by KR.Avilés-Vázquez y Carmelo Ruiz Marrero
We condemn the hasty signing of Bill 202 by the Governor Fortuño on August 10, 2009. The "Promotion and development of agricultural biotechnology in Puerto Rico” Bill, fast tracks services and permits for genetically engineered crops’ (genetically modified, GM) research & development companies in the island.
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With the apparent intent of preempting the objections of those who warn about the risks of GM products, Bill 202’s preamble suggests that this brand of "genetically improved" crops are simply a continuation of ancient agricultural and food preparation techniques, like the Egyptian fermentation process. This is a lie, GM crops are not an improvement on the genetic code or existing traditional farming. GM organisms are living beings whose genetic codes have been modified and carry gene combinations that would have never occurred in nature. Such manipulations have no precedent in human history or even in the history of life itself. These products require thourough safety testing, nevertheless, such controls are not being implemented.
Focusing on economic incentives, this legislation proposes eliminating the few regulations that exist to protect citizens' health. Law 202 facilitates permits tailor-made for the GM industry on the basis of inaccurate information; information that is provided by the very companies who shall benefit from these projects.
This is not a new practice. These companies have already established themselves in other countries with the same lies, supported by local governments. Presented with the promise of economic development, governments have agreed to “agricultural biotechnology”, and its development without the proper research or basic rules for assuring the safety of the population, local agriculture and the ecosystem.
This law’s definition of biotechnology is incredibly vague, hindering any future legislation to regulate GM crops specifically. However, the benefits of the law for biotech companies are specific: accelerating permits for access to water and land, along with agricultural subsidies and exemptions to help these multimillion-dollar companies.
The law is based on the idea that new agricultural technology and biotech companies would do better with the least possible regulation. Despite this premise, there is no law that limits GM crop development, while there is solid evidence of the risks involved. In May 2009 the American Academy for Environmental Medicine (AAEM) stated that GM food represents a serious risk to health and called for a moratorium on these foods. With the results of several studies on laboratory animals, AAEM concluded that "there is more than a casual association between GM foods and adverse health effects" and that "GM foods pose a serious health risk in the areas of toxicology, allergy and immune function, reproductive health, and metabolic, physiologic and genetic health." Existing evidence suggests there is a need for more, not less, legislation and more, not less, time to discuss and deliberate on these products.
Besides the risks to human health, there is no way to protect traditional local non-GM varieties from being contaminated by their GM counterparts. Genetic alterations include, but are not limited to, pesticide secretion by the plant itself (known as Bt crops), and herbicide resistance (known as Roundup Ready); there are also future plans for seed auto-termination after a single harvest- the so-called “Terminator” technology. Through the natural processes of pollinization and reproduction, the genetically modified seed leaves the designated cultivation areas and crosses with other varieties located downwind. This genetic contamination can occur in several ways; such as inventory errors, seed dispersal or cross-pollinization; pollen and seeds can travel long distances through the action of birds, insects and wind.
The case of Mexico highlights the futility of thinking that natural reproduction of organisms can be controlled or contained in a given area, even at a distance. On his studies of Mexican corn Molecular biologist, Ignacio Chapela found GM corn contamination in the most remote regions in the southern state of Oaxaca, Mexico. This is not a unique case. Worldwide, 216 cases of contamination have been found in 57 countries over the past ten years, including 39 in 2007. Therefore, GM agriculture cannot coexist with any other type of agricultural production -contamination is inevitable. Furthermore, biotech companies patent genes in order to protect what they claim are their intellectual property rights. In the United States and Canada, farmers that have suffered from GM contamination have been persecuted by biotech companies, accusing them piracy and patent infringement. In many of these cases the farmers have lost everything because of fines and legal fees. We are totally opposed to the patenting of life, as it is immoral and a threat to food security, and because it is the product of an antisocial worldview. No one has the right to privatize genes and organisms through patents – whether they be GM or not. The sole purpose of these patents is to force every farmer and gardener in the world to pay royalties for the seeds they plant.
Quite predictably, the law’s authors justify it with alleged job creation and business opportunities in the agricultural sector, together with an increase in food production. But these arguments presuppose that these biotech companies generate more jobs than traditional non-GM agriculture, which has proven to be false. Evidence suggests that small-scale diversified agriculture generates more and better jobs, providing greater economic stability to each farm. In addition, hunger and starvation are not related to food scarcity or low production. People are dying of hunger in areas of high agricultural production due to a lack of access to food and an inadequate distribution of available food stocks. The 2008 global food crisis was due neither to a lack of products and technology, nor low production. The crisis was caused by hoarding and speculation, along with free trade agreements that limit barriers that protect local agricultural production, combined with dumping of agricultural commodities.
GM crops and biotech companies do not address the structural economic and political causes that lead to starvation or lack of jobs. Even if it really were a production problem, there is no evidence that GM crops yield more. Governor Fortuño argues in his public statements that these products reduce costs by requiring fewer chemicals. But, just look at the example of countries that, like Puerto Rico, have adopted a public policy of promotion of biotech companies and their products; and study the results. The argument that these products will lead to reduced use of pesticides does not hold. To the contrary, the increased use of agrochemicals associated with GM crops and their decreasing effectiveness is well documented. GM crops are designed to work only if you use the correct chemicals and seeds.
Farmers who plant them end up in a downward debt spiral, entering into a physical and economic dependence with these companies, without ever seeing the benefit in increased production, or decreased costs that our governor so uncritically and blindingly forecasts. The situation has degenerated so much that in the rural areas of many developed and developing countries that banked on the promises of modern biotechnology, unemployment, poverty and suicides have increased greatly. An extreme case example is that of India, where farmer suicides have skyrocketed in recent years due to the failure of GM cotton crops.
In his recent declarations promoting Bill 202 the governor has demonstrated that he lacks necessary information. His arguments betray that his advisers have only listened to the biotech companies and have not assessed the devastating impacts this type of agriculture has had across the globe. These companies are not concerned with the health, and much less, the nutrition of human beings- their main concern is profit, without any consideration to the havoc wreaked in the places they have done business in. The governor needs to have better counsel. We are available to educate in order to make sure we avoid a tragedy in Puerto Rico such as those that have occurred and are occurring in countries where GM crops are being planted.
Puerto Rico Coalition for Ecological Agriculture spokespersons:
Carmelo Ruiz Marrero, Puerto Rico Project on Biosafety (787) 203.2615 firstname.lastname@example.org
Katia R. Avilés-Vázquez, Puerto Rico Chapter of the Latin American Agroecological Scientific Society (SOCLA-PR) (787) 378.9038 email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org