ask. Here’s the “so what” as I see it: as the many varieties of native corn become subsumed by GMO corn, the many natives will disappear. As the varieties of native corn, each of different colors, textures, tastes, and uses, disappear from the many regions of this country which use them to prepare pre-Hispanic, ancestral, and more recent traditional dishes, so will those dishes begin to disappear. People will dream sadly of their great-grandmothers kneeling at the metate, their grandmothers rubbing dried corn from the cobs, their mothers’ hand-patted, hot-from-the-comal tortillas.

    Millenia of history will vanish from Mexico’s present and future. Our principal patrimony, our daily nourishment, has been sold down the river by today’s fat-cat officials who sneer at the tortilla except in the darkest hours of the night, when they too crave the steamy, toasted savor of their childhood’s corn. By day, they set that secret longing aside with the cry of, “Let them eat bread!”.

    Mexico is corn. Corn is Mexico. Sin maíz, no hay país. Without corn, there is no country.

    #fueratransgénicos #outwithgmos

    1. so romantic Christina, but wouldn’t it also be nice for the poor farmers who are raising that corn to make a profit?
      GM corn does not mean the heritage varieties are doomed. There is a separate market for feed varieties where there is also a profit to be made. Farming is not sustainable if you don’t make a profit.

  9. RE: Points 1, 2, and 3: I agree but all these things will happen as a result of adopting modern, highly-productive hybrids that are non-GMO. A loss of diversity with crops happened with maize in the US decades before GMOs as a result of adoption of hybrids that blew the doors off of the old, open-pollinated varieties. No one forced this on the farmers; the farmer’s simply wanted to make more money and have a better life. These are some of the decisions we made as a people–not as a result of companies or the government–because we wanted an easier, more wealthy life.

    Rick’s points are right on the mark except for one thing: It is NOT GMOs that cause this, it is the relentless pursuit of quantity over quality, that is, profit above all else, that has rendered our system of producing, delivering, and processing food to the control of gigantic corporations. GMOs are simply one of many technologies used for profitable farming, and getting rid of them will do nothing to discourage the trend towards industrialized agriculture. I encourage people who value diversity and more local control to address their concerns to the way big business is conducted, because this is what is causing the problem. And remember: every time any of us create demand for factory-farmed animals and grain–which we do by shopping for low prices–we, as individuals, help create the conditions in which big ag companies survive and prosper.

    Why did we do this to ourselves? The old ways that featured much more diversity and much less control over food production by large companies required almost every member of society to be involved with food production. In the words of my mother, referencing her life in in the ’30s and ’40s as the daughter of a farmer: “Life on the farm was damned hard and I’m glad to be away from it”

    Be careful what you ask for.

  10. In all this discussion no one has mentioned the issues with the growing of GMO Corn. Namely the issue of this type of corn requiring more water, more fertilizer and the cost of the seeds over conventional corn. There was no mention of the flattening of yield per acre
    in GMO corn fields. The yield per acre versus the cost of production for that yield is worth examining but usually is not referenced-for good reason by the GMO marketing folks.
    The suicides of farmers in Ethiopia and India who were seduced into growing GMO corn and cotton by Monsanto ,DuPont and Sygenta was not referenced-their cost of production kept them in debt.
    I notice that the following works were not referenced, THE GMO DECEPTION, THE MYTHS OF SAFE PESTICIDES, THE END OF FOOD and a recent study-Fakethrough! GMO’s and the Capitulation of Science Journalism.
    I would suggest that those who are interested in the subject of GMO crops,their yields per acre, the cost per acre of said yields, and other related issues read these works. In passing it is interesting to note that Germany has just allowed its districts to ban GMO products.

  11. The way the population is growing, GMO’s are necessary. So be it if they cross pollinate, that happens all the time. If you need pure heritage breeds, separate them…(and I don’t work for an agribusiness venture). It just irk’s me with all this anti GMO gibberish.

  12. It’s probably relevant to point out that GE traits, once developed, will then be incorporated into other varieties in order to develop a locally relevant product.

    There is a false belief that it’s the same GE crops from region to region, when in fact it’s the trait, incorporated multiple times.

    Marc’s points about the broader market drivers are still true however. It’s not a GE thing but diversity and taste can be sacrificed in favour of productivity. Think apples!

  13. Also, please take the time to research the devastation of the Monarch butterfly population because of GMO’s! Shocking!

    1. This is not because of GMO crops. It’s because of the loss of milkweed, upon which the butterfly lays its eggs. Farmers want to get rid of weeds and will use whatever herbicide has the best cost/benefit profile to do it.

  14. When will some high profile chef see the opportunity of being the viral renegade and call this GMO business what it is, namely a distraction born from first world privelege and paranoia. Ruffle some feathers, speak eloquently about
    Modern ag in a way that is supported by the data, and watch as all your chagrined peers scramble to catch up with the trail blazer you’ve become.
    Hmmm… Maybe I should be posting this on bourdain’s blog instead?

  15. Rick, you seem a little bit ignorant of how maize in grown in Mexico. The highlands and hills cannot grow maize in a commercial fashion. Go try it, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how unforgiving the landscape is compared to the Great Plains.

    There have been doom-and-gloom predictions that genetic diversity of maize in Mexico would be reduced by X or Y technology for 50 years; it hasn’t happened. Instead, some of the best-performing varieties have been actively preserved and incorporated into hybrids. NAFTA even seems to have increased crop diversity in rain fed areas by making it even less worthwhile to raise commercial cultivars.

    The only area this even remotely matters is in the north and that is just in terms of replacing commercial animal feed cultivars with transgene, commercial animal feed cultivars. So what? That has nothing to do with what you are talking about.

  16. Hi Rick. Big fan– I have your books and video. I am also a science teacher focusing on agricultural biotech. You may be familiar with CIMMYT, Nobel Peace Laureate’s Norman Borlaug’s organization. They pay farmers to keep local landraces in cultivation and maintain a vast seed library. And CIMMYT receives support from the big seed companies that develop GMO corn. Check out this great picture.

    It is in everyone’s interest to keep maize genetic diversity alive on the landscape. Hybrid corn hasn’t displaced it. Neither will a few GMO traits integrated into hybrid corn, IMHO.

  17. Hi Rick! Big fan– I have your books and video. I am also a science teacher focusing on agricultural biotech. You may be familiar with CIMMYT, Nobel Peace Laureate’s Norman Borlaug’s organization. They pay farmers to keep local landraces in cultivation and maintain a vast seed library. And CIMMYT receives support from the big seed companies that develop GMO corn. Check out this great picture.

    It is in everyone’s interest to keep maize genetic diversity alive on the landscape. Hybrid corn hasn’t displaced it. Neither will a few GMO traits integrated into hybrid corn, IMHO.

  18. Rick, Putting the bt gene into heritage varieties would be possible and you could have your delicious taste along with a corn that would make more profit for the farmer. The problem is, people don’t understand the safeness that goes along with all the research and testing and most GM crops are for commercial feed use. There is however the papaya. Without biotech, the Hawaiin papaya industry would be gone.
    Most biotech crops help us as farmers have more control over our resources and weed/pest control, along with preserving our land. It is an important tool and a choice we get to make.

  19. I work for University of Illinois Extension and we have started a project in central Illinois called the Grand Prairie Grain Guild. The goal of the project is to connect farmers, millers, chefs, bakers and consumers so we can re-build the infrastructure we need so farmers can sell food grade grains into local markets. We started a variety trial program this year and we have planted and harvested wheat, dry beans and corn. Many varieties did well despite the wet weather, including several of the ancient races of corn from Mexico. I have just started harvesting Chapalote popcorn, which is one of the oldest races of corn in North America. I purchased the seed from Native Seed Search in Arizona and they were not sure if it would mature here in Illinois as it is a late maturing variety. Turns out that it will mature here. Farmers in Illinois can grow these old varieties of corn. We have only just begun to explore the potential of this amazing plant.

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