This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Anne Strainchamps: Strange but true fact: the average American consumes about 4 pounds of corn a day. If you’re thinking, I don’t eat 4 pounds of ANYTHING a day — do you eat meat? Most of it was raised on corn. Eat anything that comes in a box, can or bottle? Check the label for high fructose corn syrup. There’s corn in toothpaste, soap, diapers, drywall and ethanol. Americans are pretty much made of corn.
And that’s a problem for the planet.
Because the corn grown in the US requires nitrogen-based fertilizer. And that fertilizer is doing serious damage to the environment. But in southern Mexico, indigenous farmers just might have a solution. Reporter Seth Jovaag investigates.
Seth Jovaag: About a year ago, a news story caught my ear. Something about a new kind of “miracle corn.”
SJ: Here’s the deal with this miracle corn. First of all, it’s not new — at least, not to the people of the Sierra Mixe region of Oaxaca. They’ve been growing it for oh, maybe thousands of years. Second, this is some weird-looking corn. The plant grows up to 16-feet tall, it has roots running up and down the stalk that look like little necklaces of red fingers. And these fingers exude … goop. It looks like clear mucus – I call it ‘corn snot’. This may sound gross, but that mucus is what lets the corn pull nitrogen… from the air. Which is amazing.
Jean Michel-Ane: Initially I was to be honest very skeptical, both excited but mostly skeptical (fade under…)
SJ: That’s Jean Michel-Ane, a Wisconsin agronomist who’s been running tests on this corn for a decade now. He was first approached by researchers from the University of California-Davis and Mars, Incorporated – the people who brought you Snickers and Twix. They’d heard about this magical Oaxacan corn and they wanted Jean-Michel to figure out if it really did what they hoped.
JMA:Before that project our long term target we hoped to be able to get about 10 percent of nitrogen from the air into corn. And so that was for us our dream.
SJ: You hear that? His dream corn would get 10 percent of its nitrogen from the air. Then he had his student test the Oaxacan corn. And he was like, “whoa.”
JMA: it was so high that I actually even asked the student to do it many many times. I don't know how many five to ten times, the same fairly simple experiment because I was thinking maybe he just swapped a legume sample with a corn sample.It's so high. I was not expecting that at all.
SJ: How high? This corn gets an average of 50 percent of its nitrogen from the air. Sometimes as much as 80 percent. So… not zero, like American corn. Not 10, like they hoped. Eighty.
If there was an FBI most wanted list for major causes of pollution, synthetic nitrogen fertilizer would be on it. Dead zones in the gulf. Nitrates in well water. Greenhouse gases. It contributes to all of that. So imagine if we could cut the need for fertilizer by 50% or more. That would be a huge deal! Scientists have tried for decades to figure this out...some call it the Holy Grail of agriculture.
After their research was published last year, Jean-Michel: you’ve published a bunch of papers, worked on a bunch of things. Is this one special?
JMA:It's funny that you're asking that question because that's probably one of the projects if not the projects that I'm really passionate about. I was thinking recently, “Okay I probably have 20 years of work in science. If I want to achieve one thing, would be really to put that trait into the hands of growers.”
SJ: And in 10 years? 15? 20 years? He thinks that’s doable.
At this point, I was getting pretty excited about this miraculous indigenous Mexican corn. And then I thought, hey! I have an old high school buddy lives in Oaxaca, not far from where this corn grows. I should go! I could reconnect with my friend, talk to a bunch of farmers, see the corn snot and make a delightful little story for public radio listeners!!! LET’S DO THIS!
If only it was that simple.
Alejandro de Avila: Well it's a very comfortable thought. Oh yeah. The people in Oaxaca, those Indians down there, they can take care of the biodiversity that brought us this commodity.
SJ: This is Alejandro de Avila, founding director of the Oaxaca Ethnobotanical Garden. We met in his open-aired office (DESCRIBE THE SETTING MORE plants all around? What kind of plants? ) — you can hear the birds. Alejandro’s focus was intense, and while he was patient with me, I got the sense his patience in general was running thin.
AdA: I feel irony and sadness that people in the states should think with comfort:Oh yeah. The people in Oaxaca will take care of conserving the genes that we rely on. Yeah. And the people of Oaxaca are poor, they are dirt poor, and they are being taken advantage of.
SJ: Uh-oh. So much for my “delightful little story”.
AdA:How nearsighted can you be? How utterly senseless to the human drama that takes place outside of the border at this particular time in history?
SJ: In his quiet voice, what Alejandro’s saying is — why on earth would anyone expect the indigenous people of the Sierra Mixe to welcome U.S. researchers and a multinational corporation with open arms and zero reservations? Here! Have our magic corn! We’re happy to help and have no concerns whatsoever that you might someday put a patent on it and sell it back to us in a slightly altered version that we won’t be able to afford! We are proud that you can use our corn to solve environmental problems we didn’t create in the first place! Buen provecho!
AdA: The way this is described by the scientists in Wisconsin is oh, this is a breed of maize that happens to have that peculiarity. Peculiarity? Bullshit! These are people growing their maize in these kinds of soil, in this kind of climate. It is to them that we owe this. It is not something that happened by chance. This is something that is part of our way of life. It is the way of life of the people of (BLEEP). They have produced this. This is their gift. This is the result of generations of people working, knowing the plants, knowing their local environment. Nowhere is that story given credit to.
SJ: In other words, this story about corn? It’s not just about corn.
SJ: Case in point: you noticed TWO bleeps in what Alejandro said. The first? That was a swear word. The second is the name of an indigenous Mixe village. I know the name of the village. In fact, I went there. But the people who live there want the village to be anonymous.
To explain why, here’s Aldo Gonzalez Rojas, a Zapotec farmer and activist.
Aldo Gonzalez Rojas: Our corn is shared between the communities. Corn is not sold here.
SJ: One of Aldo’s primary goals is defending the autonomy of indigenous people in this region. And in these parts, autonomy goes hand in hand with farming. With growing your own food.
AGR: When someone needs corn here he goes to one of his countrymen or to the community. In some cases someone will lend it to him and when he has his harvest he returns it. The concern we have is that when universities or companies start doing this type of research, it is not to produce a benefit to humanity but to have great profits, and to be able to do a business. In order to have great profits, they make it so this corn cannot be used by anyone other than them.
SJ: All right, keep Aldo’s ideals in your head: “sharing seeds.” “Benefit to humanity.” “Autonomy.” “Community.” Within this context, ONE village in the region signed an agreement with a subsidiary of Mars, Inc. The agreement’s confidential. But it apparently stipulates how the village should benefit if their native corn strikes it big someday on the market.
Now, let me be clear: Aldo doesn’t blame the village of (BLEEP) for this. His worries are bigger, deeper. There’s a long history of indigenous people being dispossessed of land and their way of life. He’s afraid the whole situation surrounding this particular corn will set a dangerous precedent for years to come.
This is his co-worker, Gabriela Linares Sosa.
Gabriela Linares Sosa: The issue is the looting of corn by academic institutions or governmental bodies … I mean, maize has ALWAYS been attacked in Oaxaca including through the permissiveness of government agencies in Mexico that were supposed to be protecting it. (cut) the corn is one case, but there are other cases with other types of native crops that are also in the same situation, and that are of equal importance for Mexico because they are native.
SJ: Okay, deep breath. I went from hope in Wisconsin that this NEW science could do GOOD in the world, to people in Oaxaca who see this in the context of much OLDER problems that have put indigenous people on the defense for centuries.
To hammer the point home, Aldo sets an envelope in front of me.
SJ: What am I looking at here?
TRANSLATOR: What we are seeing here?
AGR: This is mixe corn from (BLEEP), but we bought it in the United States.
AGR: From somebody in Mexico. No, to somebody in Mexico. From Laredo.
AGR: And then they give you teosinte with the purchase of this corn.
TRANSLATOR: maize from (BLEEP), plus free package of teosinte with your purchase.
SJ: Who is this?
AGR: They're on eBay.
TRANSLATOR: They were on eBay. [laughs]
SJ: how do they feel about that?
TRANSLATOR: It seems like a silly question but how does it make you feel?
TRANSLATOR: It's a very Mexican word: [encabronado].
SJ: Encabronado… pissed off. That’s how Aldo felt when he learned that seeds from his neighbors were already for sale, at a dollar a piece, on eBay.
SJ: I still wanted to SEE this mysterious, controversial corn. Given the politics involved, I didn’t think it would be right to go combing through random farmers’ fields. So a friend of a friend talked to some people, emails were sent, and eventually, I was asked to appear at a special Sunday night meeting of the agrarian authorities of . After a long, windy drive through mist-covered mountains, I was in a room with four officials. I explained what I was working on and that I simply wanted to talk to farmers about their relationship to this special corn.
And they said… no. Their agreement with Mars was confidential in part because they didn’t want pesky journalists and researchers snooping around their town. I was disappointed, but not entirely surprised. They made a photocopy of my driver’s license for safekeeping — and maybe further incentive to stay out of the local fields. Weeks of research, hours of interviews, a trip to Oaxaca, and in 10 minutes, we were done.
Well this was a bummer. I'd come all this way to see corn snot. And then...nothing?
SJ: As it turns out, I did actually catch one glimpse of corn snot. Completely by accident. It was an overcast day, my friend and I were walking on a random street in the town of Santa Maria Tlahuitoltopec, when he said "hey, is that it?"
SJ (field tape): Okay, it's day 10 or so in Oaxaca. And I am seeing for the first time maize with gel coming out of its aerial roots. I'm standing next to a plot where someone has planted 30 plants or so of corn. It's kind of wedged between a garage and construction supply store.
SJ: I came to see game-changing corn. I went home with my head spinning.
I wish I could tell you: here’s the bad guy! Here’s the good guy! But I can’t. Yes, one expert told me this was a case of biopiracy. But UC-Davis professor Alan Bennett, who led this study from the beginning, insists their work with the Mixe village was well-intentioned and something to be proud of. In Wisconsin, Jean-Michel Ane feels Mars should be applauded for funding a risky project that led to a possibly major scientific discovery. (Mars is no longer funding the research, by the way.) So far, no one’s claiming ownership of the corn-snot trait. The research is in the public domain, and the corn is actually growing right now in university research plots.
And I hope that’s a good thing. I hope this isn’t just another “silver bullet” that goes astray, another case study in capitalism wreaking havoc on indigenous people. I suppose the test will come in in 10 or 15 years, if and when corn snot goes commercial. But meanwhile, we might be missing a much bigger point. In the birthplace of corn, farmers are struggling. And as Aldo and just about everybody else I talked to said, that could be bad news for all of us.
AGR: If we see statistics globally, more than 50 percent of food production is still produced on a small scale. It does not depend on transnational companies to survive. That means there are thousands or millions of farmers in the world who continue to do their job to survive. That’s important because finally those farmers are the ones ensuring that future generations can count on the seeds that they are planting in this moment. The companies are not going to guarantee this. For example, the seed vault of the end of the world in Norway isn’t. It’s there to take care of the seeds that may be used by companies in the future. But peasant seeds are reproduced year after year and they adapt to the new climatic conditions. So those are really the seeds of the future.