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

AGRICULTURE-LATIN AMERICA: Transgenic Crops Make Their Mark

Diana Cariboni*

MONTEVIDEO, Mar 15 2006 (IPS) - Genetically modified organisms are leaving an indelible mark on several Latin American countries, regardless of the standards for their use and the attempts to adopt an international regime governing their production and transportation.

Extensive areas under transgenic soybean cultivation mark the landscape in Argentina and Brazil, and are expanding in Paraguay, Bolivia and Uruguay as well.

Argentina, the United States and Canada are responsible for 90 percent of the world production of transgenic crops.

Soybeans are vital to the Argentine economy at this time. The country is the third largest producer in the world – output reached 32 million tons in 2004 û after the United States and Brazil, and the top exporter of soybean oil.

Soy accounts for half of the total harvest in Argentina, according to the Secretariat of Agriculture. The “Produce and Conserve” Foundation, financed by biotechnology companies, says that up to 95 percent of the crop is transgenic.

The starting point was U.S. biotech giant Monsanto’s Roundup Ready soy, which is resistant to the herbicide of the same name.

Farmers and the Argentine state are locked in a legal battle with Monsanto, which is trying to recover years of royalties that were not paid on its patented seeds, because of illegal sales of Roundup Ready soy or the replanting of seeds that were culled and saved by farmers. The Secretariat of Agriculture reports that soy exports are the most important source of tax revenues in Argentina today. But it acknowledges that monoculture farming “undermines the sustainability of agroecological systems” and degrades the soil, while transgenic plants pose a risk of contamination of non-modified crops.

Since 2001, the National Commission on Agricultural Biotechnology has authorised 788 research projects, most of them involving corn. These are experimental field trials of transgenic varieties, only a few of which will eventually be marketable. The research permits were granted to subsidiaries of the U.S. corporations Monsanto, DuPont and Dow AgroSciences, the Dutch company Nidera, and the Swiss laboratory Novartis.

Research to solve local problems is supported by national producers and by the National Institute of Agricultural Technology, which is studying, among others, a variety of corn resistant to the Río Cuarto virus, endemic in this country. The cost is financed by farmers who purchase shares in the patent.

Argentina has not ratified the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, in force since September 2003, which aims to protect biological diversity from the risks posed by live organisms that have been modified by modern biotechnology.

The treaty establishes the need for informed consent before authorisation is granted to bring transgenics into a country. In addition, it outlines the “precautionary principle”, which gives governments the right to suspend production or trade of transgenic crops until there is proof that they are harmless to the environment and to human health.

There is no conclusive evidence on the risks of transgenic organisms, constructed in the laboratory by inserting genes from other plant or animal species.

Soy is the star transgenic crop in Brazil too, although genetically modified (GM) cotton and corn are also planted. The transgenic seeds are smuggled in from Argentina, following in the footsteps of GM soybeans.

Soy makes up nearly half of Brazil’s total grain output of 120 million tons. It is the chief export product, especially as beans, and to a lesser extent as flour and oils.

At present, an estimated 90 percent of the soy cultivated in the southern Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul is transgenic, as is 10 to 20 percent of the soy grown in other southern and central-western states. In normal circumstances, Rio Grande contributes one sixth of the national soy harvest, but drought had a severe impact on production in 2005.

Transgenic crops, which are illegal in Brazil, have been smuggled in since 1996. Cultivation of the GM varieties was temporarily authorised by a decree in 2004, and in 2005 a biosafety law came into effect to provide a definitive legal framework.

Although Brazil is a party to the Cartagena Protocol, it has not lived up to the terms of the treaty, particularly the precautionary principle. Environment Minister Marina Silva called unsuccessfully for prior research on transgenic soy and other GM crops, arguing that the results of studies performed in other countries were not applicable to Brazil because of its immense biological diversity.

The National Technical Commission on Biosafety has received more than 500 requests to authorise field research projects.

In the meantime, Monsanto has had mixed success in its efforts to get farmers in Brazil to pay royalties on Roundup Ready soy seeds.

Further evidence of the flouting of regulations is the issue of labelling transgenic products. A presidential decree in Brazil makes specific labelling mandatory when more than one percent of ingredients are transgenic, but it is not enforced.

“The entire Cartagena Protocol depends on labelling; it’s a crucial factor which makes it viable or non-viable,” Gabriel Fernandes told IPS. Fernandes is an expert at Advice and Services for Projects in Alternative Agriculture, and one of the coordinators of the Campaign for a Transgenic-Free Brazil.

A label reading “contains LMOs (living modified organisms)” is obligatory throughout the production chain, from the seeds onwards, to clearly indicate the presence of transgenics.

“Agribusiness uses arguments against this,” such as the difficulty and high cost of labelling. But according to studies, the added cost is very low, Fernandes said.

“Legal cultivation ensures traceability, because Monsanto would keep track of its seeds in order to collect royalties,” he commented. It all comes down to abandoning the attempt to continue illegal cultivation, he maintained.

Furthermore, “the buyers have to be taken into account. The big import markets have ratified the Protocol, and they have the right to know whether or not they are importing transgenic products,” Fernandes argued.

Brazil not only exports grains, but also imports transgenic wheat and corn products from Argentina, and it is in its interests to have precise information.

But politics in Brazil tends to yield to the economic clout of agribusiness, said the expert. Despite hosting the Mar. 13-17 third conference of the Parties to the Cartagena Protocol in the southern Brazilian city of Curitiba, the government left it to the last minute to decide whether it would support firm labelling rules.

Against a very different economic and legal backdrop, Cuba is also researching transgenic varieties of at least eight food crops.

Insect-, virus- or herbicide-resistant varieties of potatoes, papayas, tomatoes, corn, sweet potatoes, rice, plantains and bananas may become available to Cuban farmers if the research projects under way are successful.

Three Cuban institutions are working in this field, but no product has yet been released on the market. “That’s still a long way off,” Merardo Pujol, head of the Botany department at the Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology in Havana, told IPS..

For now, Cuba’s scientific researchers are focusing their efforts on coming up with crop varieties that are resistant to viral or fungal diseases, salinity, drought and pests.

The experiments are carried out in greenhouses or on segregated plots of land under closely controlled conditions, monitored by the National Centre for Biological Safety.

Cuba is a signatory to the Cartagena Protocol, and officials say the country strictly complies with the treaty.

But Cubans are apparently not worried about the potential negative effects of transgenic crops. “There is no scientific report that has clearly documented health problems caused by the transgenic plants currently sold in the world,” said Pujol.

Humberto Ríos at the National Institute of Agricultural Sciences (INCA), however, said transgenic crops lead to increasing economic dependence by farmers, and threaten the cultural diversity of peasant farmers.

Ríos is working on improving seeds through other plant breeding techniques, with the participation of small farmers, as “an alternative aimed at avoiding dependence on transgenic crops,” and as “a route to food sovereignty,” he told IPS.

Transgenic crops are not cultivated commercially in Mexico either, and the area used for experimental cultivation is small.

But in 2001, it was discovered that native varieties of corn had been contaminated by transgenic corn in some parts of the country, despite a moratorium on the commercial planting of GM corn in Mexico since 1999.

However, the authorities maintain that new studies carried out on crops in 2005 found no sign of contamination by GM corn.

Although the cultivation of transgenic corn is banned in Mexico, it is imported as food and animal feed. It is believed that the transgene contamination occurred when farmers planted corn imported from the United States, the world’s biggest producer of GM crops. In the shipments, modified corn is not separated or labelled. And in poor parts of the country, peasant farmers sometimes plant corn imported as livestock feed, thus unknowingly planting GM seeds.

Mexico purchases five million tons a year of transgenic corn from the United States, around 25 percent of which is GM corn.

The wealth of varieties of corn cultivated in Mexico, where it is the staple food, could be threatened by contamination, as it is almost impossible to protect corn from cross-pollination because the pollen can travel long distances in the wind.

For centuries, farmers in Mexico took advantage of the fact that corn is wind-pollinated to create new varieties that were better adapted to specific climatic and geographical conditions.

Mexico ratified the Cartagena Protocol in 2002. But according to a pact signed with the United States and Canada in October 2004, shipments containing up to five percent GM products can be identified as “non-genetically modified”, and shipments with “unintentional” contamination do not require identification or labelling.

Environmentalists complain that neither the agreement nor Mexico’s 2005 law on biosafety are in keeping with the Cartagena Protocol.

* With additional reporting by Mario Osava (Brazil), Patricia Grogg (Cuba), Diego Cevallos (Mexico) and Marcela Valente (Argentina).

Republish | | Print |

ching-yu wen