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LATIN AMERICA
Spreading transgenic seeds
Cecilia Remón
8/24/2006
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Widening use of genetically-modified products threatens region’s most important crops.

Latin American authorities’ failure to label genetically-modified products does not only violate consumers’ rights, but also their freedom to choose.

In Peru, for example, it is impossible to know whether one is purchasing a genetically-modified product, not only because the country lacks a norm requiring that products carry a label if they do in fact contain such ingredients, but because the companies themselves refuse to inform consumers if the product is transgenic.

José Purizaca, legal advisor of the private Peruvian Consumers and Users Association, known by the acronym APSEC, said that even though "there is no information that transgenic foods are produced in Peru, different transgenic foods are imported from other countries." Purizaca said corn and soy from Argentina are common examples, where more than half of the country’s crops are genetically-modified and.

A regional problem

But Peru’s case is not unique. The only countries in Latin America that have laws forcing companies to label transgenic products are Brazil, Chile and Ecuador, according to Elizabeth Bravo of the Network for a Transgenic-Free Latin America, or RALLT for its Spanish initials. But not even these countries observe the law.

Soy and corn are used to make a variety of products, such as flour, oil, and syrup, which urgently require a labeling system, but companies have shown that they are not interested in keeping consumers informed.

Purizaca noted that representatives from several companies said that they did not want to inform the population if their products’ ingredients were genetically-modified.

According to Purizaca, executives said that "people cannot understand, and it could cause alarm in the population. People have a level of ignorance in which it is not convenient that they know whether this food is or is not transgenic. It shouldn’t interest them."

Despite the lack of interest in social responsibility in these companies, in Mexico, 17 companies that produce more than 30 food brands, made a unilateral promise to abstain from using transgenic ingredients in their products.

In December 2005, the environmental organization Greenpeace Mexico presented the Red and Green Guide to Transgenic Foods, which classifies some 250 food products by whether they have been made by companies that refused to provide such information or were not able to certify that their products don’t contain genetically-modified ingredients ("red"), or have been made by companies that have promised to not use such ingredients ("green").

Bravo says that the use of genetically-modified products in Latin America "has grown in recent years, particularly in the Southern Cone region of South America. But there are new genetically-modified crops being introduced in countries where transgenic seeds were not prevalent before, such as corn and cotton in Colombia.

"Transgenic seeds in Chile are being used for various crops, including those used to experiment on children in Peru," said Bravo, referring to a rehydration serum made with genetically-modified rice that was tested on Peruvian children.

Various organizations have denounced a World Bank project to train authorities to manage contamination caused by genetically-modified cotton, rice, corn, potato and yucca seeds. The project, "Latin America Multi-Country Capacity-Building in Biosafety," which will go into effect in 2007 in Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico and Peru, aims to establish laws in countries whose governments are in favor to genetically-modified seeds, and later utilize these legislations as models to impose in neighboring nations.

Such broad use of transgenic seeds could limit public debate, and offer companies a large market for their genetically-modified products, warns a report by RALLT and the Canadian environmental organization ETC Group, and the Spanish GRAIN, which support sustainable agriculture and food security.

RALLT says that these five countries were selected because they are among "the most important centers of biodiversity in the world, and are the origin of four of the five crops that the project will handle."

Cotton, corn, potatoes and yucca originated in the Americas, and are among the most important crops in the Mesoamerican, Andean and Amazon regions. Rice, even though it originated in Asia, is a staple in the diet of many of the region’s communities.

Broadening use of genetically-modified products

According to RALLT, the World Bank project’s long-term goal is to "facilitate the introduction of varieties of transgenic products for trade and experimentation" of the most important crops to indigenous and local communities of the countries where the project will operate.

"One final result of this project could be that the campesino and indigenous communities are left without any alternatives and they will have to resort to using patented transgenic seeds and increase their dependency on transnational companies," RALLT stated.

The Modern Biotechnology Promotion law, approved by Peru’s Congress July 11, will push the country on to this track.

The legislation allows transnational companies, such as Monsanto — which holds 80 percent of the world’s transgenic market — to conduct "scientific research, development and technological innovation" with the objective of "increasing competitiveness, economic development and well-being of the population in harmony with human health and the preservation of the environment."

Luis Gomero, technical coordinator of the Lima-based Alternative Agriculture Action Network, warns that the law will "take away our genetic resources."

Peru is not a market for transgenic products, Gomero says, but it is "attractive" for researchers. "Only 4 million hectares in Peru are used for large-scale intensive agriculture, and this is insufficient," he says, adding that Peru does have "genetic potential" and transnational companies will surely try to identify these genes for patents.

Gomero notes that Peru is extremely diverse, a highly attractive characteristic for researchers. "The law will turn our country into a center of experimentation for the large companies to conduct their research freely, without supervision, without having to comply with national laws, the right to biosecurity or the ethical principles these investigations should observe," he says.


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