Doctored crops stir Latin American debate
Standing on a street corner in downtown Cuzco, Peru, Abel Caballero looked to the surrounding mountains, which are home to hundreds of species of potatoes and maize. In a world increasingly populated by monocrops, they stand as a testament to how agriculture was practised for centuries. Protecting this biodiversity may have cost Caballero his job.
In the summer of 2008, he banded with a group of indigenous Peruvian farmers and local NGOs. Together, they overcame the wish of the federal government and the might of some of the world’s most powerful multinational corporations.
On June 21, the government of Cuzco province passed legislation banning genetically modified crops from this area of the Andes.
“It was hard,” said Caballero, who was the head of natural resources and environment management for Cuzco province when the ban was passed. “But from the very beginning, it was something that the communities asked for.”¦The people came to the government to ask it to push this issue.”
Less than one year later, Caballero resigned from the government for “political reasons”.
A genetically modified crop is a plant that has been genetically engineered to include a gene from another organism. Plants are genetically modified by agricultural corporations like Monsanto Company to introduce desirable characteristics, such as a resistance to pests.
Commercial production of GM crops—also known as transgenic crops, though the two are not exactly the same—began in 1996 in the United States. Canada followed suit the same year. Since then, controversy has followed GM crops into every country to which they have been introduced.
Supporters of GM crops champion the technology as a solution to rising food costs and even world hunger. Opponents charge that the proliferation of GM crops threatens biodiversity and could lead to the rise of superbugs and weeds immune to pesticides. Many claim that the implications for human health remain unknown.
The planet’s population is expected to grow to nine billion people by 2040. In a world of finite resources, the developing world has become the frontline for a competition between food consumption and agricultural production. In this war, GM crops have emerged as a controversial weapon.
What are people’s concerns about GM crops and how are they being dealt with in the developing world? Are GM crops the answer to how to feed a species possibly growing beyond what the planet can support? 2008 was a landmark year for GM crops, when the number of countries planting such crops reached 25—who is benefiting and who is losing out?
In February 2009, the Georgia Straight travelled to Peru and Honduras to investigate these questions and learn how developing nations in Latin America are dealing with the spread of GM crops. A tale of two countries emerged. GM crops are not grown in Peru, and the country’s indigenous people remain hostile to the technology. In Honduras, GM crops were introduced in 2002 and many farmers have embraced the technology.
Cuzco, once the capital of the ancient Inca empire, has a strong agricultural tradition that focuses on biodiversity. This plays strongly into how farmers and, especially, indigenous communities in Cuzco province have reacted to the rise of GM crops. Caballero claimed that biodiversity is what GM crops threaten the most.
His push to ban GM crops from Cuzco province sparked a national debate and caught the attention of NGOs, governments, and multinational corporations around the world. The ban would not have happened without Alejandro Argumedo and the Association for Nature and Sustainable Development, a Cuzco-based NGO that focuses on links between environmental issues and indigenous people’s rights. Argumedo, a graduate of McGill University, is the group’s director.
Interviewed at his home not far from Caballero’s office, Argumedo explained the alleged threats that GM crops pose to biodiversity. “The introduction of transgenics will change the very composition of what we have here,” he said.
According to Argumedo, Cuzco’s agricultural industry thrives because it is so diverse. Take potatoes, for example. Around Cuzco—3,300 metres above sea level and, historically, the centre of origin of the potato—hundreds of local varieties of the tuber grow at different altitudes and in different kinds of soil.
Argumedo argued that biodiversity is vital to meet the stresses that climate change is placing on agriculture. “The less diversity that you have, the greater the chance that crops will disappear because they will be more susceptible to dangers brought by climate change,” he said.
Argumedo explained that if GM crops were introduced to Cuzco province, gene migration from GM crops to conventional crops could eventually wipe out local seed varieties.
“Having a high genetic diversity that has been nurtured and developed for thousands of years is being lost very fast because of greed and the introduction of these technologies,” he said.
The potential elimination of biodiversity is directly related to farmers’ livelihoods, Argumedo continued. He explained that corporations like Monsanto and Syngenta AG hold patents on GM seeds. Farmers must sign agreements with GM seed suppliers promising that they will not save seeds for replanting from one season to the next. If GM seeds flowed into farmers’ conventional crops via wind, for example, fields could be “contaminated”. In such a case, the corporation holding the seed patent could file a lawsuit against the farmer for growing GM plants without paying for the patented seeds.
There are precedents for such lawsuits. In 2004, a case was brought before the Supreme Court of Canada after a Saskatchewan farmer, Percy Schmeiser, discovered GM plants on his property. Schmeiser saved the GM seeds from these plants and cultivated the seeds for commercial sale. In Monsanto Canada Inc. v. Schmeiser, the court ruled that Schmeiser, having knowingly used the seeds, had infringed on Monsanto’s patent.
The “Saskatchewan case”, as the Straight found it’s widely known in Peru, is not unique. A May 2008 story in Vanity Fair claimed that U.S. court documents reveal that “Monsanto relies on a shadowy army of private investigators and agents in the American heartland to strike fear into farm country.” That story described situations where farmers swore they had never planted Monsanto’s seeds on their property but found themselves bullied into paying settlements to Monsanto to avoid exorbitant legal fees.
“Imagine what will happen if we are contaminated here,” Argumedo said. “Technically, everybody will be liable to Monsanto.”
A Monsanto representative was not made available for comment. In the past, Monsanto has said that cases like Schmeiser’s are incidents of the company simply protecting its patents.
Lima is a bustling capital city of eight million Peruvians. In the trendy neighbourhood of Miraflores, three of the country’s top biologists met with the Straight to explain their support for GM crops.
Ernesto Bustamante, national dean of the Peru College of Biologists, said that he has followed the rise of GM crops for more than a decade. “The introduction of genetically modified technology into Peru’s agricultural industry would actually mean an improvement to Peru’s economy,” he said.
Ernesto Bustamante (right) and fellow Peruvian
biologistsMarcel Gutierrez (centre) and Luis
Destefano maintain thatthe production of GM crops
would be a boon to Peru's economy.
According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, the most common genetic modification present in agricultural crops is herbicide tolerance. Monsanto’s “Roundup Ready” varieties, for example, are tolerant to Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide. This allows farmers to spray crops with Roundup and eliminate weeds without harming crops, and therefore increase efficiency.
The second most common trait available through GM technology is a resistance to certain insects. Bt-modified crops, for example, include Bacillus thuringiensis, an organic toxin deadly to certain insects. Bt varieties can minimize crop damage caused by pests and can be grown with fewer insecticides. Again, efficiency can be increased.
Many GM crops include a combination of both relatively common genetic modifications and other alterations, according to ISAAA’s 2008 executive summary on GM crops.
Bustamante explained that GM crops tolerant to herbicides can save farmers money on weeding. And Bt crops require a minimal amount of pesticides, which saves farmers more money and is also better for the environment.
“In 2020, we will have to feed seven million new Peruvians with the same land,” Bustamante noted. To meet rising demands for food staples in Peru, small farmers—who make up the bulk of the country’s agricultural industry—can benefit from GM crops, he said.
He conceded that GM seeds are more expensive than conventional varieties. But once the initial investment has been made, he said, farmers can increase profit margins through reductions in the use of pesticides and labour. Bustamante described a common belief that GM crops only benefit large corporations as a “fallacy”.
Back in Cuzco, far from Peru’s metropolitan capital, Argumedo said that it is the very genetic alterations that Bustamante champions that are a cause for concern. He explained that crops tolerant to herbicides, like Monsanto’s Roundup Ready maize, could cross-pollinate and pass this trait to other plants. The result could be varieties of weeds resistant to the most common herbicides, free to overtake farmers’ fields.
Crops modified to include Bt could place evolutionary pressure on insects, Argumedo continued. As more crops include Bt, that pressure could build. One day, insects could develop resistance to Bt and devastate crops until a new insecticide could be deployed.
In Lima, Bustamante dismissed such concerns. “When you plant genetically modified corn, you don’t only have a bag with 100-percent GM seeds,” he noted. In order to minimize evolutionary pressures on weeds and pests, every bag of GM seeds includes a small percentage of conventional seeds lacking genetic modifications. “So some of the corn in your field will be eaten by the insects,” Bustamante explained, “so you are not wiping out the species.”
Across town, Juan Risi, head of Peru’s National Institute for Agrarian Innovation, told the Straight that the federal government is handling GM crops with caution. He described the possible introduction of GM crops to Peru as “progress”, akin to upgrading from Windows XP to Vista. But he said that the government understands that “people are genuinely concerned.”
Risi explained that at the federal level, GM crops are technically not banned from Peru. But until biosafety procedures are introduced, permits are not being issued for their production.
According to Risi, Cuzco’s ban on GM crops could clash with future legislation drafted at the federal level. “Major guidelines in biosafety should be passed through the Ministry of Agriculture and through the national government,” he said. “And then the regional governments should be in charge of implementing them. It is not the other way around.”
Although Risi was quick to point out that the NIAI—as a regulatory body—has no official position on GM crops, he said that he does see potential benefits for Peru in GM crops.
For example, in both the Philippines and Honduras, Risi said, the introduction of GM maize resistant to pests has produced savings on pesticides and has made for higher yields for farmers.
But in Cuzco, opposition to GM crops remains steadfast. At a community meeting, Edgar Gonzales, a coordinator for Potato Park, a nearby biological reserve, warned that the introduction of GM seeds could create “complete dependence” on GM crops and on the corporations who own them. “Food security and food sovereignty would completely fail, and this is a threat to indigenous peasant farmers,” he said.
A few days later, outside the town of Písac, the Straight attended a meeting of representatives from the six indigenous communities that live in Potato Park. Looking down into a great valley that lies below the park’s headquarters, a park worker named Ricardo Paceo explained the importance of the reserve to the Straight. “This park is like a dream for us because it conserves our biodiversity and our culture and it is run by us,” he said.
Potato Park was declared a zone free of GM crops long before Cuzco’s provincial ban took effect. A testament to biodiversity, it boasts an estimated 700 local varieties of potato. Listening to Paceo speak with his fellow community representatives, it was clear that GM crops will not enter Cuzco province without a fight.
Francisco Paz’s farm lies at the end of a long dirt road in the interior of Honduras. A family man who has worked corn fields since he was a young boy, Paz and his farm embody the struggle of poor farmers in developing nations.
“I think that biotechnology is the solution to the problem of hunger in the entire world,” Paz stated confidently. “It is a great advantage, and this year I am going to increase the area where I plant transgenics to more than 50 percent.”
Agriculture is vital to Honduras. The nation is one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere. According to a 2007 World Bank fact sheet, more than 50 percent of the Central American country’s 7.5 million citizens live below the poverty line.
Walking through corn fields and ducking under the occasional fence of barbed wire, Paz told the Straight that he started experimenting with GM crops about a year ago. Very quickly, he said, the benefits were obvious.
According to Paz, the 40-percent-higher price that he pays for GM seeds is quickly recouped through savings on pesticides and labour.
Paz said that compared to conventional varieties, his GM crops produce greater yields, require fewer chemicals and less labour, and incur smaller losses to insects.
To minimize certain risks associated with growing GM crops, Paz said that he follows simple instructions provided by Monsanto. He cultivates conventional varieties of corn around his GM crops and grows GM crops on areas of his farm separated from conventional crops.
By his own admission, Paz is a true convert to biotechnology. “The only way that you can reduce hunger is to get better yields,” he said. “Transgenics can do this.”
Not far from Paz’s farm is the small town of El Paraiso. There, Nelson Sanchez sells seeds wholesale to farmers in the region. Interviewed in a dimly lit stockroom, Sanchez said that his interest in GM crops was sparked by a demand from consumers.
Since he introduced GM seeds to his customers in mid-2007, business has not changed much, he noted. The number of farmers buying GM seeds has increased but not enough to significantly affect his profits. According to Sanchez, more awareness of GM varieties is needed before sales will take off.
Still, Sanchez said that the benefits are clear to him. “Farmers have made several comments,” he noted. “They use less herbicides and less pesticides for insects, so there are positive effects.”
At the centre of agriculture in Honduras is the Pan-American College of Agriculture, better known as Zamorano, an American-registered institution that draws both students and teachers from across Latin America.
When the Straight arrived on a hot day in February, María Mercedes Roca, a professor of biotechnology and an outspoken advocate for GM crops, immediately launched into a defence of GM crops with an attack on conventional farming practices.
“Managing diseases the way we have done for the last four or five decades with chemical pesticides doesn’t work because we are creating resistance to chemicals,” she argued. For Roca, GM crops are an environmentally friendly technology that humans can use to meet growing demands for food.
A former member of Greenpeace and now serving on Honduras’s National Committee for Biosafety, Roca said that Zamorano has conducted biosafety trials for Monsanto. She maintained that risks associated with GM crops have been greatly exaggerated. As an example, she showed the Straight a Honduran newspaper clipping that quoted a member of parliament who claimed that GM maize grown in Honduras was linked to the spread of HIV.
Walking Zamorano’s fields, Roca listed opponents’ concerns about GM crops and then quickly explained why she has concluded that each one is baseless.
The risk of cross-pollination is nothing new to agriculture and has been dealt with for hundreds of years, she explained. At Zamorano, crops are planted at different times, fields growing different crops are separated by a minimum of 20 metres, and four-metre-high walls of king grass separate fields to catch seeds travelling in the wind.
Health and environmental concerns related to Bt-modified crops are equally unfounded, Roca continued, making no effort to hide her frustration. After more than a decade of scientific research and commercial production in the U.S., “there is no evidence that suggests that transgenic crops are worse for the environment or worse for human health than their conventional counterparts,” she claimed.
Roca conceded that the relatively high cost of GM seeds is prohibitive for many poor farmers. But she noted that nobody is forcing anybody to grow GM crops.
For subsistence farmers who don’t have access to high-quality soil, fertilizer, and irrigation, GM crops often don’t make sense, Roca said. “On the other hand, if you even have the bare minimum, it pays. And if you are an industrial producer, it makes every sense.”
In the green hills surrounding Cuzco, indigenous people continue to practise agriculture the same way that their families have for generations. Communities plant seeds that have slowly adapted to their specific environments. Villages share their prized varieties of maize and potatoes with neighbouring settlements. And an equilibrium with the earth is maintained.
“Western thinking demands that biodiversity is converted into a commodity and made a product for the market,” a farmer named Luis Revilla told the Straight in Cuzco. “The consequence of this, we do not know.”
A world away, in the impoverished country of Honduras, subsistence farmers are increasingly looking to GM crops as a tool to lift them out of poverty.
“Like everything in life, there is a risk,” Paz said on his farm in Honduras. “But I make more money from transgenics.”
Amid all the controversy is the simple fact that humans may one day soon live on a planet that can no longer support them. As Roca told the Straight in Honduras, if GM technology is an evil in this world, it may be a necessary one.
Travis Lupick was in Honduras as a recipient of the Seeing the World Through New Eyes fellowship, funded by the Jack Webster Foundation and CIDA.
Read more stories from his trip:
B.C. aid helps Honduran kids (March 26, 2009)
Exploring Peru in the shadow of the financial crisis (February 17, 2009)
Discovering "mass food production" in Honduras (February 13, 2009)
A walk through the poverty of Honduras (February 12, 2009)
You can follow Travis Lupick on Twitter at twitter.com/tlupick.