Mexico City has announced that it will take steps to protect more than 60 maize breeds known to grow in its territory, also known as the Mexican Altiplano.
The announcement came just days before the Mexican Government said that it would allow the experimental cultivation of genetically modified (GM) maize in other parts of the country.
The first announcement was made by Marcelo Ebrard, mayor of Mexico City, in regulations known as the 'Declaration of Protection of the Maize Breeds of the Mexico Altiplano'.
"The Altiplano is one of the centres of maize domestication," says the decree. "There the Teotihuacan, Tolteca and Mexica cultures have their splendor and contributed to the integration of Mesoamerican agriculture."
Maize is Mexico's staple food. Half of Mexico City territory is agricultural and around 3,000 hectares are cultivated with maize every year.
The declaration says that a research programme will be established with the aim of improving local maize breeds. There will also be funds to support farmers who sow only native seeds and to promote the use of organic fertiliser and pesticides. The purchase and distribution of transgenic maize in Mexico City is now banned.
Esther Orozco, director-general of the Institute of Science and Technology of Mexico City, says that genetic modification is controversial and generates opposing opinions, but Mexico City is the world's "maize capital" and it is important to take care of native species: "It is necessary to increase the research to know the real effects of the transgenic maize in crop biodiversity."
There are also plans for a germplasm bank storing samples of the Altiplano's maize seeds, she says.
"There is no way to control the arrival of transgenic maize because transnational companies are against the labelling of GM food, although in Mexico City the presence of transgenic material has not been detected yet," says Joaquin Ortiz, an agricultural researcher at the Postgraduate School in Texcoco, near Mexico City.
The declaration came just a few days before an executive decree by the president of Mexico, Felipe Calderon, that effectively lifts the country's ban on experimental cultivation of transgenic maize (March 6). Commercial planting remains banned.
"Experimental sowing with GM maize will be authorised, case by case, by SAGARPA [the Ministry of Agriculture] to those companies and research centres which ask for that, submit very detailed technical information and guarantee the binding on strict biosafety measures. The crops resulting will not be commercialised," says the decree.
Experimental sowing will be performed exclusively in authorised places, outside the origin and diversity zones of traditional maize, it can be done only in some regions in the north of the country, where hybrid maize varieties are cultivated in commercial form.
Ariel Alvarez, director of the Intersecretarial Commission of Biosafety and Genetically Modified Organisms (Cibiogem), told SciDev.Net that 25 requests for experimental GM maize have been received.
"The first permission will be authorised by the end of 2009 in Sonora, Sinaloa, Tamaulipas, Chihuahua and Baja California, states of the north where there aren't native corns," Fabrice Salamanca, director of AgroBIO, which represents biotechnology companies, told SciDev.Net.