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[MEXICO CITY] Mexico has passed legislation that authorises the planting and selling genetically modified (GM) crops. The Mexican congress's upper house (the Senate), passed the law on 15 February, with 87 votes in favour, 16 against and 6 abstentions.

Since it was proposed, the law has created considerable debate in Mexico and has practically split the country's scientific community in two.

The Senate drafted the law in April 2003 with input from the Mexican Academy of Sciences (AMC), the country's leading science organisation. However, some academy members were critical of the process and the academy's involvement.

"Any omissions we may have made in selecting the committee which represented the academy before Congress were without malice," said the academy's president, Octavio Paredes, in an interview with SciDev.Net. "At the time I did not sense any serious difference of opinion from within the academy."

René Drucker, coordinator of scientific research at Mexico's National University (UNAM), and former president of the AMC, disagrees.

"[The law] will bring no benefits to our country in the future," wrote Drucker in a letter to La Jornada last year following the law's approval by Mexico's lower house, the Chamber of Deputies.

Another letter to the same newspaper mocked the law, suggesting it should be named the "Law of Genetic Colonisation for the 21st Century". It was sent by Ignacio Chapela, the US-based Mexican biologist who first claimed that genes from other species had entered wild maize in Mexico (see GM maize found 'contaminating' wild strains).

Chapela's letter said the law served the interests of Mexico's elite, "which in turn represents economic and political interests from within and outside the country".

The law was also criticised by other researchers who oppose the import, distribution, release and consumption of genetically modified organisms in Mexico. Seventy researchers signed a full-page statement in the 8 December edition of La Jornada that said it was regrettable that the recommendations of a lengthy study by the Environment Cooperation Commission for North America had been ignored.

The study said action should be taken to reduce the risk of foreign genes spreading and to conserve the biodiversity of maize varieties in Mexico (see Warning issued on GM maize imported to Mexico).

Mexico's senators did, however, seek the advice of the scientists before drafting the law. Francisco Bolivar Zapata, another former AMC president and a senior researcher at UNAM's Biotechnology Institute, says that the chair of the Senate's science and technology commission, Rodimiro Amaya, explicitly asked the Mexican Academy of Sciences for advice.

Bolivar adds that the academy put together a group of 40 of experts "from all areas of knowledge and from various institutions" to prepare a draft of the biosecurity bill.

After three months of work, a document titled Basis and recommendations for a Mexican law on biosecurity of genetically modified organisms was presented to the Senate, which then incorporated the recommendations and approved the draft bill (in April 2003) before sending it to be debated by the Chamber of Deputies.

As well as permitting planting and sale of GM crops, the law covers the conservation of genetic resources, and calls for a special protection regime — yet to be determined — for varieties of maize native to Mexico, the crop's centre of diversity.

It also requires all GM products to be labelled according to guidelines to be issued by the Ministry of Health.

Link to document detailing how the Senators voted (in Spanish)

Link to transcript of senators' debate (in Spanish)

Link to full-page statement by Mexican scientists in the 8 December edition of La Jornada

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