Law on the Side of Transgenics?
By Diego Cevallos*
A new Mexican law on biosecurity and genetically modified organisms could be taken as a model by other Latin American governments. Environmentalists and some scientists disagree on the virtues of the legislation.
MEXICO CITY - If anyone manipulates or trades in genetically modified organisms (GMOs) without authorization, or uses them to make biological weapons, they will be hit with a fine of up to 127,600 dollars, according to a new Mexican law on biosecurity, one that could set the standard for all Latin America -- much to the chagrin of environmentalists.
Mexico took the lead by approving the Law on Biosecurity of Genetically Modified Organisms, in mid-February. It is the first such legislation to encompass all aspects related to the use of transgenics in agriculture and introduce provisions to prevent the use of biotechnology to manufacture biological weapons.
More than 22.6 million hectares of farmland in Latin America are already planted with genetically modified crops, an area that includes portions of eight of the world's countries with greatest biodiversity: Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Costa Rica.
But laws on transgenic crops in Latin America remain unequal and dispersed.
''It's a shame that they passed the Mexican law, because now our countries will want to take it as an example, even though it's a terrible law, because it lines up with the interests of the (biotech) transnationals,'' Morena Murillo, a director of the non-governmental Unidad Ecológica of El Salvador, told Tierramérica.
Since last year, Salvadoran lawmakers have been debating general legislation on biosecurity, as are their counterparts in Brazil, Guatemala and Paraguay.
The global discussion and international agreements like the Cartagena Protocol aim to regulate the use of transgenics, because fears persist that these organisms have the potential to harm human health and the environment.
Genetically modified seeds were developed in the 1980s with the intent of improving certain plant traits, such as resistance to pests and extreme climate, greater nutritional content and better appearance.
The technique consists of introducing the genes of one species into another, plant or animal, using vectors like inactivated viruses or bacteria.
But science has not provided conclusive answers about the impacts of GMOs on the environment and human health.
However, there is a documented case of non-transgenic corn in the United States contaminated with the genetically modified corn variety Starlink, which had to be withdrawn from the market in 2000 after some human consumers reported allergic reactions.
Mexican scientists Bolívar Zapata, winner of the Prince of Asturias Prize for Science and Technology, and Luis Herrera, considered one of the ''fathers'' of biotech, maintain that the law passed in their country adapts to the reality imposed by the existence of the GMOs.
The two experts told Tierramérica that they hope the legislation's content serves as a guide for other countries.
''The Mexican law could be a big help for those who are interested in developing their own laws,'' said Herrera, who, along with other researchers, in 1983 created the first genetically modified plant in 1983, at the University of Gante, Belgium.
But despite the scientists' hopes, in most Latin American countries, the passage of the Mexican biosecurity law went by unnoticed.
There is an array of laws in the region that establish special commissions to study the impact of transgenic crops, impose limits on cultivation, and sanctions on use that causes harm.
But environmentalists believe that today's reality has rendered those laws obsolete, and that they need to be updated.
GMO crops are regulated in Argentina under a ''seed law'' dating to 1973, to which numerous provisions have been added. In the Americas, Argentina is second only to the United States for the total area planted with transgenics.
In Brazil, number three in GMO crop production in the Americas, the 1995 biosecurity law began to fall to the wayside as a result of the illegal -- but tolerated -- cultivation of transgenic soybeans. But contentious public debate about a new law continues to simmer.
The biosecurity bill currently under debate in parliament ''will have a hard time winning approval because it contradicts the constitution and does not require environmental impact studies,'' Paulo Pacini, attorney for the Brazilian Consumer Defense Institute, told Tierramérica. His group has taken its protest against cultivation of transgenic crops to the nation's courts.
In Chile, genetically modified seeds are authorized only for producing more seeds and their subsequent export. A government decree has regulated GMOs since 1993.
The Chilean government pledged two years ago to present a bill on biosecurity, but in the unfavorable political climate, it ended up shelving the initiative. The total area planted with transgenics in Chile is less than 8,000 hectares.
''Chile doesn't have the capacity to monitor and regulate the indiscriminate release of transgenics,'' Juan Carlos Cuchacovich, coordinator of Greenpeace-Chile's campaign against transgenics.
And the situation in Peru doesn't seem to be much different.
This Andean nation has had its Law for the Prevention of Risks from the Use of Biotechnology since 1999. But according to an evaluation by experts, conducted as part of a United Nations project, the law has not been fully implemented and even so has several loopholes.
The scientists and environmentalists consulted by Tierramérica agreed that close attention should be paid to the new Mexican law on biosafety, but there was discrepancy about whether it should be replicated in other countries.
Those opposed to transgenics argue that the law, approved amidst protests, should be called the ''Monsanto law'', referring to the transnational corporation that is the world leader in production of genetically modified seeds, and which was one of several companies to lobby for the law's passage.
In 124 articles, 33 pages and dozens of addenda, the text establishes the promotion of biotech research and creates mechanisms to regulate entry of transgenic products into the country, including required labeling of seeds.
The Mexican law establishes the intention of confronting the potential negative environmental impacts of GMOs, but also of making the most of potential advantages.
It creates a framework for authorizing the entry of transgenics on a ''case by case'' basis and ''step by step'' follow-up, with the participation of several ministries, advised by a special committee of scientists, which can also request input and opinions from civil society.
Alejandro Calvillo, director of Greenpeace-Mexico, said in a Tierramérica interview that the legislation has its positive aspects, but also has gaps and errors, largely because it was written behind civil society's back.
In the opinion of the environmental watchdog Greenpeace, the Mexican legislation is geared towards developing biotechnology, and does not have an adequate framework to ensure that local communities be informed when transgenics are released into the environment, nor does it provide a space for lodging complaints about those projects.
Furthermore, the law sets up a fund for biotech development, but not have anything similar for preventing or counteracting the potential harm caused by transgenic crops, says Greenpeace.
Scientist Zapata says opposition to GMOs is the result of ignorance and fear of innovation.
Herrera and Zapata say that in all the years that genetically modified crops have been cultivated and consumed around the world, no evidence has emerged that they cause harm to health or the environment. This technology has come to stay, according to the two scientists.
* Diego Cevallos is an IPS correspondent. With reporting by Marcela Valente (Argentina), Mario Osava (Brazil), Daniela Estrada (Chile) and Jorge Grochembake (Guatemala).