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EJIDO BENITO JUAREZ, Mexico (Reuters) - In the dry state of Chihuahua, south of the Texas border, 68-year-old Amado Trevizo became an accidental outlaw last year when his son planted 10 sacks of seeds of GM corn, banned in Mexico.
Trevizo was left with the 10-hectare (25-acre) harvest when his son was killed in a car accident, making him the unwitting owner of a technically illegal crop.
That fact aside, Trevizo is delighted with his harvest.
"The other corn stalks were completely eaten by worms, but on those ones the worms only took a little bite and then fell off," said Trevizo. With genetically modified, or GM, corn he also saved money by using less water and pesticides.
GMO foods, whose DNA is altered to be resistant to pests, are pushed by supporters as a way to boost world food supplies, but opponents question their safety. In Europe consumers dub them "Frankenstein" foods.
The debate over GMOs is now dividing the Mexican countryside, known as the birthplace of corn, which was first grown in the region thousands of years ago.
Some farmers in the arid northern flatlands are planting banned GMO corn to boost productivity. But farmers in the south fear stray GMO pollen will ruin native corn varieties, and environmentalists also decry any entry of GMOs into Mexico.
The seeds are smuggled across the border from the United States, the world's largest corn producer. More than 70 percent of U.S. corn is genetically modified.
Armando Villareal, a Chihuahua farmer and GMO advocate, estimates there could be as many as 9,000 hectares of transgenic corn scattered throughout the state, although most growers will not admit they are experimenting with the seeds.
The state grows more than 100,000 hectares of mostly yellow corn, used primarily for animal feed. Most of the corn grown in Mexico is the white variety used to make tortillas, the country's staple food.
In December 2004, Mexico's Congress passed a law to allow the experimental planting of GMO strains in certain controlled areas, but implementing the law has been put off until the government can agree on how to regulate the plantings.
Because of the legal limbo, no one has been prosecuted to date for growing the crops.
Meanwhile, some producers are becoming impatient.
"We have to start taking advantage of all the scientific tools available if we want to increase productivity," Emilio Gonzalez, the governor of Jalisco, a corn-growing state on Mexico's western coast, told a recent event in Mexico City.
Other farmers want the law scrapped altogether.
Corn was first planted in Mexico as many as 9,000 years ago and the country is now home to more than 10,000 varieties. The grain was adopted by Spanish conquerors in the early 1500s and eventually spread to the rest of the world.
GMO pollen can be carried for miles by the wind, and opponents fear GM corn will cross-pollinate with native species in Mexico and alter their genetic content.
"We don't accept genetically modified seeds, we don't plant them and we don't want them here," said Ulises Ruiz, governor of the southern state of Oaxaca, speaking at the same event as Gonzalez. Indigenous communities in Oaxaca still harvest small plots by hand and till rich soil with horse plows.
The ancient Maya, who built soaring pyramids in Mexico's southern jungles, believed the gods made men from maize.
"For indigenous people corn is sacred, it has another value that means more than just weight and price," said Felipe Zeferino, a farmer who works with Popoluca and Nahuatl corn growers in the southeastern state of Veracruz.
Corn is also cherished as a snack. Street vendors across Mexico sell roasted corn-on-the-cob, often smeared with mayonnaise and grated cheese.
Roger Elmore, a corn expert at Iowa State University, said there was no scientific evidence that GM corn is harmful.
That is also the position of Villareal, who says GMOs should not be feared but instead should be widely adopted, otherwise Mexican farmers will not be able to compete.
On January 1 Mexico, the United States and Canada lifted all corn tariffs under the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement. Mexico now imports between 8 million and 9 million tonnes of U.S. yellow corn a year, close to 35 percent of local consumption.
But with U.S. corn prices hitting record highs near $6 a bushel on increased demand for corn-based ethanol, Villareal says GMOs will help Mexicans cut down on expensive U.S. imports by producing more at home.
"If we apply biotechnology in Mexico, over the next four years we could reduce imports by 85 or 90 percent," he said.
Editing by Matthew Lewis