Biodiversity, Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

LATIN AMERICA: Wanted – Labels for Genetically Engineered Products

Diego Cevallos* - Tierramérica

MEXICO CITY, Feb 21 2006 (IPS) - Labels on foods sold in Latin American countries don’t indicate whether they contain genetically engineered ingredients. There is legislation on the books in Brazil, but companies aren’t complying with the requirement. In Mexico the laws on the matter are imprecise, and in Chile a new law is expected soon.

Many of the foods consumed in the region do indeed contain transgenics, in other words, ingredients that have been genetically modified in some way, and science has not produced definitive answers about their possible effects on health and the environment..

That is why defenders of consumers’ rights believe labelling of foods with genetically modified ingredients should be required.

More than 30 countries had adopted or planned legislation as of 2004 for requiring labels for transgenic products, according to a study by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

A 2003 presidential decree in Brazil requires that all foods containing more than one percent genetically modified ingredients must bear a “T” inside a triangle. But shoppers have yet to see this symbol on supermarket shelves.

“We Brazilians are consuming genetically modified products without knowing it,” and the government “is irresponsibly omitting” its duty of requiring the label, Paulo Pacini, attorney for the non-governmental Brazilian Consumer Defence Institute, told Tierramérica.

In 2000, then-minister of health and current president-elect of Chile, Michelle Bachelet, issued an order for obligatory labelling of transgenics, but it was not enacted. She has pledged to resolve the matter during her presidency, which begins Mar. 11.

A 2005 Mexican law on biosafety entails obligatory labels, to the extent that the product involves transgenics whose nutritional content is significantly different from other foods. Because the nutritional value of genetically modified foods is generally the same as conventional ffods, lawmakers are seeking to modify the law so that labelling occurs without considering the nutritional factor.

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) were developed in the 1980s as a means to improve certain characteristics of crops, such as appearance, colour and yield, and resistance to pests or extreme climate conditions or to specific pesticides.

The technique consists of introducing genes from another species – which can be plant or animal – into the seeds.

Activists, governments, agroindustry executives and scientists are unable to agree on whether transgenics should be labelled, but most do agree that consumers are likely to be wary of genetically modified foods.

In the European Union, where labelling is required, the consumer who sees this alert tends not to buy the product. Several surveys conducted in Latin America indicate that consumers in this region would have a similar reaction.

In Brazil, 74 percent of those surveyed in 2001 by the Brazilian Institute of Public Opinion and Statistics said they preferred non-transgenic foods, while 73.9 percent of those consulted in 2004 by the Institute Studies on Religion said GMOs “pose a risk”.

And in Chile, 58.5 percent of consumers prefer foods that have not been genetically modified, according to a survey by Ipsos polling firm in 2005.

In Mexico, the Sigma Dos pollster found that 98 percent of the people consulted said they distrust transgenic products and that food companies should inform consumers about whether they use them or not.

Environmentalists and some governments, such as the Europeans, call for the cautionary principle when it comes to cultivating and consuming GMOs, but farmers and many scientists assure that these biotech products are harmless and should be used more widely.

According to a 2005 WHO report, it is unlikely that transgenic foods already on the market pose risks to humans, although, in the future, they could carry “potential direct threats for health and development.”

“There is certainty that foods derived from genetically modified plants that are being marketed are as harmless as their conventional counterparts. This is verified by 81 European research projects” and the WHO, said Esteban Hopp, coordinator of the plant biotech unit of the Argentine Institute of Biotechnology.

“Furthermore, from the more than 300 million hectares harvested and processed for human and animal food so far, it is estimated that globally more than 100 billion meals of high GMO content have been consumed, without any consequences for health reported,” Hopp said in a Tierramérica interview.

But there are documented examples of potentially dangerous genetically modified foods. In the United States, the corn variety Starlink was withdrawn from the market in 2000 after cases of allergic reactions by consumers were reported.

And the transgenic corn variety Mon863, produced by the U.S.-based Monsanto, an agroindustry giant, and authorised for human consumption in Mexico, caused health problems in rats during experiments, according to a confidential document from Monsanto that was made public in 2005 by court order.

GMO cultivation has been expanding worldwide since 1996, when commercialisation of these seeds began. From then through last year, 471 million hectares have been planted with transgenic crops, according to the International Service for Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA), a U.S. company that promotes transgenic crops.

The leading producers of these crops are the United States, Argentina, Brazil and Canada, concentrated in soybeans resistant to certain herbicides, and maize and cotton resistant to herbicides and insects. Almost the entirety of the seeds for these crops are created and sold by Monsanto.

In the international forums where the labelling question is being discussed – like the International Committee of Codex Alimentarius – the United Sates, Argentina and other countries are resoundingly opposed to any binding international rules on labelling requirements.

In May 2005 in Malaysia, during the last meeting of Codex, an agency of the United Nations, the labelling debate ended in a stalemate, and the parties to the discussion only agreed to take up the matter again in the future.

“If there are companies and governments so sure that transgenics will not produce secondary effects in the long term, why this resistance to labelling?” wonders Aleri Carreon, coordinator of the consumers campaign and genetic engineering for the environmental watchdog Greenpeace-Mexico.

According to Argentine biotech expert Hopp, “the label should provide information to the consumer, and not fear, nor should it lead to political discrimination” against those who sell products derived from GMOs, he said.

For the scientist, who believes organisations like Greenpeace are “fundamentalists” when it comes to transgenics, if the food truly isn’t safe, it shouldn’t be labelled – it should be banned.

(* Diego Cevallos is an IPS correspondent. With reporting by Marcela Valente in Argentina, Mario Osava in Brazil and Daniela Estrada in Chile. Originally published Feb. 11 by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Environment Programme.)

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