The Need for a Participatory and Serious Debate

Transgenic Food Production
Fernando R. Funes Aguilar
ALAI, América Latina en Movimiento, 2 July 2009


The news that the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (CIGB) will soon be introducing certain transgenic species and plants on a commercial scale in Cuba has met with optimism by some and concern from others. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the population has not been informed. Unlike some other countries, there has not been a national debate in Cuba about the production and consumption of transgenic foods. Some even say that we have been consuming transgenic food for some time without knowing it. It seems that CIBG will soon be receiving a license to cultivate transgenic corn in Cuba on thousands of hectares and that the introduction of the technology has the complete support of the State.

As a scientist dedicated to agriculture both Cuban and worldwide, I believe that we need an open and profound debate regarding the use of transgenics for food production in Cuba. My relative ignorance of the sophisticated techniques and biotech processes used to create the Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) is, I believe, compensated by my knowledge of agro-ecology. I write this analysis convinced that without recognizing many of the environmental-ecological, economic, organizational and social phenomena related to agricultural activity, it is impossible to design an effective strategy for technological development. I am also certain that there is no single technology that can, by itself, solve the agricultural problems here in Cuba or in any other country. This is why we need an integrated/holistic focus that will allow us to make conscious and holistic decisions.

In this analysis I do not wish to antagonize, judge or devalue the work of scientists that, from their perspective, believe that their contribution can help the country’s agricultural development. I have no doubt about the scientific competence of those involved in the Cuban biotech project, nor do I doubt the competence of the authorities in charge of putting the proper biological security measures in place. However, I do believe that it is necessary to consider certain relevant agro-ecological factors before making any decisions that might put the health of the human population and our ecosystems at risk.

A Historic Opportunity

Evidence and recent history show that no other country has had the opportunity that Cuba has had to implement an effective agro-ecological model on a national scale. No other country has seen the specific circumstances that have occurred here (in Cuba), where optimal conditions have been created for a transition of such magnitude. The social capital, along with the human development index, puts us in a privileged position. Numerous studies conducted in Cuba show that agro-ecological systems could provide more than enough food necessary to satisfy the Cuban demand in a sustainable manner, with minimal dependence on inputs, without damaging the ecosystem and, most importantly, without negative effects on human health. It has been soundly demonstrated that agro-ecological systems, based on biodiversity and focused on local development and the intensive use of natural resources, are more efficient and productive than conventional systems. They have also been shown to be more economically feasible and socially just.

It is satisfying to see how, with modesty and work, the agro-ecological paradigm is growing and becoming stronger in Cuba, demonstrating what can be done to produce healthy and ample food for our population. Who can doubt the impact reached by the urban and peri-urban agriculture movement that came from the popular movement organized in the early nineties as a citizens' response to the lack of food? This movement now involves some 380,000 people. Who can doubt the contribution of the campesino sector to Cuban agriculture in the last few years? The agro-ecological advancements made by the farmer-to-farmer movement are impossible to deny and the cooperative and farmer sector succeeded in producing more than 65% of the food produced in the country with only 25% of the land. There is a solid scientific basis demonstrated in hundreds of congresses, symposiums and workshops that has laid the groundwork for developing a feasible model for Cuba and has demonstrated what can be accomplished, even under the most difficult circumstances. The accumulated knowledge and the studies underway guarantee the success of the Cuban transition to more sustainable agricultural systems and have caught the eye of the international community, especially because of the environmental, economic, financial and energy crisis that the world is facing today. A growing number of members of the Cuban scientific community, academics, farmers and other organizational forms of agricultural production are more and more convinced that the agro-ecological paradigm offers a sustainable future for the production of food and for the appreciation of Cuban agriculture.

Sadly, now that the financial and material resources are once again becoming available, they are for the most part being used to implement specialized, conventional, large-scale monoculture. These systems are highly inefficient, wasteful, fragile, and very dependent on outside inputs. To begin with, they inefficiently use the available natural resources and degrade the natural ecosystems, putting the future in jeopardy and severely threatening the Cuban agro-ecology. Cuba experimented with these models during the 70's and 80's, setting us apart from most of the rest of the world. We also know that the scale and volume of resources that were once available are no longer available and will not be available in the future. Even then, with such favorable conditions, the results achieved were not those expected. Even with all the technology and state financial resources used, ecological, economic, and social factors made it impossible to achieve the desired results.

My purpose is to demonstrate the achievements we have made with sustainable agriculture in the last few years. This is a call for a moratorium regarding the introduction of transgenic seeds in Cuba and a call for a conscious, coordinated and holistic debate regarding what agricultural model or models we wish to promote.

Decentralize and Diversify for food self-sufficiency

The principal and most dangerous problem facing agriculture in our country since the arrival of the Spanish to the present day has been the monoculture single product export system and the excessive extraction of natural resources. Eradicating the consequences of this model has been the center of scientific discussion throughout Cuban history. This model, practiced over the last four centuries, has created a huge dependence (on inputs and external markets for raw goods) and has caused a large negative environmental impact on croplands, biodiversity and forestland. Low self-sufficiency, poor energy efficiency, as well as the displacement and loss of values and tradition closely linked to life in the countryside and food production.

One of the main purposes of the revolution of 1959 was to resolve the problems of Cuban agriculture related with large estates and foreign large-scale monoculture (especially that of the United States). At the beginning of the Revolution the agricultural strategy was defined as one that would be based on diverse production with the hope of creating a source of raw goods for the development of the national industry. However, rapid agricultural industrialization based on conventional methods tended to concentrate land in large scale government-run enterprises, which in turn caused environmental problems similar to those experienced with the previous model of large scale farming. On one hand, this model increased the level of production and the standard of life in the rural countryside, achieving the social goals of our political system; on the other hand, it produced negative economic, ecological and social consequences that cannot be ignored.

The excessive use of imported agrochemicals, the implementation of large scale, monoculture systems of production, the concentration of farmers in urban centers and rural towns, along with the dependency on a few export products, made for a vulnerable agricultural system. This vulnerability became evident in the nineties, with the disintegration of the socialist block of Eastern Europe and the USSR, when Cuba lost preferential pricing on the majority of the inputs needed, both financially and materially. At this point, Cuban agriculture along with other sectors of the national economy, entered the largest crisis in recent history, while at the same time, these factors created an excellent environment for a new, alternative and much more sustainable national agricultural model.

During the last 15 years agricultural development has taken a new course. The present focus, like never before, is on food self-sufficiency and environmental protection. In 1994, Cuba created the National Program for Development and the Environment (Cuba’s version of the United Nations Agenda 21), and two years later approved the National Strategy for the Environment. In 1997, the “Law for the Protection of the Environment” allowed environmental protection to become national policy. Even though environmental protection is not enforced consistently as established by the today’s laws, it is undeniable that the government’s support for environmental protection has allowed Cuban agriculture take a more sustainable course.

The transformation of Cuban countryside during the last decade of the 20th Century was an example of the large-scale conversion of a, highly specialized model; conventional, industrialized and dependent on foreign inputs, to one based on agro-ecological principles and organic agriculture. Numerous studies attribute the success of this transformation to the social organization used and to the systematic, grassroots development of new environmental techniques. Unlike the isolated sustainable agriculture movements that have arisen in the majority of other countries around the world, Cuba has created a massive movement of ample popular participation where agrarian production was considered a key factor for the population’s food security. Still in its early stages, the transformation of the Cuban agriculture system has consisted primarily of substituting chemical inputs with organic inputs and the efficient use of resources. Using these strategies numerous sustainable agriculture objectives have been attained. The persistent lack of outside resources and the use of diverse production systems have favored the proliferation of agro-ecology throughout the entire country.

Keeping in mind the arguments made earlier, it can be confirmed that: given the current conditions, neither the conventional model nor the substitution of inputs have the capacity to be sufficiently versatile and dynamic to meet the technological demands of Cuba’s heterogeneous and diverse agriculture. The re-implementation of conventional agricultural models is having a doubly destructive effect. First, they have negative environmental, economic and social effects while degrading the environment, being subsidized, and are models that waste energy and financial resources. Second, it is counterproductive to maintaining the achievements reached by agro-ecology in the last 15 years. This makes it necessary for us to develop an integrated agro-ecological focus, which is long-term and participatory, as well as a way adequately of combining the economic, ecologic, and socio political dimensions of agricultural production. It is imperative to make the most forward-looking political decisions today to promote a truly sustainable agriculture.

Growing foreign dependency

Even with all the achievements made in terms of sustainable agriculture and agro-ecology, a clear policy on financing, articulating and decisively promoting agro-ecological programs does not exist. Between the years 1997 and 2007 Cuba experienced a dependency spiral in terms of importing foreign food and inputs. Rising by a rate of $US100 million annually, the country imported as much as $US 2 billion in food in one year. Because of the destruction caused by the hurricane in the agricultural regions but also because of high food product prices, in 2008 we imported some $US 2.8 billion to satisfy national food demand. On the other hand, more than 50% of the agricultural land in the country, with exceptional soil and climatic characteristics for food production, remained unused. The recent decision by the Government to set food production as a priority, along with the publication of Law 259 regarding distributing use rights to land, opens a new playing field. However, the actual land distribution and the capacity of the new agricultural producers to make these lands produce are not sufficient. One thing is clear, the decisions we make today and the structures we put in place will define the future of Cuban agriculture. Three tendencies have characterized the Cuban agricultural development: decentralization, diversification and food self-sufficiency. I am aware of the fact that we are far from reaching these objectives but I am even more aware that we can reach them soon and without compromising the future, if we convert these trends into consistently practiced principles.

Cuba’s moral stance in the progressive global movement

Cuba has a privileged position in the progressive global movement. Because Cuba’s revolution is used as a reference point, the hits and misses of the Cuban revolutionary process have put the country under constant scrutiny. The strongest tendencies of the modern leftist movements are to fight for food sovereignty and farmer’s rights and for a sustainable use of the available natural resources. Invariably, social movements that demand rights to the land have a clear ecological vision. In this struggle there is a convergence around the repudiation of the monopoly interests of large transnational companies that dominate the global market in agrochemicals, the distribution of seeds, and in the last few years, ownership of intellectual property and rights to various strains obtained through biotechnology.

The use of transgenic varieties not only implies an demonstrated risk for all producers, as they get inextricably tied to companies that own the seed but, also for the integrity of agricultural biodiversity and the development of other systems based on functioning harmoniously and naturally with the ecosystem. These are the demands made by the anti-globalism, anti-imperialism, progressive global movement. From their perspective it would be impossible to understand why Cuba, having access to other alternatives, bets on GMO use that has caused so much desolation and death worldwide and are the entry point for transnational companies, representatives of the worst interests in capitalism. The policies of these powerful companies put diversity and traditional agriculture at risk worldwide, and the case will be no different for Cuba.

Economic and Social Risks

The mergers of huge companies have created a process by which the world’s commerce of food, chemical products, and pharmaceuticals has become concentrated in the hands of a few. GMO’s make this process even more serious, and food security for the world will be left in the hands of a few companies from rich countries, those with the technology and the GMO patents. Furthermore, the companies that promote the GMO technology to "end world hunger” are the same private enterprises that promoted the "Green Revolution,” that not only did not end world hunger but also displaced farmers to cities, destroyed a good part of the biodiversity and polluted the environment. It is widely known today that enough food is produced worldwide for the world's population and that in Cuba these can be produced through different means. It is also a fact that the world hunger problem is caused by the unequal distribution of inputs and riches in some cases and in others due to lack of opportunities and support for farmers. Transgenic technology will not resolve any of these dilemmas.

Environmental Risks

An irrefutable element of the technologies associated with transgenic food is the strategy of uniform genetics. It is absurd to think that such a homogeneous technology will have the appropriate effect in different ecological and cultural situations; it has been demonstrated in practice. Numerous studies have concluded that well-adapted local and domesticated varieties have been displaced by the new use of transgenic crops and that they end up disappearing due to the lack of use, as has been in shown various cases. As a consequence of monoculture, the risk of losing crops is increased when an organism appears for which there is no control; viruses, bacteria or fungi have optimum conditions for developing. The conventional option leaves us no choice but to use chemicals over and over again, each time in larger quantities and in higher concentrations, with more applications and practices that increase the use of nonrenewable energy sources. On top of that, the natural resources such as the soil and the water will be polluted or exhausted, and will not be able to recuperate as they are the result of millions of years of evolution, the be rendered useless in a short period of time. It is simply a spiral effect that has been well documented in the world, and experienced in Cuba for 30 years of using the conventional method.

The transgenic crops that are resistant to pesticides such as Round-up, used to control many weeds, produce the increase of contamination in the environment due to their indiscriminate use and increased possibility of the weeds developing a resistance. It has been show that the genes introduces into the DNA of transgenic plants can cross-pollinate with other wild species that are related to the profitable crops and set off ecological disequilibrium and unexpected inter-species consequences that would be hard to control. Such is the case for transgenic crops injected with Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) to create a resistance to a large group of insects, this could result in the following: (i) the insects themselves developed resistance, (ii) the Bt crops eliminate useful insects and (iii), that the toxics from Bt become part of the soil through the plant remains and cause negative effects and disorder in the established flora that can move through the food chain.

Risks to human health

In recent years it has been widely demonstrated that consumption of transgenic foods affects human health. The development of increasingly adverse allergies has been directly tied to the consumption of transgenic food, it has also been associated with different types of cancer and even more recently it has been proven to have effects on fertility. Several of the genes currently being used for GMO’s have never been part of the human diet, so it impossible to tell what effects they will have on human heath. There is proof that some that consumption of transgenic foods is transmitting the potential to be allergic to certain genes in some people. For example, transgenic soy with Pará Cashew genes, manipulated to increase their protein, has caused problems in several allergic people. Strong evidence exists about the carcinogenic effects of GBH, the bovine growth hormone commercialized by Monsanto under the Posilac brand. On the other hand, many transgenic crops include genes that are resistant to antibiotics; these could emigrate to bacterial pathogens that affect human health and develop resistances themselves. Recently it was proven in Austria that rats fed with transgenic corn were less fertile than those that were feed with other types of corn. All this is still a world in exploration and several studies are carried out at the international level to discover the secrets of these varieties that have been produced by the hand of man and that disrupt nature's logic. What is true is that there has not been a serious study of its innoccuity, and as such, the threshold of risk is so high and uncertain that we should proceed with utmost caution.

Scientific Evidence and the Threshold of Risk

Technically, risk is considered to be the extent of the damage multiplied by the probability of the damage existing. People take risks for different reasons: because they must take the risk, because there is an imperative moral need that pushes them to take it, or because the perceived risk is outweighed by the potential benefit. None of these reasons pertains to the case of transgenic use worldwide and much less in Cuban agriculture. There is proof that it is possible to feed the Cuban population without transgenic foods. Enough proof exists to support the fact that both the Cuban and the world population can be fed without the use of transgenic crops, what are needed are policies that empower producers and free up their productive capacities. For biotech scientists that have spent years with these investigations there may be a moral imperative that surpasses the risks we could be taking.

Scientists across the globe have been working on the principle of inverse precaution. According to this principle, all processes and products must be approved, unless they have been proven to be absolutely unsafe. The argument that we have not yet seen someone die from GMOs does not mean that this could not occur. If innocuity studies have been performed on transgenic foods, these studies should be available to the general public, something that does not happen, as they are classified and suffer from great inconsistencies.

The safety of the food consumed by the public should be the government's top priority and, with out a doubt, the consumption on a mass scale of food with "suspect quality," as these could have devastating effects in terms of health and compromise entire generations. This has already happened in past generations due to the unchecked use of agrochemicals used to produce high yields. The production of food containing large amounts of toxins has been the cause of cardiovascular, allergic, respiratory, and bone diseases, sterility and cancer, among others. The externalities of this agricultural model have not been, nor could be evaluated due its tremendous magnitude and lack of much data that is classified information. However, we do have enough information to document that chemical agriculture has been a human disaster, which in the name of science and progress has compromised our heath to the highest degree. The book “The Silent Spring,” by Rachel Carson, alerted us of this a long time ago.

In Conclusion

The problems facing Cuban agriculture do not lie in the technology itself, but rather, they are intimately linked to the way that the natural resources and materials available are used and the conventions of farmer’s lives. The large-scale irreconcilable socioeconomic and environmental problems of monoculture and conventional agriculture impede the potential development of agro-ecology, and should be attended to immediately so that the doors will be definitively opened to a new Cuban agriculture.

The future of Cuban agriculture will depend on the model used by humans, their needs, aspirations and capacity for transformation being at the center of the priorities chosen. Cuba’s experience with transgenic crops will be similar to those of other countries, where agriculture has less and less of a future, displacing entire populations from the countryside as their land and their ability to develop in a healthy and sovereign manner gets ripped away from them. The agro-ecological models offer a mosaic of options to solve each problem and an alternative for future food production for the world and the Cuban population. This agriculture should be designed and sustained by the farmers carrying it out, with just, equitable and supportive conditions, which in turn will guarantee a better world for present and future generations.

- Fernando Funes Aguilar is PhD., Agro-ecologist