Lawlessness and loopholes for transgenics
Latinamerica Press, 28 November 2008
*Peru awaits final legislation for biosafety regulation, but many worry that norm is insufficient.
Julio Evaristo is literally one with his roots. The 42-year-old is the third in a line of intrepid farmers who save the seeds of their Andean crops, securing a food supply for their families for several years.
But Peru is now poised to finalize a nearly decade-old biosecurity law, and experts, including the newly-inaugurated Environment Ministry, say that the country is not institutionally prepared to ensure agricultural and consumer safety when it goes into effect.
Evaristo´s crops 2-foot plants of chocho (a white bean), colorful tubers like potato, oca and olluco; wheat and carrots are dwarfed by the ice-covered peaks of Peru´s Cordillera Blanca.
The land is inhospitable here in the Callejon de Huaylas, a valley high in the Andes, but Evaristo has healthy crops. Evaristo, who has lectured on his seed saving at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome, holds a special importance to his seeds, and says the unpredictability of transgenic seeds could threaten his family´s food supply.
“You don´t know which ones will come with defects, which ones won’t produce,” he says of the possibility of genetically-modified seeds.
But Peru´s government, months from implementing a free trade agreement with the United States, is not focused on small-scale farmers like Evaristo.
Eager to expand is agricultural sector, the norms necessary to regulate genetically-modified organisms in the country their entry, cultivation and sale is expected before the end of the year.
Peru´s biosafety law dates back to 1999, but supplemental legislation was required to give authorities the power to supervise transgenic products in the country.
So, for nearly a decade in Peru, a signatory of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, has had a law in place without empowering officials, particularly health and agricultural authorities, to enforce measures.
“The Parties shall ensure that the development, handling, transport, use, transfer and release of any living modified organisms are undertaken in a manner that prevents or reduces the risks to biological diversity, taking also into account risks to human health,” reads the Cartagena agreement of 2000.
But the law has been at a standstill for nine years, and even now, some experts, citing contamination of genetically-modified corn seeds in other nations like Mexico, say it would fall short of its aim: to protect farmers and consumers.
Dr. Antonietta Gutiérrez, a professor at the National Agrarian University of La Molina in Lima, has studied biosafety and the affects of genetically-modified organisms for nearly 15 years.
Although one proposal is a Peru free of transgenic products, Gutiérrez, who worked on the Cartagena Protocol, has resigned to the fact that the supplementary legislations will pass, and she instead urges the government to implement a five-year ban on genetically-modified organisms seeds and products starting after the law is implemented.
“There is no national capacity” to monitor transgenic products´ entry, use and risks,” says Gutiérrez, who adds that Peru has more than 50 corn varieties, and while the country the birthplace of the potato with thousands of varieties is not a major corn producer, it could change if the norm allows an influx of transgenic seeds from giant agricultural companies, mainly from the United States thanks to the free trade pact. “There is complete ignorance.”
A legal void
Currently, Peru has a legal void regarding biosafety. A top official at Peru´s Agriculture Ministry admits that the country already receives imports of oils made with genetically-modified soy from Brazil and that transgenic products are neither restricted nor permitted in the country.
For some, the lack of research and solid proof of the risks of genetically-modified organisms should open, not close the door for their use.
On Nov. 19, the Peruvian Engineers Board, the Peruvian Biologists Board, and the Peruvian Association for the Development of Biotechnology, published a half-page letter in Peru´s largest newspaper, El Comercio, advocating transgenic farming as pro-development, and stating that this lack of research shows it is “not reasonable” to think that genetically-modified organisms cause health problems.
The letter was published ahead of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, or APEC summit, which Peru hosted this year, during which it made an aggressive push to court new free trade deals with several Pacific Rim economies.
“Genetically-modified crops are technological open with a great positive effect for farmers, and they can co-exist with organic and conventional crops without environmental problems,” read the letter. “Peruvian farmers should not be impeded from free access to this new technology because of prejudice or with arguments that lack a real scientific basis.”
The letter by the two scientific boards, which groups 114,000 professionals, went on to say that organic farming is not the best option because it does not have a high yield.
Gutiérrez dismissed the letter and other efforts by scientists, calling their efforts thinly veiled lobbying for the pro-free-market government´s causes.
She says the lack of information on the risks of transgenic products could be detrimental, and for that very reason a ban is needed so it can be better researched and tested.
“The issue isn´t if they approve or don´t approve” the legislation, says Gutiérrez. “The ban is key.”
In a 2006-2007 study, although the government denies that transgenic seeds are already being used in Peru, Gutiérrez said she and her team had detected genetically modified corn contamination in crops in the valleys in Barranca, near Peru´s north-central coast, calling it a worrying sign.
“I would like to see a Peru ”¦ valuing what it has,” she says.