This article examines the unexpected outcomes in a puzzling new empirical case—the success of a coalition of small-scale beekeepers, indigenous peasant social movements, and NGOs in thwarting a multinational biotechnology firm’s efforts to commercialize genetically modified (GM) soy in Mexico. Sparked by news of pending EU rules for honey imports “contaminated” with GM pollen grains, beekeepers and their allies leveraged a transnational regulatory focusing event to downscale the forums for contestation of Mexican transgenic policy to subnational levels—where actors vested in regionally valuable honey production became pitted against actors promoting the national commercialization of GM soy across Mexico. The coalition’s success not only depended on an effective political and legal strategy, as might be expected, but hinged crucially on the unique characteristics of the traded commodities themselves—honey and soy. The case reveals the complex socioecological, market, and regulatory dynamics at play in the cultivation of crops and commodities for consumption and sale into local and global markets. Going beyond the actors and interests involved, the case shows how the physical characteristics of commodities act as constraints to the set of possible institutional alternatives to effectively redress policy problems. Regulations contrived with focal commodities in mind, like soy, can have significant spillover effects to more peripheral commodities, like honey, and the interactions and interdependencies shared among commodities in natural and human systems may in fact foster new windows of opportunity for producers to pursue policy change and innovation at multiple levels of governance.
In 2012, a coalition of beekeepers, peasant social movements, and their allies launched opposition to a bid by the multinational agro-biotech firm Monsanto to secure permits for genetically modified (GM) soy plantations across thousands of hectares in Mexico—large swaths of terrain in proximity to land collectively owned and cultivated by indigenous Mayan campesinos (peasants) engaged in traditional subsistence agriculture and honey production. Initially granted by the Mexican Secretariat of Agriculture, Livestock, Rural Development, Fisheries, and Food (SAGARPA) and later rescinded by court mandate, Monsanto’s permits allowed for the commercial cultivation of more than 13,000 tons of GM seed on 253,500 hectares across Mexico.1
In a move that initially sparked concern for the Mexican beekeepers, the European Court of Justice had previously ruled (in 2011) on a case regarding German beekeepers with hives located close to fields of maize grown with GM seeds from Monsanto, in the German state of Bavaria.2 The German beekeepers—no longer permitted to sell their honey in the European market—sought damages and requested that precautionary measures be put in place to mitigate further impacts from neighboring fields with GM crops. Namely, the beekeepers requested the Bavarian government to further prohibit GM planting close to their hives and to implement measures to limit contact between bees with their crops. The ruling set a precedent by characterizing trace amounts of pollen in honey—previously deemed a natural element of the honey itself—as an “added ingredient.” This seemingly subtle change in terminology was accompanied by significant new labeling and certification requirements for honey. According to the court’s ruling, minute quantities of pollen from GM crops—even if present in honey unintentionally, as through bee pollination—would necessitate the labeling of honey as a genetically modified food, if not also requiring further restrictions.
Eventually billed as a precedent sparking a European “honey crisis,” news of this ruling and pending new GM food labeling and certification requirements spread beyond Germany and the EU to producers around the globe. To comply with these standards, honey producers seeking to export to the EU could be required to pursue additional laboratory testing, certification, and labeling of their product to indicate the presence (or absence) of GMOs in their honey. For producers in Mexico—then the third largest country exporting honey to the EU after China and Argentina—the message became clear: honey “contaminated” with GMOs would not be accepted for import and sale in EU markets (USAID-CIAFS 2012). How exactly producers might prevent such “contamination” from occurring (if Monsanto were to cultivate GM soy in vast quantities across the peninsula) was a different question: as confirmed by scientific tests later conducted by a group of Mayan beekeepers themselves, bees indeed visit soy flowers (even though they self-pollinate) as part of their daily work of gathering nectar and pollen from whatever flowers emerge in the vicinity of their hives (Villanueva-Gutiérrez et al. 2014).
A not-so-strange-bedfellows coalition3 of beekeepers, indigenous peasant social movements, and NGOs—including Greenpeace Mexico—emerged in Mexico to contend that Monsanto’s introduction of massive monocropped plantations of GM soy threatened to “contaminate” the region’s otherwise GM-free and high-value honey exports to the EU—thereby undermining a key source of income for thousands of Mayan families who rely on beekeeping and honey production to supplement their subsistence livelihoods (Greenpeace Mexico 2012).
Against seemingly long odds, the beekeepers secured victory—in the court of public opinion and eventually through the region’s highest tribunals.4 The restrictions on the use of GM seed represented an outright ban on commercialization—ensuring, in principle, de facto collective compliance from all agricultural producers in the region and preserving the status of honey from the Yucatán as compliant with EU standards. Such a restriction on the planting of GM seed, moreover, represented a departure from Mexico’s national policy, which authorized the cultivation of GMOs under certain conditions (Falkner and Gupta 2009; Gupta and Falkner 2006). The verdict made the Yucatán state the first transgenic-free zone in all of Mexico and a site of contested politics over the transnational governance of GMOs.
This puzzling turn of events—a GM food labeling and certification rule in the EU compelling producers to pursue local policy change at a subnational level in Mexico—prompts a number of questions about the interconnected nature of risk regulation in a globalized world of agrifood commerce and environmental governance, namely: how does the regulatory authority of the EU or, for that matter, any one public or private rule-maker extend over global agrifood commodity chains, both through proposing rules and demanding compliance from producers outside of its political jurisdiction? How do the targets of transnational rules respond—especially when those targets (producers in this case) are embedded in jurisdictions with different governing rules and institutions? And in what ways do these market and regulatory dynamics shape the possibilities for contestation and policy change by ostensibly less powerful actors?
As is shown in the case of honey in Mexico, the success of the coalition of small-scale beekeepers, peasant social movements, and environmental NGOs not only depended on effective political strategy, as might be expected—leveraging a transnational regulatory focusing event to their advantage and downscaling the forums for contestation of Mexican GMO policy to subnational levels—but hinged crucially on the unique characteristics of the traded commodity, honey, itself. The physical characteristics of commodities act as constraints to the set of possible institutional alternatives to effectively redress policy problems. Regulations contrived with major, focal commodities in mind, like soy, can have significant spillover effects to other, ostensibly peripheral commodities, like honey, and the interactions and interdependencies shared among commodities in natural and human systems may in fact foster new windows of opportunity for producers to pursue policy change and innovation (Starobin 2016).
The article proceeds as follows: I begin by briefly examining how complexity and distance shape power dynamics in elongated food systems. I then discuss commodities and interdependence—illuminating how the distinct characteristics of a given commodity may introduce unanticipated challenges to the institutional design of governance mechanisms, especially in the management of externalities and spillover effects to nontarget commodities and species. The case of honey in Mexico is then further elaborated to illustrate the complex socioecological, market, and regulatory dynamics at play in the cultivation of crops and commodities, like honey, for consumption and sale into local and global markets. Finally, I conclude by discussing the implications of my approach for the regulation of agricultural commodities in general and in the context of biotechnology in particular.
Complexity, Distance, and Power in Global Commodity Chains
As Clapp and Scott elaborated in the introduction to this special issue on the global environmental politics of food, complexity and distance characterize much of today’s global food system (see also Clapp 2016). Elongated supply chains for bulk agricultural commodities and processed foods involve a multitude of actors, often operating at great distances from one another and end consumers—to grow, harvest, process, package, and distribute goods. Added to this complexity are the myriad layers of public and private rules that constitute regulation and governance over these commodities from local to global scales—across political jurisdictions and along a spectrum of issue areas and stringency—from food quality and safety to labor standards, animal welfare, ethics, religious values, and environmental sustainability (Bartley 2011). It thus becomes increasingly difficult for end consumers to obtain credible information regarding production methods and assurances of effective oversight—and costly for producers to signal it (Starobin and Weinthal 2010).
Complexity and distance turn opaque the farm-to-table process, exacerbating and magnifying problems within the food system. As suggested elsewhere in the special issue, these attributes of the global food system typically benefit large multinational corporations—which are concentrating their resources into fewer companies that dominate the production of essential agricultural inputs (e.g., seeds, fertilizers, pesticides) and consolidating their power to structure the industrial food system itself, if not also the rules that govern it (Clapp, this issue; Clapp and Fuchs 2009; Dauvergne, this issue; Starobin 2013).
For those who seek to express grievances, remedy harms, or contest business-as-usual practices, complexity and distance seem to narrow if not altogether nullify windows of opportunity for less powerful stakeholders, like small-scale producers, to organize across time and space. Consistent with this view, smallholder farmers in global commodity chains are often characterized as marginalized participants and passive recipients of global rules rather than as active agents. Lee et al. (2009, 12327) surmise that “the presence of multiple governance structures and stringent private food standards shape the strategic options available to smallholders, who confront three basic choices: upgrading, downgrading, or exit.” For example, honey producers might elect to “upgrade”—by pursuing strategies to access higher-value markets that grant price premiums upon complying with increasingly stringent quality, safety, and environmental standards. Alternatively, they can “downgrade”—as when their products no longer meet the changing de facto or de jure quality standards of the marketplace and they can sell them only into lower-quality markets (or informal ones) for which they receive a reduced price. Exit is also an option—to cease attempting to earn a livelihood from keeping bees and instead pursue another means of subsisting off the land or earning a cash income. Exiting can mean many things: joining the local labor market as a seasonal picker or harvester for another grower; migrating to an urban area in search of temporary work at a factory, construction site, or shop; or leaving one’s region or country of origin in search of economic possibilities elsewhere.
In essence, for small-scale producers embedded in global production systems, successful challenges to more powerful actors and status quo rule-making authority are the exception rather than the rule. My analysis, however, shows that small producers often viewed as less powerful—with different ideas about what the rules that govern ought to be—can challenge, at the grassroots level, powerful actors and existing regimes and paradigms. Less powerful actors can employ a repertoire of strategies to overcome power imbalances where corporations typically dominate, as shown in the case of small-scale beekeepers building the power to shape biotech governance in Mexico. In response to externally driven, top-down transnational market and regulatory pressures, these producers instead “downscale”—pursuing bottom-up solutions to the problems they face (Starobin 2016).
Voice—not only dutiful compliance or simple exit—may thus represent a viable pathway for producers of globally traded commodities to assert their values and interests (Hirschman 1970; Neville 2015). Complexity, moreover, may create unexpected moments for voice—new windows of opportunity to facilitate political contestation by less powerful actors.
Power matters, but not only power. Conventional approaches still center largely on the actors and institutions at play—and their relative power to one another (Abbott and Snidal 2009). Such theories, however, lend little analytical leverage when examining a least-likely case of success—as these theories would predict that a powerful multinational corporation like Monsanto would be poised to win (not lose) the regulatory battles it confronted—especially when pitted against actors that are intrinsically less powerful in political and economic terms, such as small-scale agricultural producers, especially given the company’s history of influencing the formulation of global regulations for GMOs (Sell 2009; Smythe 2009).
With a focus on actors and institutions, moreover, conventional approaches assume away possible contributions to policy outcomes played by the commodities themselves. Rather, traded commodities are taken for granted as uniform goods—unchanging amid the shifting winds of global markets and politics.
Commodity Characteristics and Lengthening Chains of Interdependence
But what are commodities, at a most basic level? Economists define commodities as those goods that have a “price and demand function” (Radin 1996, 13). Fundamental to the idea of commodities is that they are interchangeable—one for one. But price differentiation along quality, grades, and even values-based labeling and the like, including country of origin, challenges the notion that all products are created equal—that honey cultivated adjacent to tropical forests in the Yucatán is qualitatively similar to, or a viable substitute for, that produced by bees foraging on sugar water (or even the sweet effluent from a maraschino cherry factory in New York City)5 or, more directly, that honey containing residual pollen grains from GM soy is or is not substantially equivalent to honey without it. Advocates of terroir6—and related labeling for geographic indicators—share the view that not all potentially “like products” are in fact alike: not all bubbly wines are akin to champagne, nor soft cheeses Brie, nor crumbly white sheep’s cheese feta, nor fermented blue agave tequila (Bowen and Zapata 2009).7
But these differences rest on precarious terrain underpinning the logic of global trade—that tomatoes are interchangeable with other tomatoes regardless of whether one is organically grown and the other a modified tomato “improved” with fish genes, whether tuna is harvested in the presence of dolphins or shrimp trawled in ocean waters, catching endangered sea turtles along the way.8 Moreover, some of these attributes of goods related to their production process or point of origin, like labor standards in factories, are, in principle, observable if not readily subject to monitoring. Other attributes may be testable, such as whether transgenic pollen is present in honey at a given threshold. Yet, that such commodity attributes are possibly observable or testable does not mean that they are easy or cheap to observe (or that the process of obtaining credible information—likely a costly one—will be worth the effort relative to other alternatives).
To understand regulatory change in the case considered here, we need to reframe altogether our view of commodities. Often viewed singularly—sector by sector, one issue area at a time—different agricultural commodities interact in the real world, in ecological, market, and regulatory systems alike, creating an uncertain array of complex spillover effects. Regulations contrived with “focal” commodities in mind, like soy and corn, may create externalities for more “peripheral” commodities, like honey.
Unique among commodities in many respects, the case of honey illuminates how regulatory issues of even a transnational scale can emanate from the smallest units of analysis—the GM grains of soy pollen (DNA), adventitiously present in honey, and the bees themselves (the microproducers of honey). A moving and migrating species, a fugitive input in the production process, honey bees provide essential and often “free” ecosystem services—pollination for wild plants as well as agricultural crops—while manufacturing an intermediate product (honey) destined for trade in local and global markets. At a microlevel seemingly beyond even the bottom of the human economic pyramid, bees extend and “lengthen chains of interdependence”—linking together ecological and human systems, agricultural producers, intermediary buyers, regulators, and consumers at multiple scales (de Swaan 1988; Elias 1982). Unobservable socioeconomic conditions prevailing outside a local community “in another part of town, in a distant region of the nation or even far away in the periphery of the modern world” may be linked to effects immediately observable to a given individual, and vice versa (de Swaan 1988, 253). While Elias (1982) and de Swaan (1988) limit their notions of interdependence to social and economic conditions, in global environmental and food governance, this interdependence can be conceptualized as extending to the socioecological systems that foster interdependence among people with their environment from local to global scales. By nature, honey bees interact with human-designed agricultural systems and establish interdependencies with them—introducing new issues of space, scale, and complexity that challenge overlying structures of governance. These ecological factors related to honey’s production—as well as other characteristics of honey as a traded intermediate good—exacerbate challenges associated with its regulation.
In essence, it is the interaction between commodities in ecosystems, markets, and regulatory systems—and the characteristics of the goods themselves—that may be crucial in some cases for understanding why producers pursue certain avenues for complying with the demands of transnational rule-making authorities or, alternatively, pursue other modes of market and regulatory change.
Honey in Mexico: Subsistence Crops, Agricultural Commodities, and Alternative Livelihoods
In any given year, Mexico exports roughly 25,000 metric tons of honey (largely from the bee Apis mellifera), primarily to the EU, a major buyer of interest for international honey exporters. While the EU accounts for between 20 and 25 percent of global honey consumption, it does not produce sufficient quantities of honey to meet demand, making the EU one of the world’s largest import markets for honey—with some thirty-nine countries permitted to export to the EU. After China and Argentina, Mexico was the third largest supplier to the EU from 2006 to 2011, with exports increasing over that period by 27 percent (from 12,424 to 15,717 metric tons) (USAID-CIAFS 2012).
Mexico, and especially the Yucatán region, is a supplier of importance to the EU not only because of the distinct qualities of its multifloral honey but also as a country where honey is produced apart from most large-scale industrial production—viewed as potential sources of contamination owing to the presence of carcinogenic pesticides, heavy metals, and antibiotics as well as GM organisms. The rise of Mexico as a key exporter of honey to the EU manifested in part from bans on the importation of Chinese honey owing to evidence of contamination.9 Eighty-five percent of all the honey produced in the Yucatán region is destined for the EU—involving some 15,000 beekeepers, the majority of whom are Mayan campesinos (Vandame 2012).
Mayans have been cultivating bees for honey since recorded history in the Yucatán, though more recently the native, stingless bees Apis melipona have been replaced with introduced European bees Apis mellifera as the dominant bee species employed in honey production. Many producers from villages in the Yucatán grow crops and cultivate honey in their milpa10 and kitchen gardens at once for household consumption and for market, and their agricultural products feed into global commodity chains in myriad and complex ways, often unbeknownst to them. Following the honey from the beehive and bucket, one can more readily view some of the core issues in play that shape and structure the market—as these subsistence crops become commodities and the bottom of the production pyramid merges with top-down value chains and regulatory architectures contrived by actors operating at great distances from the villages where crops are grown and raw products made.
While experienced apiculturists have mastered their trade and possess an intricate knowledge of the science and art of beekeeping, the detailed knowledge of these producers breaks when their vessels of honey are transferred and sold to middlemen—transformed from an artisanal product with distinct local attributes into a commodity bound for global markets. Positioned at the margins of mainstream markets and modern society, few small-scale producers could ultimately articulate the steps in the honey supply chain beyond their personal encounters with the local or regional marketplace. Someone from the government comes to inspect and certify their hives as acceptable (and gives them a certificate); an intermediary buys the honey (either in their village or in the nearest city or town).
Yet despite their lack of knowledge about the other end of global supply chains, the individual actions and knowledge of one producer (or lack thereof) contribute to the collective capabilities of similar small producers—in Mexico and elsewhere around the globe—in assuring the safety and viability of an entire global honey supply chain beyond them. Contaminated buckets used by one beekeeper—who might lack the awareness of the need or ability to pay for an appropriate sanitary vessel—can mean broader contamination of entire batches of product, as small quantities of honey from individual producers are mixed together in barrels and eventual metric ton containers for shipping.11 Similarly, other potential sources of contamination or adulteration—resulting from the actions of a beekeeper or from other factors in his surrounding environment—cannot be readily detected once the honey has been collected from the hive, transported to market, and combined with the honey of others at a transit point en route to export markets. In essence, it has become spatially and geographically disconnected from its point of origin—a classic problem associated with the transition to distant markets for agricultural goods.12 Some assurances of quality and safety have been put in place more recently in Mexico and elsewhere around the globe where problems of either contamination or adulteration have rendered honey unviable for sale. In Mexico, these include certification by government agents—to ensure that hives are healthy, treated with appropriate medical interventions when necessary, and that appropriate storage vessels are used to store product and transport it to market.
Yet, when asked what happens to the honey he sells to intermediary buyers in the closest city of Valladolide, one beekeeper remarked that he has heard that honey from the Yucatán eventually winds up somewhere in Europe—where they mix it with their own lower-grade and tasteless honey and sell it for a lot of money.13 His predictions about the journey of honey from his hives to distant markets were not far from reality. And once comingled with the honey of other producers—either in the local marketplace or overseas—a bucket of honey cannot readily be traced back to an individual beekeeper, in the Yucatán or anywhere else.
Linking Local Honey Production with Domestic and Transnational GMO Contestation
Returning to the challenge that beekeepers and their allies raised against Monsanto in 2012, the coalition’s contention was made on the basis that the large-scale planting of GM soy would undermine the rights and livelihoods of Mayan subsistence producers who rely on beekeeping and the export of high-value honey to international markets like the EU to earn a cash income beyond their traditional subsistence production. They succeeded in thwarting Monsanto’s efforts through a repertoire of educational, political, and legal strategies that exploited market, regulatory, and commodity complexity to their advantage. They leveraged a transnational regulatory focusing event to downscale the forums for contestation of Mexican GMO policy to subnational levels—where actors vested in regionally valuable honey production became pitted against actors promoting the national commercialization of GM soy across Mexico.
A Regulatory Focusing Event
The European Court of Justice ruling in 2011 was the spark that ignited efforts to bring together Mexican beekeepers and their allies in new ways—out of a shared concern for the potential impact of pending EU regulations on high-value, regional honey exports. News of the EU ruling in local newspapers and by word of mouth made salient for Mexican honey producers the ecological mechanisms of contamination by trangenicos (transgenics): that pollen from crops planted in the periphery of their own fields and in proximity to their beehives could conceivably be a new source of honey “contamination” (Vandame 2012). In response to the ruling, a Peninsular Forum was held in the Yucatán in November 2011 to assemble stakeholders concerned about the potential impacts GM soy cultivation might have on beekeeping. The forum brought together associations of beekeepers from the region, honey exporters, technical consultants, scientists, civil society organizations, and communities, followed by additional forums within rural communities across the Yucatán (Gómez González 2016). According to the National Organization of Beekeepers, the forum was attended by more than one hundred beekeepers originating from all states in Mexico and by representatives from the national agricultural agency, SAGARPA, involved with apiculture (La Organización Nacional de Apicultores 2011).
In the context of beekeeping, transgenics represented a fairly novel regulatory problem for Mayan campesinos, as historically, beekeepers (and Mexican regulators overseeing honey production and export) had been concerned with more tangible forms of contamination that impacted the quality of Mexican honey and impaired its sale, such as chemical residues from reusing inappropriate vessels for on-farm honey storage and transport, or medicines used to treat pests affecting colony health.
The Peninsular Forum was a key initial gathering that fomented the diverse group of stakeholders who would eventually compose the Ma’ OGM14 Collective (Gómez González 2016). Early on, the substance of these gatherings centered on educating Mayan beekeepers and other stakeholders about the potential impacts that more industrial, large-scale agriculture could have not only on their honey production but also on indigenous ways of life, environmental quality, and public health. Central among the questions of beekeepers and those working with them was understanding the specific risks that GM soy cultivation posed in the Yucatán for honey production, as well as possibilities for coexistence—an emerging issue related to GM commercialization around the globe (see Gupta 2010). These were not ideological questions per se but rather empirical ones. Given the known foraging patterns of honey bees, at what distance from beehives would GM cultivation pose a genuine threat of contamination—both from possible GM pollen grains and from other negative spillover effects? On average, domesticated Apis mellifera honey bees forage within a radius of one to two kilometers from their hives, but they have been documented to travel as far as twelve kilometers away (Beekman and Ratnieks 2000; Visscher and Seeley 1982). Of additional concern were related impacts from deforestation; wafting pesticides sprayed on large monocrop fields on bees, birds, and other wildlife; local groundwater contamination; and the vitality of the traditional Mayan practice of milpa (Vandame 2012).
Permission to Cultivate: GM Soy Authorized in Mexico
In 2012, Monsanto sought a permit from SAGARPA for the commercial release of glyphosate-resistant, GM soy for large-scale cultivation over 253,500 hectares in multiple states across Mexico, of which 60,000 hectares were planned for the Yucatán.15 Within Mexico, determinations to grant such a permit for commercialization, as well as the regulation of GMO products more broadly, are specifically handled under La Ley de Bioseguridad de Organismos Genéticamente Modificados, the Law on Biosecurity of Genetically Modified Organisms (LBGOM). This general GMO law further seeks “to ensure that these organisms are released, commercialized, exported, and imported with an adequate level of safety, which requires an evaluation of risks prior to their release and oversight of their effects after release.”16 LBGOM has certain requirements for the release of GMO products into the environment, including an experimental release, a release in a pilot program, and a commercial release. The experimental release requires “a study of the possible risks that the release could have on the environment and on the biological diversity” in addition to an authorization from the Secretariat of Health.17 Commercial releases are further dictated by concerns related to preserving biological diversity of animals and plants and GMO-free zones established by SAGARPA.
A unit from the federal executive branch of the government of Mexico, SAGARPA possesses conflicting mandates as a government agency to advance “sustainable development” across Mexico’s diverse ecological, economic, and cultural landscape, allowing for “the sustainable exploitation of its resources, for a sustainable and balanced growth of the economic regions, the generation of attractive sources of employment, fostering settlement and permanence of inhabitants in rural areas and the strengthening of productivity and competitiveness of agricultural products, to consolidate the effective positioning and penetration of Mexican products in new markets, addressing the requirements and demands [of] consumers.”18 In the context of commercializing GM crops like corn and soy, advocates of indigenous producers and environmental activists have criticized SAGARPA as captured by corporate agribusiness—advancing industry interests along with those of the Mexican national government to modernize and industrialize agricultural production within the country. SAGARPA has been further accused of explicitly seeking to undermine the agrarian practices, like milpa, of indigenous Mayan producers through misinformation, in addition to failures in enforcement where bans on GM soy were put in place, even in light of instances of illegal sowing. Gómez González (2016) shows how this pattern of SAGARPA disseminating “misinformation” to indigenous producers manifests from a strong bias among Mexican agricultural authorities in favor of more “modern” agricultural production methods over traditional, indigenous forms of agriculture, like milpa, viewed as “backward” and out of step with Mexico’s trajectory toward improved productivity. According to Gómez González (2016), Mexican agricultural agents in the municipality of Holpechen encouraged modern Mennonite farmers to “surround” the land of indigenous communities with their own fields so as to passively disseminate new technologies and techniques to Mayan campesinos.
Ultimately, SAGARPA granted the permit to Monsanto through the National Service for Health, Food Safety, and Quality (SENASICA) on May 11, 2012—after the agency had received seventy-five technical and scientific opinions during the public consultation period, from which thirty-one biosecurity measures were purportedly established by overseeing authorities (SAGARPA 2012). Permission was given with the added endorsement of the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT)—which did so despite what later emerged to be divergent technical opinions from within the agency that highlighted potential adverse environmental consequences in the Yucatán Peninsula (Colin 2016).19
Leveraging Market and Regulatory Complexity as Windows of Opportunity
In response to SAGARPA granting Monsanto a permit for the commercial release of GM soy, individual beekeepers and groups filed a lawsuit in February 2012 in the First District Court in the state of Yucatán (file no. 286/2012). Two similar lawsuits were subsequently filed in the state of Campeche in June 2012 (file nos. 753/2012 and 762/2012, Second District Court in the State of Campeche). The core legal arguments that the beekeeper plaintiffs advanced leveraged the complexity of GMO markets and regulation in Mexico—the open spaces or “governance gaps” within a complex patchwork of conflicting rules from global to local scales. Regulatory heterogeneity persists in Mexico given the country’s partial harmonization with both the US and the EU, combined with the absence of a clear hegemon in the global governance of GMOs (Bernauer 2003; Falkner and Gupta 2009; Raustiala and Victor 2004; Toke 2004). This regulatory complexity in turn manifested in legal apertures for beekeepers to challenge status quo regulations at various levels of government.
Specifically, the beekeeper plaintiffs advanced a multipronged legal strategy and several core arguments in support of their position, namely, that the large-scale planting of GM soy violated the beekeepers’ right to work, because honey production was a key regional economic activity, as well as their right to a healthy environment, given anticipated impacts from deforestation and herbicide overuse.
The granting of the permit further demonstrated a lack of application of the precautionary principle, which Mexican regulators were principally obliged to consider as a signatory to the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (Gupta 2010, see also Vogel 2012 and Wiener 2011). This precautionary approach to regulating GMOs is, moreover, consistent with that of the EU and was likewise embedded in the justification for the EU’s original ban on honey potentially containing GM pollen grains.20
Mexican government authorities were further accused of violating both Mayan producers’ right to free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC) of indigenous peoples and communities, in violation of Article 2 of the Constitution of the United Mexican States and Convention 169 of the International Labour Organization concerning Indigenous or Tribal Peoples. The Convention on Biological Diversity 1992 in Article 8(J) further calls on contracting states “to respect, preserve and maintain knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous and local communities … and promote their wider application with the approval and involvement of the holders of such knowledge, innovation and practices.”
Lastly, the beekeepers contended that SAGARPA issued the permit against the recommendations of other government agencies that advised a precautionary approach be taken. Specifically, the National Institute of Ecology (INE), the National Commission for Biodiversity Knowledge and Use (CONABIO), and the National Commission for Protected Natural Areas (CONANP) recommended against issuing the permit on the grounds of the negative environmental consequences likely to emerge from GM soy cultivation in the region (Colin 2016).
Leveraging Citizen Science to Illustrate Commodity Complexity and Challenge Corporate (Mis)information
As these cases wound their way through Mexico’s judicial system, beekeepers found that they not only had to prove that their rights had been violated but also had to wage an active counterinformation campaign against Monsanto and regulatory agencies that acquiesced to the company’s position. Education became central to forming and strengthening the collaboration between beekeepers and their allies. This included buttressing relationships cultivated with local universities, like ECOSUR, that helped with capacity building, with the research tools to challenge false information and validate their own claims about the interactions between commodities in local ecosystems.
Understanding the scientific mechanics of honey and GM soy interactions became increasingly important as indigenous campesinos became frequent recipients of misinformation not only from biotech companies and other farmers engaged in planting in bordering areas but also from Mexican agricultural agency representatives. Both denied possible negative spillover effects and impacts from GM soy cultivation to honey. The message SAGARPA spun through the media and other public forums denied that the planting of GM soy posed risks for honey production or the marketing of Mexican honey. The story they told, akin to that echoed by Monsanto, was that the introduction of pollen grains from GM soy into the honey of nearby beekeepers could not happen—as if bees somehow read signs posted outside the soy fields declaring that their labor was not needed. According to their account, because soy flowers self-pollinate—that is, they do not require active pollination by bees or other insects to ensure their fruitful production—the bees did not visit the soy flowers.21 Moreover, because the harvest season for honey (January to June) and soy did not overlap, the risk of contamination from pollen supposedly did not exist.
SAGARPA and Monsanto’s misinformation efforts eventually demanded that communities contrive the evidence to support their position—to disprove what Monsanto contended about the fundamentals of honey bee biology and foraging behavior (Villanueva-Gutiérrez et al. 2014). Mounting evidence had already disproved government and industry accounts of honey bee interactions with soy flowers (Gómez González 2016). GM soy pollen was identified in hives a mere two kilometers from fields growing GM soy (Vides and Vandame 2012). Samples of honey intended for export were, moreover, found to contain pollen from GM soybeans (Gómez González 2016).
In addition, tests for the presence of soy pollen in honey were undertaken by Mayan beekeepers from villages located adjacent to experimental plots of GM soy, which were permitted in that region (to be distinguished from large-scale commercial planting, which was not). Conditions in these villages offered a natural experiment—where bees, given proximity, would have the opportunity in principle to forage on pollen and nectar from the soy plants, in addition to the other wild flowers on which they usually forage. Villanueva-Gutiérrez et al. (2014) analyzed pollen from honey comb samples obtained from Las Flores, Campeche; six of nine samples analyzed contained significant quantities of soy pollen, with two testing positive for the presence of GM soybean. These tests confirmed field observations that honey bees, Apis mellifera, in fact collect pollen and nectar from GM soybeans and incorporate them into honey. On the basis of their findings, Villanueva-Gutiérrez et al. contend that GM soy cultivation is “an unacknowledged threat to apiculture and its economics in one of the world’s foremost honey producing areas,” with “the resultant risk for honey production in the Yucatán Peninsula and Mexico … evident in wholesale price reduction of 12% when GMO products are detected and honey consignments are rejected” (1).
Policy and Legal Outcomes
Persuaded by beekeepers and their allies that the region’s high-value honey production could not coexist alongside GM soy cultivation without negative economic and environmental consequences, the Yucatán state government declared that GM seeds would not be permitted for cultivation and further petitioned authorities of the Mexican federal government to create a “transgenic-free zone” in Yucatán in March 2012.22 In principle, banning GM cultivation from the entire state enabled the creation of a jurisdiction from which all honey producers would be de facto compliant with EU export standards—presuming prevention and enforcement in the event of illegal plantings and effective supply chain segregation of honey (see Gupta 2010; Clapp 2008).
Even with the declaration of a GM-free zone and endorsement from subnational government authorities in the Yucatán, the battle against national-level agricultural agents at SAGARPA—which issued the permit to Monsanto—waged on among beekeepers on the peninsula, especially in Campeche. At the regional level, honey represented one of the most valuable export commodities, while the commercialization of soy and corn was an agricultural priority at the national level, pitting subnational actors and interests against those of the Mexican federal government and transnational agribusiness.
Protracted legal battles ensued for the next three years. In response to the lawsuit filed in the Second District Court of the State of Campeche, the judge suspended permission for GM cultivation beginning on June 28, 2012, until the issues raised by the beekeeper plaintiffs could be addressed. The judge’s decision, however, was overturned on January 30, 2013, by the Court of Appeals of the Thirty-First Circuit of the State of Campeche (Colin 2016). More than a year later, both the Second District Court of the State of Campeche (in March 2014) and the First District Court of the State of Yucatán (July 2014) produced rulings in favor of Mayan beekeepers and communities. Both rulings affirmed that issuing the permit to Monsanto without first consulting with indigenous communities violated the rights of Mayan beekeepers to FPIC. The judges in turn voided the permit for commercial release of GM soy, requiring consultation with Mayan communities prior to considering Monsanto’s permit application further. The Mexican newspaper La Jornada summarized the judges’ verdict to uphold the ban on commercial cultivation of GM soy in the Yucatán as being founded on the grounds that bees visit the soy plants—which in turn introduces GM soy pollen into the honey of Mayan beekeepers.23 In response to these verdicts, which represented a major setback for Monsanto, a total of seven motions for review were subsequently filed by the company, SENASICA, and the Federal Public Ministry, raising the case to the second chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice (SCJ).
On November 4, 2015, the SCJ affirmed the verdicts of the lower courts—the violations of FPIC and requirements for consultations with indigenous communities. Central to the high court ruling was the determination that the release of GM soy could significantly impact the environments in which Mayan communities reside—with the potential to alter biodiversity and animal and plant health, especially linked to spillover effects from herbicide exposure. The judges cited studies from CONANP and the Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources of the State of Yucatán that provided evidence of the risks of the herbicide glyphosate—classified as a likely human carcinogen by the WHO in 2015—contaminating underground aquifers. Further taken into account by the SCJ were the warnings of CONANP and CONABIO about “bee pollination contaminating the genetic material from other organisms via pollen, as they have a radius of 1–3 kilometers, or during periods of shortage of nectar up to 12 kilometres” (Colin 2016, 4).
In sum, the Mexican courts affirmed the legitimacy of Mayan beekeepers’ concerns regarding spillover effects from large-scale cultivation of GM soy on their environmental quality, livelihoods, and way of life. The courts, moreover, clarified the facts of bee biology—science that had become contested in Monsanto’s struggle to secure its permits; bees indeed play a mediating role as agents of both pollination and GM contamination, making GM soy cultivation incompatible alongside honey production.
In this article, I endeavored to show how the success of the coalition of small-scale beekeepers, peasant social movements, and environmental NGOs not only depended on effective political strategy, as might be expected—leveraging a transnational regulatory focusing event to their advantage and downscaling the forums for contestation of Mexican GMO policy to subnational levels—but hinged crucially on the unique characteristics of the traded commodity, honey, itself.
Unlike many challenges to the introduction of GM agriculture in Mexico and elsewhere around the globe—which rested on general concerns about the introduction of all GM crops on the basis of their potential risks to the health of consumers or other uncertain health or environmental effects—the challenges brought by Mayan beekeepers against Monsanto centered, rather, on the impacts to producers and on the interrelated impacts of the GMO production of one crop, soy, with an entirely different product/crop, honey. The economic consequences of the possible downgrading of honey as an export commodity would be profound for producers in the Yucatán. By default, producers of high-value honey—owing to the environmental conditions and biodiversity of flowers from abundant tropical forest remaining in their ejidos, as well as the general absence of large-scale industrial agriculture—would lose access to the European market so long as it demanded certification and testing of honey for proof of its GM-free status. Even with testing and certification, still, beekeepers would be unlikely to prove (or prevent) the absence of GMOs in their honey—given not only the local ecological complexities and interconnectedness across agricultural activities intended for both subsistence and market production but also the ways that honey, once produced, meanders into local and global markets (all mixed up in barrels and shipping containers headed overseas).
Central to interpreting this policy outcome—a moratorium on the cultivation of GM soy in the Yucatán, preserved despite challenges up to the Mexican SCJ—is an understanding of the complexity and interdependence across ecological and economic systems and scales. The physical characteristics of the commodities central to the debate—honey and soy—served as constraints to the set of possible institutional alternatives that could effectively redress policy problems. Permissive regulations for the commercialization of a focal commodity of interest to a multinational corporation and Mexico’s national government—GM soy—generated spillover effects to a peripheral commodity, honey, of less national significance but of great regional economic significance. The interactions and interdependencies shared among these two commodities in natural and human systems in turn fostered new windows of opportunity for less powerful actors—Mayan beekeepers and subsistence producers—to pursue policy change.
Finally, the case of honey reveals new questions and avenues for research in the global environmental politics of food that look beyond actors, interests, and institutions to consider other factors that influence policy change across elongated, transnational agrifood chains. This article showed how the attributes of honey and soy contributed to beekeepers’ win over biotech. How might the characteristics of other crops and commodities shape the opportunity structure for contestation by less powerful actors embedded in global value chains? To what extent do commodity characteristics facilitate (or constrain) institutional design options—and, ultimately, advance (or undermine) effective governance? From coffee and cocoa to tomatoes and tuna, adopting a commodity-focused lens to examine and compare attributes and governance issues across commodities may not only help explain instances of failure among social and environmental governance initiatives but also uncover unexpected moments of voice for those in pursuit of regulatory change and innovation.
“Amparo Prohíbe la Siembra de Transgénicos en Yucatán,” Yucatán Ahora, March 27, 2012.
Case C-442/09, Bablok v. Fristaat Bayern, EUR-Lex 62009CJ0442, at 8 (September 6, 2011).
As opposed to those with more outright divergent interests—akin to environmental activists and large-scale industry. See DeSombre (1995).
“Revés a Monsanto,” La Jornada, July 23, 2014.
“The Mystery of the Red Bees of Red Hook,” New York Times, November 29, 2010.
A French word and concept, derived from the word for land—terre—terroir refers to the group of environmental factors that contribute to the “epigenetic” characteristics of a given crop that are related to it being grown in a particular habitat. Terroir refers to both the contributing factors and the distinct character that results from this unique set of environmental qualities.
Beginning with its registration for “Appellation of Origin Tequila” with the World Industrial Property Organization in 1978, tequila remains protected as a regionally specific name, to be used only in association with the alcoholic beverage produced from blue agave in the region surrounding the city of Tequila in the state of Jalisco, Mexico, as well as select municipalities in Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas.
Voluntary labeling, as through third-party certification, has offered one way to circumvent underlying conflicts that emerge as transnational debates where different policy preferences may be critiqued as “veiled protectionism,” on one hand, and legitimate, substantive or values-driven policy, on the other.
“Asian Honey, Banned in Europe, Is Flooding U.S. Grocery Shelves,” Food Safety News, August 15, 2011. Available online at: https://tinyurl.com/yasc44xt, last accessed October 10, 2017.
Milpa is a system of traditional agricultural production involving shifting cultivation and intercropping of corn, squash, beans, and chiles for household consumption.
Interview with local biologist and NGO agronomist, July 19, 2012, Yucatán, Mexico.
Cronon (1992) also identifies this problem in his discussion on the invention of wheat grading.
Interview with campesino beekeeper, July 19, 2012, Yucatán, Mexico.
Ma’ OGM translates as “No GMOs,” employing the Mayan word ma, for “no.”
The permit also covered the states of Campeche, Quintana Roo, San Luis Potosi, Veracruz, Tamaulipas, and Chiapas. Previously, a court order invalidated a permit to Monsanto to plant 30,000 hectares with “pilot sowing” of GM soy in the states of Campeche, Yucatán, and Quintana Roo. “Monsanto Loses to Beekeepers of Yucatán Peninsula,” Yucatán Times, August 6, 2012.
https://tinyurl.com/y7fjvmyo, last accessed March 15, 2018.
https://tinyurl.com/yccsjmz8, last accessed March 15, 2018.
https://tinyurl.com/yanpn67p, last accessed March 15, 2018.
María Colin, a campaign legal adviser for Greenpeace Mexico, details the legal challenges associated with the Yucatán permit granted through SAGARPA to Monsanto in a memo for the “Monsanto Tribunal” at the Hague in October 2016.
The influence of EU regulatory authority on exporting countries, like Mexico, has arguably contributed to the increasing harmonization of countries with strong trade relationships with the European Union. As articulated by Anu Bradford (2012), this “Brussels effect” of apparent “unilateral regulatory globalization” may have strong explanatory power in understanding cases in which firms and producers seeking access to highly valued EU markets comply with EU rules, however stringent, to gain market entry. That said, the theory of the Brussels effect has both relevance and limitations to the questions and case considered here. Bradford’s theory applies well to large firms and those with “indivisible” production, less well to smaller firms and those producers engaged in the production of intermediate or composite goods, like honey, rather than final products. Moreover, as Bradford noted, it offers an as yet incomplete explanation for the partial influence of EU regulatory authority in the global governance of GMOs, in particular.
“Monsanto to Mexico Honey Farmers: Our Soya Seeds Not to Blame for Woes,” Reuters, November 6, 2015.
“Amparo Prohíbe la Siembra de Transgénicos en Yucatán,” Yucatán Ahora, March 27, 2012.
“Revés a Monsanto,” La Jornada, July 23, 2014.
Funding to conduct this research was provided by the Social Science Research Council’s (SSRC) Dissertation Proposal Development Fellowship, the Duke University Graduate School, and the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies at Duke. Alexandra Johnson and Laurent Abergel provided research assistance with support from the Penn Program on Regulation. Special thanks to colleagues who commented on earlier drafts of this article, namely, Edward Balleisen, Tim Büthe, Jennifer Clapp, Cary Coglianese, Kimberly R. Marion Suiseeya, Kate Neville, Gabriel Scheffler, Caitlin Scott, Dan Walters, and Erika Weinthal; participants in the Beyond the Boomerang Workshop at the International Studies Association Annual Conference, Baltimore, Maryland, February 21, 2017; and two anonymous reviewers.