debate over gene-spliced food comes to a head
Carrie Burggraf --- Council on Hemispheric Affairs
use of transgenic or genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is an
increasingly prevalent practice throughout the world that has pitted
complex policy issues against one another. On one side of the debate
is the ability of GMOs to feed the world's increasingly large and
diverse population and to allow developing countries to economically
advance via transgenic crops. The other side of the dispute focuses
on the unknown health and environmental risks posed by GMOs, along
with potential monopolistic practices in which large multinational
corporations (MNCs) involve themselves.
Peru, the debate over the introduction of GMOs into the country has
been very public, involving a plethora of participants such as
scientists, chefs, farmers, restaurant owners, politicians, and
far-ranging members of civil society. Several Peruvian cities,
including Cusco, Lambayeque, Huánuco, Ayacucho, and San Martín,
were the first to declare themselves "GMO-free zones."i
Lima, the nation's capital, soon joined these cities as the newest
GMO-free zone in late April.ii Lima's move came just days
after President Alan García and former Peruvian Minister of
Agriculture Rafael Quevedo had signed Supreme Decree 003-2011-AG on
decree, which was actually drawn up two years ago, set up an agency
to regulate the research, production, and trade of GMOs.iv
Rafael Quevedo, who has since resigned from office due to intense
criticism surrounding his stance on GMOs, claimed that the order was
merely "a regulation which tries to eliminate errors, control
the use of genetically modified organisms, and make sure they don't
come into the country if they are found to be a risk."v
However, many citizens felt that the decree paved the way for a flood
of transgenic products into the country, which could hurt its rich
biodiversity and its growing market for high quality organic
products. The immediate backlash against the signing of the decree
indicated that there, indeed, existed widespread support for a
GMO-free Peru. Such indications were soon confirmed, as Peru's
Congress recently repealed the decree on June 8 by a 56 to 0 vote,
with two abstentions.vi The bill has placed a "10-year
moratorium on the entrance of genetically modified organisms (GMOs)
for cultivation and breeding or any other type of transgenic
products."vii However, the transgenic battle in Peru
is far from decidedly won, as the moratorium simply puts the heated
spar on a temporary hold.
what do GMOs got to do with it?
result from a process of genetic engineering (GE) that transfers
"specific traits, or genes, from one organism into a different
plant or animal."viii The result is a genetically
altered product, which has enhanced traits not inherent to the plant
or animal. "The majority of genetically modified crops grown
today are engineered to be resistant to pesticides and/or herbicides
so that they can withstand being sprayed with weed killer while the
rest of the plants in the field die."ix The added
genes can also increase a food's nutritional value or its resistance
to natural disasters and pests, traits that are especially appealing
to developing nations that often face food shortages or increasingly
Malthusian fallacy makes its comeback
Malthus, the legendary nineteenth century political economist,
predicted that population growth would occur at such a rate that food
supply would be unable to keep pace.x Therefore,
overpopulation and the lagging food supply would result in widespread
famine and poverty. Many economists have criticized this theory,
claiming that Malthus left out important factors like innovation and
system efficiency. However, the fear of not being able to feed the
world's population remains a major concern today, thus adding to the
interest in advanced technology like GMOs.
2009, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO)
reported that the world's population was expected to increase by 2.3
billion by 2050, with most of the growth taking place in developing
countries.xi The FAO claimed that in order to feed this
population, world food production would need to increase by 70
percent, with around 90 percent of the increase ideally coming "from
higher yields and increased cropping intensity."xii
GMOs have been lauded for their ability to increase yields and to use
less land, while also decreasing the risk of crop destruction by
pests and natural disasters. The resulting improvement in food
security, as well as the provision of a more complete diet, makes
GMOs a popular solution to be explored. If production and exports
increase in tandem, developing countries could also see a promising
increase in their standards of living.
apple a day…
apple a day keeps the doctor away" is an old adage that
highlights the importance of eating healthily in order to ward off
physical ailments. Of course, we all know that eating an apple does
not magically make us healthy, but could it actually bring on
disease? GMOs have been integrated into a variety of foods, including
corn, potatoes, fruits, rice, and soybeans.xiii
Often, genes are added from other species to increase yield or to
make certain foods healthier. However, the long-term health risks
involved with GMO consumption remain unknown, as their use and
consumption have only recently become widespread.
of transgenic foods claim that there are very few health risks
involved with GMOs, a position that has been strengthened by several
medical trials. However, the International Journal of Biological
Sciences notes that a recent study has linked some varieties of GM
corn to kidney and liver damage in laboratory rats.xiv
Such mixed results make it difficult to identify the long-term health
risks involved with the consumption of transgenic foods, while
scientists also remain split over their short-to-medium run risks.
This presented an important health dilemma in Peru: should GMOs have
been introduced to increase food security and to provide a more
well-rounded diet to its citizens, or was the Peruvian Congress wise
to support further research on the long-term effects of GMOs before
their introduction was entertained?
a butterfly flaps its wings…
debate surrounding the introduction of GMOs in Peru also begged the
age-old philosophical question, "If a butterfly flaps its
wings…" The theory, known as the "Butterfly Effect,"
takes this seemingly insignificant event and compounds it multiple
times over. Disasters such as tsunamis or the massive eruption of a
volcano have been attributed to this delicate little butterfly that
dared to flap its wings in China several decades before. Following
this theory, the introduction of GMOs into Peru's environment could
be like the flap of the butterfly's wings, setting off a chain
reaction of events that may prove disastrous in the future.
possesses one of the world's richest environments, housing segments
of both the Andes Mountains and the Amazon Rainforest, in addition to
an extraordinarily extensive range of biodiversity and natural
resources.xv Many members of Peru's civil society were
concerned that introducing a new species into such a fecund natural
environment could have damaging and irreversible consequences,
raising questions such as: how will transgenic crops react with
Peru's naturally occurring flora and fauna? how might the existing
ecosystem be affected? how will the food chain be protected from
disturbance in certain areas? And, of particular concern, what effect
will GMOs have on Peru's illustrious potato cultivation? If GM
potatoes or other transgenic crops react poorly with Peruvian potato
species, competition amongst the crops might ensue, resulting in the
disappearance of naturally occurring species.xvi
second main concern was that damage to the environment is almost
always irreversible. Just as with ozone depletion and the melting ice
caps, environmental changes are hard to combat and sometimes
impossible to completely eradicate. Recent studies have shown that
farmers, not surprisingly, end up using more pesticide when planting
pesticide-resistant GM crops, as weeds become resistant along with
their crops.xvii Such increased pesticide use creates
extensive environmental damage and health risks due to expanded
consumption and exposure. Also, many GMOs have been tested in nothing
more than a laboratory setting or in another country's natural
environment, so it is possible that transgenic seeds could react
differently in Peru than they have in other areas. Therefore, much of
Peruvian civil society sought the moratorium on GMOs, advocating a
more complete diagnosis of possible risks prior to introducing
by any other name (might be Monsanto)
aside the potential economic and health benefits that GMOs pose, it
is important to consider the role of producers of GM seeds and
products, such as the multinational corporation (MNC) Monsanto, which
specializes in agricultural biotechnology. It is no secret that MNCs,
such as Coca-Cola and Chiquita, do not always uphold the lofty
ethical standards that some would expect. If demand and production of
transgenic food continue on an upward slope, farmers could become
dependent on GM seed to sustain their competitive edge in a market
flooded with these controversial products.
more and more farmers will have to buy GM seed from the major
manufacturers that hold the intellectual property rights to
transgenic patents for certain genome combinations. For example,
until 2014, Monsanto has the rights to its Roundup Ready seed, which
is resistant to the pesticide Roundup and makes it easier to spray
crops en masse.xviii However, Monsanto is coming out with
a new seed, called Roundup Ready 2 Yield, which contains a slightly
different structural arrangement that will increase yields but still
provide resistance to pesticides.xix Some believe that
this timing is not coincidental, and critics claim that Monsanto is
trying to pressure farmers into switching to the newer version before
its patent on the original seed runs out.xx This would
extend Monsanto's monopolistic advantage over other seed companies
and allow the firm to essentially set prices in this field.
a situation seems eerily similar to privatization of the water
industry in Bolivia in the late 1990s. After privatization became a
condition for aid, many countries pushed to bring down barriers to
water services and to allow foreign MNCs to break into the industry.
The result has been "steep and sudden price hikes," along
with, in some instances, no access to the water supply, adversely
affecting the poorest inhabitants in the country. These economic
concerns led to both the Cochabamba and El Alto revolts, which
eventually ousted industry giants like Bechtel and Suez from their
sites of operation.xxi
a parallel be drawn, and perhaps even expected, between Bechtel and
Monsanto? Transgenic seeds, like water, may become necessary for
farmers to stay competitive in both domestic and foreign markets.
When a product becomes a necessity and only large companies hold the
intellectual rights to it, potentially perilous situations can
result. Monsanto already has made re-planting its seeds during the
next planting season illegal, and farmers have witnessed price hikes
in recent years.xxii Just ask Kansas farmer Luke Ulrich,
whose Monsanto seed costs have increased by almost 50 percent from
2008 to 2009.xxiii Allowing these MNCs to exercise major
control over seed production and price setting, and thus their
production and exports, could become a slippery slope in any country.
you don't know won't necessarily fail to kill you
major issue regarding GM food is that it is hard to know which foods
are transgenic, which contain traces, and which are GM-free. The
labeling system, which has been enacted in Peru via its Consumer
Code, is a novel idea.xxiv After all, consumers have the
right to know what they are buying and consuming. However, the
process of labeling can be complicated and often involves obfuscation
due to difficulties with tracing items to their origins and figuring
out just what percentage of a product is transgenic.xxv In
fact, an effective labeling system can incur large administrative
costs, especially if the system is not uniform across borders.
the question could be raised as to whether it is even possible to
properly label GM foods. After all, the system seems much like the
Kimberley Process for diamonds, which was put in place because of
serious concerns over the trade in "blood diamonds." The
process tracks the origin and transit of diamonds in order to ensure
that they were neither mined using slave labor nor obtained as a
result of resource conflict.xxvi Yet the process is not
flawless, and many blood diamonds still end up being sold as
"conflict-free." This also occurs with GMOs. Just recently,
"the Peruvian Association of Consumers and Users (ASPEC) tested
13 products purchased in major supermarkets and shops in Lima. Ten of
the 13 showed the presence of GMOs."xxvii
birds and the bees … and the pollen and the wind
mislabeling of GMOs is not the only means by which transgenic
products could cross Peruvian borders without consent. Even with the
newly enacted moratorium on GMOs, there is still no guarantee that
such products will not enter the country. After all, Peru shares a
border with Brazil, one of the world's top GMO growing
countries.xxviii Cross-pollination has been noted in
numerous countries, and GM seeds already have shown up in nations
that had previously banned their import. The first report of
cross-fertilization in South America occurred this past March,
involving GM and non-GM maize in Uruguay.xxix Therefore,
even though Peru has banned transgenic products, GMOs could still
potentially cross borders by such carriers as the wind and bees.
farmers would have to devise an intricate system of planting in order
to keep their GM and organic crops separate, as products of both are
increasingly popular in the current market. Cross-pollination can
also occur accidentally between fields, or genetically engineered
traits can transfer into organic crops that were planted in a field
that contained GM crops the season before. This may also increase
implementation costs and further confuse whatever labeling system is
(not so) long arm of the international law
environmental law is a relatively new field and does not contain much
concrete law regarding binding constraints or a robust system of
penalties. The main treaty regarding GMOs and the environment is the
Cartagena Protocol, which was enacted in 2003 and signed by Peru the
following year.xxx The protocol "enables a Party to
ban the import of a LMO (living modified organism) if the importing
Party determines that insufficient scientific information and
knowledge are available about the GMO, about the receiving
environment, or about the potential interaction between them."xxxi
The protocol allows the importing country to make up its own mind
about LMOs based on the available evidence and decide whether to
allow or deny their entry.
the Cartagena Protocol emphasizes the precautionary principle, or
Principle 15 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development
(1992), which states that "where there are threats of serious or
irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be
used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent
environmental degradation."xxxii The principle calls
for risk analysis and proper mechanisms in order to reduce the
uncertainty of the potential impact of GMOs on the environment. The
Codex Alimentarius Commission provides such a framework for
developing food standards and undertaking risk analysis on the safety
of biotech foods.xxxiii
be transgenic or not to be transgenic?
thriving ecosystem and its hugely important organic sector have
provided viable arguments against the introduction of GMOs into the
country. In addition, the research regarding health and environmental
risks posed by transgenic foods remain both immature and limited,
particularly regarding the long-term effects of GMOs. In light of so
many unknown factors, it is only sensible that Peruvians have
demanded further testing before these products are introduced into
their daily environment. It also remains an individual's right to
choose what to put into their body, a right that could be severely
undermined due to the mislabeling of products.
one must also imagine a world in which every technological
advancement must wait in prolonged limbo before being implemented,
while, in the meantime, other countries are taking advantage of such
an innovation. Should a country forgo every technological advancement
that is not 100 percent safe based on possible risks? Will Peru fall
behind during the moratorium, stepping aside to allow others to take
advantage of the increased production, food security, and trade that
GMOs offer? Or is Peru ahead of the curve, realizing that opening its
country to further control by foreign MNCs is a slippery slope, and
that environmental and health risks are often irreversible? Will Peru
be lauded as the prophet or exposed as the fool? The next ten years
will surely forecast the role that GMOs will play in the future of
Peru. In the meantime, the issue will remain in limbo, lying dormant
until the next grand, transgenic debate.
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