GM Special: fighting like cats and dogs in South America

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GM Special: fighting like cats and dogs in South America

In the last year Europe's production of genetically-modified (GM) food has fallen 23% while eight countries in the continent have established long-term moratoriums. On the other side of the world Peru has done the same while debate continues to heat up across its borders. In the first part of our GM Special we take stock of the situation in South America, where opposition to transgenic corn and soya has spilled over to affect the horticultural sector.

The Peruvian Congress recently approved a bill for a 10-year moratorium on transgenic seeds based on the argument they could negatively affect the country's rich biodiversity.

Photo: Diario Verde

Opponents of GM in Peru have raised concerns over the potential effects of GM foods on organic produce, which has been one of the country's many strengths in recent times with 48.3% growth in the first quarter of 2011.

But for many people involved in the industry, such as ArgenBIO (Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay) executive director Gabriela Levitus, the idea of cross-over effects from existing transgenic crops is inconceivable.

"The main organic products are café, lemons, cocoa, mango, onion, among others, while transgenic crops are corn and soya, and in all they do not compete at all," she says.

Her thoughts are echoed by Chile Bio executive director Miguel Angel Sánchez.

"If you put transgenic corn next to native potatoes, there is no problem, because the potato does not reproduce with the corn, they are not sexually compatible. The majority of citizens don’t know this, it’s like putting a cat and a dog in the bed, which is to say nothing’s going to happen,” he says.

Sánchez says the world's main organic food producers are Australia (this will come under the spotlight tomorrow), Canada, the U.S., Argentina, Brazil, Spain and India, while the same countries are also major producers of transgenic crops.

"There are 25 million hectares of organic crops and 125 million hectares of transgenics, and there haven’t currently been any reported serious commercial problems in productive systems in any of these countries."

Agro-Bio Peru and Colombia executive director María Andrea Uscátegui, says there has been a general lack of information available for the public to understand transgenic crops and how they can improve productivity.

"(Peruvian) corn growers have requested to have access to genetically-modified seeds to have an increase in productivity and produce more for the national market, which needs to import 70% of its hard yellow corn and 98% of its soya from other countries – Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina and the U.S."

Levitus says Peru is losing more than it will gain by not using the technology, which could improve the crops it so heavily relies on for import.

Growing resistance

Carlos A. Vicente is the co-ordinator for biodiversity action with small farmer NGO GRAIN. An Argentine national, he is critical of the part transgenic food production has played in his country and supports the resistance movements in Peru and Chile too.

"In the Southern Hemisphere resistance is very important, while the panorama in Peru and Chile presents a strong reluctance in civil society, bringing together various sectors ranging from farmers to indigenous peoples, chefs and environmentalists," he says.

"In Argentina, transgenics are reaching the maximum point of penetration; on one hand because they are already occupying most agricultural land and on the other because social resistance to its impacts grows day by day.

"In this way I believe it is very difficult for transgenics to be able to advance, much more after 15 years in which none of the promises were fulfilled and social-environmental disasters they have produced are now increasingly known.”

Ivan Santandreu

Chile Sin Transgénicos (Chile Without Transgenics) biologist Ivan Santandreu agrees with Vicente that GM production has taken a turn for the worse in Argentina.

"The worst happens in Paraguay and Argentina, where they have had an increase in the use of agrochemicals, because crops resist them," he says.

"Transgenic crops are made to resist herbicides and have had to use more and more herbicides because weeds to become resistant to it.”

Santandreu says the situation in Argentina has reached the point where growers are using seven to eight times more pesticides than they used to following the introduction of GM crops.

"All farmers are obliged to buy one type of seed with one type of herbicide and the profitability is minimal," he says.

"The government has to subsidize these crops because they are less productive, for example transgenic soya is worth less than organic, and North American government puts money in its fiscal coffers to subsidize this cost."

His claims are in direct contrast to those of Sánchez, who says there has been less chemical use since the advent of GM.

"Transgenics have allowed for a reduction in pesticide use – this too has been presented in the environmental impact quotient; under this parameter, transgenics have led to a reduction of this impact by around 17% in comparison to traditional agriculture.

"The transgenics that are today in the market have led to agricultural activity that is more sustainable with the environment, because it reduces the quantity of agrochemicals.”

South American GM wrap

Levitus says apart from Peru, Ecuador and Venzuela, most of South America has taken on transgenics and there has been no 'disaster'.

Photo: Veg Source

"It has increased yields, better grain quality, simplified management, better control of weeds and pests, all of this proven and endorsed by the decision of thousands of farmers in the region that every year return to choose technology.

"Brazil, Argentina and Colombia have had different genetically modified organisms (GMOs) approved for many years, like corn, soya and cotton for commercial production, and they have very high rates of adoption and include local development.

"Paraguay for now only grows transgenic soya and this has positioned the country as the fourth-largest exporter of soya in the world, and its on the way to authorizing corn and cotton. While Uruguay has produced GM corn for many years, and this has allowed it to transform itself from."

She says Chile is currently only producing GM seeds but this could lead to the next step of GM food production, while Bolivia is also advancing with the technology.

"Bolivia produces soya and now there exists a political will to commence with and evaluate other crops, like corn.”

While Santandreu's native Chile is yet to approve the Modified Plant Organism Biosecurity Bill, which would approve the use of transgenics in the country, he says there is still hope to find a more productive form of agriculture.

"Before destroying the planet and the country, you have to take a gamble because this is unsuccessful - according to studies by the UN we could double food production with agroecological technology."

Tomorrow we will cross the Pacific Ocean for the second part of our GM Special with a snapshot of Australia and New Zealand.

Related stories: Both sides claim 'misinformation' in Chile's GM debate

Peru declares 10-year moratorium on GM seeds

Bolivia to pass new transgenics law

Berkley professor hails agroecology success for Chile apple project

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