The Conquest of Transgenic Crops
By Diego Cevallos*
More than 18 million hectares in Latin America are planted with genetically modified crops. The trend is irreversible, say scientists, who are staking their bets that the region will adopt this new technology rather than condemn it.
MEXICO CITY - Genetically modified crops already cover more than 18 million hectares in Latin America, promoted by a handful of transnational corporations that impose prices and conditions, while the debate about their cultivation, trade and consumption is charged with threats, lawsuits and cash.
In Argentina a large portion of fertile land is planted with genetically modified (GM) soy at the expense of other crops, and in Brazil the government has issued a decree authorizing cultivation of GM soy on a temporary basis.
In Colombia, Honduras and Mexico, GM maize is gaining ground, and in Uruguay, where GM soy is already widespread, GM maize is being introduced.
Furthermore, food produced from GM crops is sold throughout Latin America, but the vast majority of consumers are unaware of that fact.
The story began in 1996, when the world's first transgenic seeds were released for commercial use, controlled almost entirely by the U.S.-based agribusiness transnational Monsanto. Five other corporations deal in genetically modified organisms (GMOs), but to a lesser extent: BASF, Bayer, Dow Chemical, Dupont and Syngenta.
In 2002, worldwide, 58.7 million hectares were planted with GM seeds, of which 13.5 million were in Argentina, and the rest were in 15 other countries, with the United States being the leading producer of GM foods.
The genetic makeup of these crops is modified in a laboratory by introducing the genes of another species -- plant or animal -- and the use of deactivated viruses or bacteria as "vectors".
The aim is to improve crop yields or other characteristics, such as resistance to pests, climate extremes or to agrochemicals, as is the case of Monsanto's Roundup Ready soy, which is resistant to the company's glyphosate-based Roundup herbicide.
"The introduction of transgenics in agriculture is irreversible. Now what is important is that Latin America controls them, uses them and develops them, in parallel with other technologies, so that the region does not become dependent on foreign companies," Mexican scientist Luis Herrera told Tierramérica.
Herrera was part of a team that developed genetic modification techniques in the 1980s in Belgium.
But the outlook for the future is quite different, says Silvia Ribeiro, of the Canada-based non-governmental Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC Group, formerly known as Rural Advancement Foundation International).
"Something similar will happen with transgenics as with atomic energy. First its use was promoted for generating electricity, but later, upon discovering its dangers and consequences, atomic energy declined," Ribeiro told Tierramérica.
The corporations that sell GM seeds say their products are easy to grow, require fewer applications of pesticide and, most of all, are profitable. They are the key, say the transnationals, to fighting hunger, a problem affecting 800 million people around the globe.
But that assertion is a long way from achieving consensus.
The most important issue pending, says a May 2002 report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is to explain why the United States has adopted the GM crops so quickly when the economic impacts appear to be uneven or even negative.
The U.S.-based non-governmental organization Food First argues that world hunger is the result of poor distribution of food and would not necessarily be resolved by transgenic crops.
Appropriate distribution of food volumes existing today would ensure that each person on the planet has a diet of 3,500 calories per day, says Food First.
Caught up in the debate are Latin American peasant farmers groups and environmental organizations, which criticize the fact that GM crops generate developing countries' dependence on the transnationals and the potential dangers of these crops for biodiversity and human health.
These groups threaten to carry out protests and file lawsuits challenging the use of transgenics.
On the other extreme are the transnational companies, which in 2002 spent more than 50 million dollars on advertising campaigns for their transgenic products, and which in Canada and the United States have filed more than 2,000 lawsuits against farmers they accuse of using their seeds without authorization.
Monsanto owns all of the patented GM soy seeds planted worldwide and collects royalties from thousands of farmers.
Under the terms of the contract signed with Monsanto, farmers are prohibited from saving soy seeds from their harvests to use for the next planting, doing away with the traditional technique of seed selection -- practiced by thousands of small farmers around the world.
In late September, the Brazilian government issued an order that allows the planting of transgenic soy this season. The GM crop had been banned but farmers had planted 4.5 million hectares in the last growing season.
The decree triggered controversy, with opposition coming from groups ranging from the Ministry of Environment to the Brazilian Catholic Bishops Conference.
In Brazil "it must be objectively evaluated whether the capacity exists to control and follow up on health and environmental problems involving genetically modified organisms," and if that capacity does not exist, the transgenics should not be allowed, Volnei Garrafa, president of the Brazilian Bioethics Society, told Tierramérica.
The scientist recommends establishing special commissions to study the question from moral, philosophical, scientific, and cultural perspectives, focusing on biological diversity aspects that affect quality of life.
Mexico's Herrera favors a similar approach, but stresses that to date there is no evidence that GMOs have negative impacts on health or the environment.
Over the past few years, Monsanto's GM maize variety has made its way -- through legal and illegal channels -- into Mexico and Honduras, the region of origin of maize, which was developed and cultivated by indigenous peoples for millennia.
There is evidence in Mexico that native maize species have been cross-pollinated with transgenic maize, and scientists are assessing the extent to which the country's rich genetic inventory of maize has been altered.
"From the scientific perspective it is nearly unanimous that GMOs are beneficial and that the risks are minimal because the appropriate precautions have been taken," said Alejandro Montaberry, an expert with the Genetic Engineering Institute at Argentina's National Council for Science and Technological Research.
The controversy is related to political, economic and commercial interests, Montaberry says.
Monsanto says it hopes to expand its transgenic seed sales for the good of Latin America, but many farmers do not want to give up their historic rights and their agricultural traditions to rely on one corporation, whose claims of improved yields have been called into doubt by the United States' own Department of Agriculture.
* Diego Cevallos is an IPS correspondent. Marcela Valente (Argentina) and Mario Osava (Brazil) contributed to the report.