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MEXICO CITY, March 8 (Reuters) - Mexico on Tuesday approved the first pilot program to plant genetically modified corn, a sensitive topic in the country that touts itself as the birthplace of corn and where small farmers worry the high-tech grain may contaminate native varieties.
The Agriculture Ministry granted a permit to global biotech seed maker Monsanto (MON.N) to plant no more than 2.47 acres (1 hectare) with genetically modified corn in the northern state of Tamaulipas.
Large commercial farmers in the north say GM corn will help them compete with imports from the United States where the bulk of corn is genetically engineered. GM corn can be higher yielding and more disease resistant.
But small, subsistence farmers in southern Mexico worry the biotech crops will threaten native varieties like red, blue and multicolored corn.
Corn, first planted in Mexico as many as 9,000 years ago, was worshiped as a deity and later spread by Spanish conquerors to the rest of the world.
Mexico imported some 7.2 million tonnes of U.S. yellow corn last year for animal feed and produces mostly white corn to make corn tortillas, the country's staple food.
"It is necessary to advance the use of biotechnology to reduce imports and promote national production," the ministry statement said.
A pilot program is allowed after an experimental phase of planting in a smaller field has been approved as safe by government inspectors, the ministry said in a statement.
Three petitions to expand experimental GM planting in the state of Sinaloa into larger pilot projects were rejected after failing to fulfill regulatory requirements, the ministry said.
The government says it has received 121 requests for permits since it began allowing GM corn experiments in 2009.
Currently there are around 170 acres (70 hectares) planted with GM corn in small experimental fields the northern corn growing states of Sinaloa, Sonora, Chihuahua, Tamaulipas, Coahuila and Durango, the ministry said.
Agriculture officials insist the experimental planting is taking place only in areas where native corn is not common. (Additional reporting by Adriana Barrera; Editing by David Gregorio)