Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 228 | Julio 2000



Transgenic Crops: Critical Voices from the South

Latin Americans possibly know less than anyone about the real scope of the "second green revolution," based on the evelopment of transgenic crops. We have to get a grip on the problem and start thinking and acting.

Patricia Bravo

There is talk in the world about a second "green revolution." Two elements characterized the first one, which translated into the boom of fruit cultivation for export in Chile. The first element was the use of high-yield seed varieties in some basic crops and the second was the abuse of chemical herbicides and pesticides, which have seriously damaged human health and the environment. Those in positions of economic and political power who until recently either denied or minimized the harm done by agrochemicals are now beginning to admit it, but only to spotlight the advantages of transgenics, a "revolution" based on large-scale development of genetically modified organisms.

Two authoritative voices

As in the 1960s and 70s, discussions on whether or not these new technologies should be applied massively have not involved small growers, that majority sector that produces 60% of the vegetables that feed the Latin American market, and they have certainly not involved consumers. This new transnational business is simply being imposed by way of actions and there is no indication whether the tomato, the ear of corn or the rice being offered for sale is transgenic or not. In the United States, over half of the soy- and corn-based foods are products of genetic modifications.

Of the 40 million hectares of transgenic crops being grown in the world, Chile currently cultivates 35,000 hectares, mainly of tomatoes and corn for seed production. Chilean soil offers a dual advantage for the developed world’s transnational corporations that are contracting local farmers to plant these crops. On the one hand, the fact that the summer season does not coincide with that of the Northern Hemisphere permits them two harvests of transgenic seeds per year, thus speeding up the production process. On the other, they use Chilean fields as laboratories to evaluate how these species adapt and how much they produce in a different setting than the one in which they were created. "Another advantage is that nobody in Chile is researching the possible consequences of these crops on biosecurity," states University of Chile agronomic engineer Miguel Altieri, whose concern in this area has led him to present a research project on the environmental impact of transgenics in Chile. With doctorates in entomology and biological control from the University of Florida, Altieri currently teaches at the University of California at Berkeley, is general coordinator of the United Nations Development Program’s Sustainable Agriculture Networking and Extension (SANE) and is a technical adviser to the Latin American Consortium on Agroecology and Development (CLADES).
Another authoritative voice is that of veterinarian Mario Ahumada, a representative of the Latin American Movement (MAELA), a consortium of a hundred nongovernmental organizations that work from Mexico and the Caribbean down to the Southern Cone. Ahumada says that another advantage for the transnationals of producing transgenic seeds in the country—which, according to available information, have moved beyond corn and tomatoes to wheat, corn, potatoes and rapeseed—is Chile’s geographic isolation. The Chilean land dedicated to transgenic crops has expanded from 28,000 hectares to its current 35,000 in only two years, which demonstrates the priority being given to this business. "Since the transgenic seeds produced in Chile are for export, national growers who want to use them will have to buy them from abroad," says Ahumada, pointing out that increased dependency is one of the many social and economic effects associated with this technological innovation.

A rapid but close-mouthed revolution

In May, these two Chilean professionals, together with Oscar Torres of CIED/CLADES, participated in two international events held in Dresden, Germany, to debate the objectives and destiny that agricultural research should pursue in the future at a world level. The first was the International Seminar of NGOs and Peasant and Small Farmer Organizations on Research for Overcoming Poverty, attended by around 100 delegates from Europe, United States, Canada, Asia, Africa and Latin America. It was followed on May 21-23 by the Global Agricultural Research Forum, which involved 400 people, also from all continents. Those attending included government officials, researchers from various centers, private business representatives and delegates from peasant organizations and NGOs, although the latter, with 35 people, were the minority.

One criticism that emerged during the seminar was that pressure from transnational corporations has meant that funds provided by different international entities—particularly the World Bank and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization—for public research on new agricultural technologies have so far largely been channeled into genetic engineering. These funds are supposedly earmarked to deal with hunger and nutritional deficiencies in third world countries, but accumulating data seriously question whether genetic engineering in the hands of private companies even pretends to deal with hunger in the South.

The idea behind the larger forum was to gather proposals to submit to the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), which is responsible for decision-making about what, how and why to investigate. The controversy around genetically modified organisms was a central theme in the debates of both events, although mainly the seminar. Despite all efforts by these organizations, however, the Global Forum reaffirmed the trend toward promoting genetically modified organisms.

The Latin American population is possibly the most ignorant of the extent and nature of the second green revolution, which is advancing quickly, cloaked in the complicit silence of the governments. That is why the information pulled together by NGOs of Europe and North America, where the headquarters of the transnationals and their most specialized scientific research centers are located, plus the experience accumulated by the peoples of Africa and Asia, where transgenic crops are becoming increasingly massive, are incredibly important to help us in Latin America get a grip on the scope of the problem.

Against health and the environment

As with all scientific and technological progress, biotechnology can be used for good or bad purposes. In this case, the high level of sophistication involved in transplanting a fish gene into tomatoes or a frog gene into grapes to give the fruit the ability to regenerate itself rapidly in case of damage or mutilation like those animals do when they lose an extremity is bewildering. If the new technology also permits the adding of proteins to widely consumed vegetables or other nutritional reinforcements to foodstuffs of the basic market basket, one might conclude it is worth continuing to experiment with this crossing of genes from different species that nature would never dare meddle with. As it is, however, the transnationals have appropriated this technology, so the efforts have gone to create wheat, corn or rice that resist a specific pest, or to add some supposed nutritional benefit that gives the product more market appeal than real utility.

A first objection to developing transgenic foods is that they are being massively distributed without prior studies on the multiple effects they could have on human health. Among the effects already known are the possibility of producing allergies, intoxication and resistance to antibiotics. Second are the consequences on the environment, among them alterations in the trophic chain and the loss of biodiversity, given that the production of transgenics encourages an even greater degree of mono cropping than has already been imposed in our countries. In addition, pollination and the broadcasting of genes by the wind mean that a transgenic crop could propagate uncontrolled in neighboring areas, invading, mutating and finally pushing out other native species or varieties. With the disappearance of those forms of vegetable life, the insects, birds and animals associated with them would die out as well. This has been scientifically demonstrated in crops of wheat, rye and different varieties of rapeseed.

The bio-pirates of the 21st century

The economic and social consequences are no less impressive. As in other areas where human creativity is expressed, intellectual property rights are asserted for each "discovery" originating in the biogenetic laboratories. Each stage of genetic modification practiced on an organism, as well as its result, is duly patented. The transnational company that finances the research takes ownership of the technology and the "new" transgenic product. And not only that: in a technology that has been dubbed "terminator," the seeds it produces are sterilized so they cannot reproduce after giving their fruit in a harvest. This is excellent business as far as the transnational are concerned. Peasants and small farmers who once owned their wheat, corn or rice seed will now have to buy the transgenic seeds to maintain their crops each year. And together with each handful of seeds, they will be obliged to buy a packet or "construction" made up of markers and vectors—genes, bacteria or viruses—which guarantee the effectiveness of the genetically modified vegetable matter.

This appropriation process paves the way for what has been called "bio-piracy," defined by Mario Ahumada as "appropriation of a biodiversity wealth that does not belong to one in order to sell it." Asian peasant organizations, for example, claim that the company that is patenting a certain transgenic product obtained it from rice or corn belonging to a farmer or community, without the owners of the "raw material" receiving any compensation whatever. As 21st-century pirates, the research centers commanded by the transnationals are appropriating germplasm that seems tempting to them without asking anyone’s permission. The mega-corporations are creating gene banks nourished by the biodiversity existing in the third world countries, and are using this living wealth to form a strategic reserve that will assure them incalculable earnings in the short, medium and long run. According to Ahumada, exclusive native varieties of Chilean tomatoes and potatoes could be lost in this way. Monsanto, Cargill, Du Pont, Aventis, Dole and their affiliates control this new technology through intellectual property rights. At times, the concession of patents to them by the governments violate the nation’s own legislation, which guarantees the population free access to resources that these mega-companies are registering as their own.

The "marvels" of transgenic rice

Knowing all this, peasant communities in the Southeast Asian countries are engaging in a constant and well-organized struggle to prevent companies from snatching away the rice they have cultivated since time immemorial and that is currently consumed by over half of the world’s population. It was precisely this rich potential that awoke the greed of the Rockefeller Foundation, which forty years ago set up the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, with branch offices in various countries of the area. Protected by dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who granted it a kind of "diplomatic immunity" via presidential decree, the Foundation created hybrid rice varieties whose high cost indebted the small landowners, many of whom ended up losing their holdings. The spin-off of this was an even greater gap between rich and poor in the rural areas—one percent of the population in the Philippines owns two thirds of the country’s cultivable lands—and degradation of the soil.

Today, the IRRI has a sophisticated genetic seed bank and with support from the CGIAR has moved into the field of biotechnology, consolidating itself as a monopoly. Associated with transnationals such as Monsanto, Cargill and Aventis, it has patented successive laboratory inventions. For example, a type of rice enriched with vitamin A through the incorporation of a viral gene has been presented as a solution to the vitamin deficiency suffered by nearly six million people in the third world. But this rice is conceived as good business, not as an appropriate solution to the planet’s nutritional problem. The seed is six times more expensive than normal seed and the price of the final product puts it out of the reach of all consumers outside the developed countries. Consuming vegetables that grow naturally in areas near the rice plantations could surmount vitamin A deficiencies, if an adequate food education program were developed.

The companies also have "Bt rice," into which a particular bacterium from the soil was introduced to make it resistant to certain caterpillars that find it toxic. Bt corn and rice already exist, and BB transgenic rice has been introduced more recently, named after its resistance to the blight bacterium. Philippine NGOs and different social organizations such as Vía Campesina are charging that this transgenic will spearhead the massive introduction into the country of other varieties with fantasy names like Super Rice and Golden Rice for subsequent exportation to Indonesia and India. They also claim that blight has not been a large-scale problem in the Philippines since the peasants learned to apply appropriate soil management practices.

The irruption of hybrids and transgenics into Asia has caused the disappearance of a rich biodiversity, a phenomenon known as genetic erosion. In Thailand, after 30-40 years of green revolution, the rice varieties have been reduced from fifty thousand to only five thousand. The fish, birds and frogs that lived in the rice plantations and provided the peasants important sources of protein have also disappeared.

Why is there hunger in the world?

Miguel Altieri shoots holes in one of the main arguments in favor of transgenic foodstuffs: that only they have the productive potential, in both quantity and quality, to supply the nutritional deficiencies of the 800 million poorly fed people in the world and respond to the rising food demand due to the growth of the planet’s population. "The problem of hunger has nothing to do with production," says the academic researcher. "It is tied to the economic system, to the forms of distribution and to poverty. Right now we have the paradox of plenitude: the more food exists, the more hunger there is. Right in the United States, the world power, 2 million people go hungry and 20 million get less than the required nutrition levels. Another cause of hunger is found in the land tenure. Many people have no access to land to make it produce, because it is badly distributed. Together with Colombia and Mexico, Chile is one of the countries with the poorest land distribution indices in Latin America."
It is clear to Mario Ahumada that biotechnology is providing neither greater production nor less pesticide use, which is supposed to be another of its benefits. On the contrary, transgenic crops resistant to certain pests are not so selective as to exterminate only the insect that produces the plague, but also liquidate beneficial insects that act as predators against other pests. It has been verified that in many cases the transgenics increase pesticide dependence.

Capitalism’s perverse logic

Altieri stresses that we must not lose sight of the fact that science is the product of a specific society. He offers the following reflection in this regard: "Modern science is at the service of the logic of capitalism, thus biotechnology, which could be a tool to benefit the poor, is already controlled by the transnationals, which are creating new organisms of which we have no evolutionary experience. When has corn ever been crossed with bacteria? Never. The corporations have taken possession of public science, and their interest is profit. There are other alternatives, however. The Cubans, for example, are developing their own biotechnology based on other principles. They produce biofertilizers and biopesticides in 230 special centers distributed all over the island to supply cooperatives and peasants. As in many other alternative experiences in Latin America, successful results are being achieved in production and yield, in this case through agroecological techniques and careful natural resource management. Very little is said about all this; instead, we are disinformed to calm any idea of preventing genetically modified organisms."
In the Declaration of Dresden, the NGOs and organizations of small farmers and peasants ratified this argument: "Transgenic crops are not the solution to malnutrition or hunger. Their introduction will have a strong impact on food security, will accentuate the marginalization of small producers and will cause environmental degradation and reduce biodiversity." They thus pledged to continue working to understand the risks of this technology and stimulate research geared to agroecology based on the knowledge and capacity accumulated by those who work the land.

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