The 20th century belonged to the atom and the chemical industry, but this century will belong to biotechnology and the cell. Mexico has the resources it needs to create and export biotech. However, if it fails to take the right steps, it runs the risk of losing its rights to exploit the great wealth of its own biodiversity. To confront this challenge, Mexico enacted its Law of Biosecurity and Genetically Modified Organisms last month. The law is an important instrument for achieving the nation’s transition from a country that is fundamentally a creator of knowledge into a country that produces technology and biological materials. Nevertheless, the new law has generated intense controversy. Its defenders argue that it is the best way to promote the private sector’s entrepreneurial spirit, and create an industry based on the protection of intellectual property so that Mexico can compete in the international arena. Its detractors argue that the new law favors multinational corporations to the detriment of local companies and individuals.


Mexico has made significant progress in advanced biotech research. Fifty percent of the country’s science researchers are involved in biotech, according to SIN, the country’s national association of researchers. Of the more than 140 research institutions in the country, 98 are engaged in biotech research. However, developing this sector has been largely the responsibility of the government, and the private sector has invested extremely few resources. For all that, several research centers are doing first-rate research, including the Biotechnology Institute of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), the Center of Research and Advanced Studies of the National Polytechnic Institute, and the Biotechnology Department of the Scientific Research Center of Yucatan.


During the 1960s and 1970s, Mexico was a pioneer in the development of traditional biotechnology, including enzymes and proteins. Researchers in biotech – the country’s second-most developed science after astronomy – were also able to expand their knowledge into other biotech applications. In the country’s northeast, marine biotechnology is at a high level. In the center and north, the pharmaceutical sector has made major achievements, such as the recent discovery of DSPA at the Biotechnology Institute of UNAM. DSPA is an anti-coagulant derived from the saliva of bats. It has been patented by Schering AG, the German research lab, which signed an agreement with UNAM valued at €1.2 million.


“There is a growing interest on the part of local [Mexican] companies to develop this technology, largely in the pharmaceutical field,” says Lourival Possani, a researcher at UNAM’s Biotechnology Institute. For example, “Silanes Laboratories and a subsidiary of the Bioclon Institute, in collaboration with UNAM, have distributed anti-venom for treating scorpion bites.”


Biotechnology offers companies a wide range of new business opportunities. For example, environmental biotechnology has spawned successful companies in water treatment, and has led to improvements in petroleum refining processes which also reduce the environmental impact of those processes. When it comes to the ecosystem, companies are working with microorganisms that are capable of degrading a wide range of poisonous compounds with oils, detergents, plastics and insecticides. In the mining sector, biotechnology helps by utilizing bacteria to obtain metals such as copper and gold.


Nevertheless, biotechnology has achieved its greatest use in agriculture, a sector in which viewpoints are polarized. Agriculture represents 5% of Mexico’s GDP, but more than 20% of the country’s population directly depends on the sector. That’s especially true for the country’s lowest-income groups – the rural and indigenous peoples who feel threatened by the Law of Biosecurity, and argue that it favors the big multinationals.


Biotech activity has been concentrated in a mere handful of multinational companies. That has led to the creation of several international treaties designed to prevent private interests from making decisions about the public good. The Cartagena Protocol is considered the second part of the Convention on Biological Diversity, and Mexico is participating in both international treaties. In response to its commitments, Mexico’s Law of Biosecurity went into effect in Mexico on May 4.


According to Carlos Arias, a researcher who belongs to Mexico’s Network of Experts on Biotechnology, “Now they have taken steps to legislate in this area in Mexico through CONABIO (the National Commission on Biodiversity), and by putting together a panel of experts on national biosecurity.” Arias believes “the law on biosecurity has generated controversy and discussion because, among other things, of its unforeseen impact on the country’s largely indigenous rural population, which is responsible for cultivating a great variety of basic grains, such as corn, beans, cabbage, and chili peppers.”


Another controversy concerns the rights of indigenous peoples to control their own biodiversity. Some people believe the new law gives big multinationals too much leeway. They argue that the law ignores the rights and interests of the country’s rural communities. For example, farmers face the risk of having to pay royalties for using the seeds they have used for generations, if their native crops become contaminated by a genetically modified product. Genetically modified grains are patented, and the company that owns the patent can make that demand on farmers who use those grains.


The Indigenous Controversy


In addition, many native communities are located in areas where there is a high level of biodiversity (many native communities are in the south of Mexico). As a result, there is a problem of access to genetic resources in these regions. Another challenge, both political and legal, is to make sure that local populations benefit from the use of these resources. For Arias, the problem for indigenous populations is “about the current and foreseeable repercussions of this science.” This is especially relevant “in countries such as Mexico, which don’t have all the information they need to confront possible threats to their national sovereignty.” In addition, he believes “there are strong economic pressures on technicians and scientists who are responsible for protecting the genetic resources that have been developed over the course of a thousand years of cultural interaction between man and nature.”


Agriculture and fishing play a major role in Mexico’s economic development and its efforts to eradicate poverty. Mexico has one of the world’s highest rates of deforestation, and its chief causes are agriculture and fishing. The country also suffers from the exhaustion of its water resources. Agriculture consumes about 80% of available water, and more than half of its territory is arid or semi-arid. As a result, “developing grains that have a greater ability to combat the shortage of liquids would have positive repercussions, by reducing the need for irrigation in agriculture, and by improving crop yields,” notes José Sánchez Martinez, a researcher and professor on agricultural production at the University of Guadalajara.


Manuel Morales, a researcher on agronomy and bioscience at the University of Guadalajara, says that “traditional agriculture contaminates the environment a great deal because of the extensive use of pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, and so forth… The challenge is that we must think of alternative ways to engage in agriculture. Biotechnology seems to be the best approach.”


When it comes to sowing genetically modified crops, Mexico is one of the world’s top-ten powers. Currently, only genetically modified soy beans and cotton are cultivated on a commercial basis. However, Mexicans are investigating the possibility of commercializing various species of genetically modified plants, especially crops of rice, zucchini, cinnamon, tomatoes, corn, melons, potatoes, papayas, pineapples, bananas, wheat and tobacco. These crops have become tolerant to various types of herbicides, and resistant to various pests and viral infections. They are also tolerant to drought and cold; and to aluminum [contamination]. Using biotech, the ripening of fruit has been delayed, and new kinds of oils have been produced.


According to the International Service of the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA), production of biotech crops grew by 20% worldwide last year, and it now covers a total of 81 million hectares. The number of countries that produce biotech on a large scale – those that cultivate more than 50,000 hectares of biotech crops – grew from 10 nations to 14 countries last year. The four new members of this group are Mexico, Paraguay, Spain and the Philippines. In Mexico, 75,000 hectares of biotech products are under cultivation; half of that is genetically modified cotton. Last year, for the first time, total output of genetically modified crops in developing countries surpassed the volume in industrialized countries. Moreover, 90% of all farmers involved in biotech were in developing countries. When it comes to products under cultivation, 60% of all production is in modified soybeans that are more capable of resisting herbicides. The big producers are Argentina, Chile and Brazil.


A Time for Patents


Debate over the potential impact of biotech products is polarized. Mexico imports 8 million tons of (un-segregated and unlabeled) corn every year, of which 20% to 30% are genetically modified. Some say that people are only thinking about the economic benefits of biotech, without considering the possible risks of contaminating local or Native American plants. Victor Loyola-Vargas, a member of the Mexican Academy of Sciences, explains that corn is a complicated product with many facets that must be viewed all at once. One positive development is “the conservation of Native American corns for future programs of genetic improvement. And biotechnology here has a great number of tools to do this.” Nevertheless, Loyola-Vargas says there is a need to get back to the “cultural and ethnic components of corn.”


When it comes to applying biotech to corn, he says, “It is used not only in energy applications – such as obtaining ethanol – but also as a substitute for table sugar, and in the production of adhesives.”


Although Mexican researchers have earned an international reputation, much work remains to be done to create links with the country’s manufacturing sector. That failure has led to a widely recognized brain drain, and a net export of technology [from Mexico]. Loyola-Vargas says that is because, “Research centers and universities are institutions that have no job openings, and graduates of postgraduate programs don’t have any work. How are we going to create our own technology if we are not creating new knowledge?”


For his part, Possani says, “Many institutions are involved in biotechnology, but we haven’t been creating new jobs, or they are limited to provincial universities and to the CONACYT centers (the National Council of Science and Technology, a publicly-funded initiative for evaluating research programs and setting standards). These are not always the best places for producing in-puts that have a significant added value, and which can lead to products that can be sold to the public.”


According to Loyola-Vargas, “It is essential that they carry out programs for spreading awareness of the social benefits and dangers of these technologies … Genetically modified products are here to stay. In many cases, there is no other alternative. Nevertheless, this will have to lead to products that are really needed in the marketplace.”


According to Possani, “the country lacks biotech institutions that have an impact on society. Part of the problem is that not enough Mexicans are investing in this area.” In other words, the science of biotechnology is developing quite well, but the technology based on that science is virtually non-existent. The real challenge for Mexico is to develop patents, secrets and intellectual property – a fact that the manufacturing sector acknowledges and is now trying to address.