Both sides claim 'misinformation' in Chile's GM debate
Chile's signing of the UPOV (International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants) 1991 Convention has become a battleground between proponents and critics of transgenic crops. Those in favor believe arguments against the bill have muddled up two very different laws, while critics interpret a more politically-motivated purpose than the 'copyright protection' tagline. At www.freshfruitportal.com we speak with industry insiders with varying views on the controversial topic.
A smokescreen to sell-off Chile's plant varieties to large multinationals, or an act with the genuine intention to do the opposite and protect them?
The convention was passed through Chile's senate with majority approval and a large number of voting abstentions, while three senators will look into a petition to the Constitutional Court to test its legality. The law still needs to be ratified by President Sebastian Piñera, who over the weekend was busy defending the approval of a hydroelectric dam project that drew 40,000 protesters in Santiago on May 20.
No wonder Chile's fruit industry has postponed its own demonstrations in its push for government assistance.
With export difficulties due to a high currency and slow circulation in the industry's financial veins, for many in Chile's agricultural industry the signing of UPOV 91 is a no-brainer, particularly for Bio Chile executive director Miguél Angel Sánchez.
Sánchez says UPOV 91 safeguards conditions to protect intellectual property, while the fineprint of the law dispels the 'myth' that it paves the way for transgenics.
"To register a variety or opt for a plant breeder’s right, it has to comply with four requirements: that it is new, distinct, uniform and stable," he says.
"The protection rules are for varieties that haven’t been commercialized before, are not known and don't feature on any official list, which contradicts the argument that UPOV 91 puts Chile's heritage native species and those that have been historically used in danger."
For Fruit Nursery Union Association manager Maritrini Lapuente, arguments against UPOV based on transgenics are fundamentally incorrect because Chile's GM use will be determined by another proposed bill - the Modified Plant Organism Biosecurity Bill.
"As I understand it, they start from the wrong base to mix two bills of the law that have nothing to do with each other," she says.
"This is a bill that will approve or reject the use of transgenics in the country. The signing of UPOV 91 has nothing to do with it. For example, Japan is a member of UPOV 91 and in that country they can’t cultívate transgenics," adds Sánchez.
"Effectively, what exists today is produced by mutinational companies that work in these areas, but there are emerging products developed by governments with their funds to solve particular problems. In Australia, they are working on drought-resistant wheat, and in Canada on particular modifications for canola."
In response, Chile Sin Transgénicos (Chile Without Transgenics) spokesperson Iván Santandreu says he is fully aware there are two different laws, but their priority along with other political movements appears to be more than a coincidence.
"Curiously, UPOV 91 is just tied with the National Seed Act, of plant breeders, who have urgency and have united to offer alternatives to authorize the cultivation of GM crops in Chile, he says.
"It’s not just a type of law or convention that will generate an effect, but the combination of measures that function in a synchronized or parallel way.
"Intellectual property is already adequately protected by UPOV 78, its earlier version. UPOV 91 is much more extreme and involves taking away the rights of agriculture in a much broader way."
Santandreu adds it is also strange these two bills have been proposed ahead of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, an initiative of the FAO, as well as the United Nations' Convention on Biological Diversity.
Office of Agriculture Studies and Policy (ODEPA) representative Alfonso Traub highlights misinformation on the topic, also pointing out the world has been consuming GM produce for a long time already.
"These (concepts) are to be discussed, to be made transparent. I’m not defending transnationals at all, but I am interested in speaking the truth," he says.
"Many farmer organizations have called me to say they are tired of NGOs speaking for them. They tell me, we want to study before having an opinión.
"For 15 years the whole global population has eaten food with transgenic components - today there doesn’t exist scientific evidence against the transgenic food currently in the market."
Santandreu says this simply isn't true.
"On the contrary, GM foods are deregulated and nobody guarantees their safety for the population in the medium or long term. Further still, there is a growing body of scientific literature that suggests a causal relationship relationship between consumption of GM food and the risk of some diseases," he says.
But Lapuente says there is an important international affairs aspect of UPOV 91, as it is part of Chile's obligations with its U.S. free trade agreement (FTA).
For Santandreu this argument isn't convincing enough, as Argentina and Brazil have only adhered to the UPOV 78 Convention, while UPOV 91 also doesn't respect agreements for indigenous consultation.
"The government of the U.S. puts on pressure to approve this and certain laws to favor its own industry," he says.
With little end in sight to the UPOV debate, it can be concluded that both sides are crying foul over over 'misinformation' and neither is coming forward to compromise.
What can be said with certainty is that the 91 convention extends variety protection periods from 15 to 20 years with crops, while deadlines are extended from 18 to 25 years for trees and vines. Other modifications to the previous UPOV agreement are that countries can have the freedom to regulate farmers’ privileges, in terms of what they can do with copyright material after the purchase. UPOV 91 also adds interim protection between when the breeder sends their application and when they are granted official certification.
Related story: Chilean Senate approves plant variety protection convention