Who will reap the benefits of Mexico’s ‘miraculous’ nitrogen-fixing maize?

Last summer, researchers from Mars Inc. and UC Davis announced the “discovery” of a variety of corn grown in Oaxaca that fixes its own nitrogen through mucus-covered aerial roots. Their study, in the journal PLOS Biology, touched off a debate—in Mexico and beyond—about the effectiveness of global policies designed to safeguard the genetic resources of indigenous communities, according to FERN’s latest story, published with Yale Environment 360.

“The scientists provided few details about where the maize came from, or the circumstances of what UC Davis touted as the researchers’ ‘remarkable discovery,’ saying only that the corn was from an isolated village in Oaxaca,” writes Martha Pskowski. “A Mars subsidiary called BioN2 had signed an agreement with the village to share financial benefits from the maize’s commercialization. That village turned out to be Totontepec, a Mixe indigenous community in the mountains of eastern Oaxaca.

“Scientists will likely spend years determining if a commercial application of the maize is viable. But if the trait is successfully bred into commercial corn, farmers could substantially reduce their use of synthetic fertilizer. Farmers spend more than $3 billion a year on corn fertilizer in the U.S. alone. Nitrogen fertilizer is also a leading cause of water pollution, and an important source of greenhouse gases.

“The UC Davis/Mars researchers received a certificate of compliance with the Nagoya Protocol, an international agreement aimed at compensating indigenous communities for their biological resources and traditional knowledge. Still, the situation surrounding Totontepec’s maize raises complex questions about how indigenous communities equitably benefit when research scientists and multinational corporations commercialize local crops and plants,” the story says.

“Should Totontepec’s maize turn out to be a miracle, self-fertilizing crop whose genetic traits can be replicated worldwide, will the community’s Mixe people receive a significant long-term share of profits, which could potentially number in the millions of dollars? How does Nagoya ensure that the rights and interests of small indigenous communities are safeguarded when their leaders negotiate complex deals with international lawyers and executives? And, not least, when a valuable plant is found not in just one village, but in surrounding regions, is it fair for Totontepec to reap financial benefits from its maize while neighboring communities with identical or similar maize receive nothing?”