The ever-growing global controversy over genetically engineered (GE) crops is particularly intense in Latin America, which has become the biotech industry’s brave new frontier. In fact, South America alone has most of the world’s GE crop acreage outside the United States and Canada.
Biotech supporters are euphoric, claiming GE seeds will help feed the poor, provide badly needed foreign exchange to the countries of the global South, benefit all farmers, and pave the way to an eco-friendly agriculture that uses less agrochemicals. But opponents and skeptics warn that GE technology is inherently risky, is based on a flawed and obsolete scientific paradigm, and is a technical fix that will not solve the problems of hunger and poverty, which are essentially social and political, not technical. Furthermore, they hold that these novel crops herald new forms of dependence and domination because they are no more than a continuation of the economically inequitable and ecologically unsustainable model of corporate-controlled industrial agriculture.
The struggle over biotech crops has everything to do with politics. The technology’s supporters include the U.S. government and agribusiness giants that describe themselves as "life sciences" corporations, such as Monsanto. Incidentally, the same geopolitical and business interests are pushing the neoliberal free trade agenda in the Americas. Standing in opposition are environmentalists, grassroots activists, indigenous peoples and popular movements like Brazil’s Landless People’s Movement—the same sectors that crashed the U.S. attempt to establish the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) and are now spearheading the opposition to U.S.-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) and bilateral free trade treaties.
Corn and Mexico
The North America Free Trade Agreement, in effect since 1994, turned Mexico into a net importer of American corn. Since then, approximately one-third of the U.S. corn acreage has been planted with a GE insecticidal variety known as Bt. For the last nine years, millions of tons of Bt corn have entered Mexico, mixed with non-GE conventional corn.
Inevitably, some farmers and peasants started using the imported corn as seed, setting off a process of genetic contamination. Corn is an open pollinated plant, which facilitated the proliferation of the Bt gene and its furtive introduction into the genomes of local varieties. The contamination has been scientifically documented since 2001 and has since spread at an alarming rate all over Mexico.
Soy and South America
In South America, the biotech invasion began in Argentina, a country that in the 1990s embraced GE soy as enthusiastically as it embraced neoliberal economic policies. Today Argentina has over 14 million hectares planted with soy, 95 percent of which is genetically engineered. The GE soy grown there, known as Roundup Ready, has been genetically altered to be inmune to glyphosate, the active ingredient of Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide.
The environmental effect of this new agriculture has been devastating. The monoculture zone, drenched with glyphosate, has witnessed the disappearance of birds, rabbits, crustaceans, mollusks and beneficial insects. The soil microbiology, responsible for the soil’s natural fertility, has been particularly affected.
The expansion of soy has come at the expense not only of other crops but also of forests and wilderness areas. To expand the monoculture, land owners and agribusinesses are deforesting broad swaths of the forested mountains at the foot of the Andes, known as the Yungas, and of the Chaco, on the border with Bolivia and Paraguay. In the province of Entre Rios, north of Buenos Aires and bordering Uruguay, over one million hectares were deforested between 1994 and 2003 to make way for soy. This deforestation has caused disastrous and unprecedented floods, especially in the province of Santa Fe.
The economic effect has been no less devastating. Roundup Ready soy monoculture creates unemployment since it requires hardly any labor. And those who have turned their backs on the soy model to engage in traditional subsistence agriculture have found it nearly impossible since the clouds of airplane-sprayed glyphosate travel great distances, leaving trails of death and destruction in their wake.
In Argentina, "soy is causing disintegration not only of the very essence of the land but also of society", denounce Facundo Arrizabalaga and Ann Scholl, lawyer and social anthropologist respectively, "Shanty towns are expanding on the outskirts of major cities with farmers displaced by airplanes loaded with glyphosate. Soy does not generate jobs, it is an agriculture with no people, no culture. The rural exodus in recent years has increased at an alarming rate: 300,000 farmers abandoned the countryside and almost 500 towns have been left deserted. As a consequence, crime and violence are increasing day by day, and with that, marginalization increases."
Roundup Ready soy seed is being smuggled from Argentina to neighboring countries, with the complicity (at least passive) of agribusiness and major land owners. Much of this smuggled seed goes to Brazil, where GE crops are illegal. Brazil is the number two soy producer worldwide and an undetermined percentage of its crop is GE.
This situation has put Brazilian president Lula da Silva in a bind. During his electoral campaign, he promised to address the concerns of sectors that denounced the illegal entry of biotech crops into the country. Once in power, however, he signed provisional decrees that temporarily legalized GE crops.
Biotech foes were greatly disappointed with Lula’s government when it openly sided with the United States and the "life sciences industry" in negotiations of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety in Montreal, between May and June 2005. The Protocol is an international agreement that aims to address potential hazards of GE crops. The United States is opposing and boycotting the Protocol, claiming concerns about biotech are unscientific and can lead to illegal trade barriers.
The patenting of life
On top of all the actual and potential environmental and health hazards of GE crops, there’s the issue of intellectual property rights (IPRs). Every biotech seed is private property, so any farmer who wishes to plant them is obligated sign a contract with the biotech company that "owns" the germplasm.
The contracts commit the farmers to not save seed from the harvest for planting in the following season. That would be copyright infringement. The farmer must purchase the seed year after year, putting an end to the age-old practice of saving and sharing seed.
What if your farm is contaminated by GE pollen or seeds blown from upwind? Tough break, you are guilty as charged. When Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser found that his field had been overrun by Monsanto’s RR canola, the company sued him for "piracy." In 2004 the Canadian Supreme Court ruled in Monsanto’s favor, declaring de facto that the polluted party must pay the polluter. Lawyers and private detectives, dubbed by Schmeiser as "Monsanto’s gene police", are already combing farming communities in the United States and Canada and suing non-GE farmers whose fields were contaminated with "copyright-protected" genes.
Latin American observers fear that this "agro-police state" will extend itself all over Latin America with the free trade agenda being pushed by Washington. The free trade agreements that the United states seeks with Latin American countries include stringent IPR protections that would allow biotech corporations to claim broad patent rights over the region’s rich biodiversity, not just the legal and illegal GE crops.
As an alternative to the free trade-IPR-corporate biotech model, progressive sectors in Latin America propose chemical-free organic agriculture oriented toward small farmers and local consumption, together with a number of economic and political proposals, such as land reform, food sovereignty, debt cancellation, and an end to the subsidized dumping of agricultural products by the United States and Europe.
Carmelo Ruiz Marrero is a Puerto Rican freelance journalist and environmental educator. He is a Research Associate of the Institute for Social Ecology (social-ecology.org) and a Senior Fellow of the Environmental Leadership Program (elpnet.org). He is also the founding director of the Puerto Rico Project on Biosafety (bioseguridad.blogspot.com). His bilingual web page (carmeloruiz.blogspot.com) is devoted to global environmental and development issues.