Don't Miss Out

Subscribe to OCA's News & Alerts.

Biotechnology in Puerto Rico: Myths and Hazards

"Thanks to our warm and wonderfully stable tropical climate, they (the biotechnology corporations) can grow three breeding generations of conventional and/or biotechnology-derived plants. The climate in the winter months allows them to rapidly complete a growth cycle and give back the results in time to match planting schedules in other parts of the world. The island's convenient location and good infrastructure, well-trained and educated workforce, STABLE GOVERNMENT AND RELATIONSHIP WITH THE UNITED STATES, fertile soils, reasonable living costs and ease of shipment to other parts of the world are additional positive factors."

(Emphasis added)

- Luz Cruz-Flores, Research Manager, Monsanto Caribbean, Puerto Rico.

The government of Puerto Rico is wagering on biotechnology as a way out of the economic debacle that the Caribbean island is suffering. Local media frequently quote experts from academia, the business community and government agencies who proclaim that this high tech industry will not only save our economy but also provide countless other benefits, like the cure for cancer and an end to world hunger.

Once again, our government, in alliance with local and foreign business interests, rushes down a path of economic and technological development without pausing to ponder the possible social and ecological costs or long term impacts. The story repeats itself. We saw this happen in the late 20th century with the pharmaceutical boom, with its legacy of toxic waste and Superfund sites; petrochemicals, an equally toxic sector that is now an empty shell of what it used to be in the 1970's; and strip mining, which thankfully never even started.

Of particular concern to the PR Biosafety Project is the use of Puerto Rico as a commercial seed farm and laboratory for genetically engineered crops, also known as GMO for "genetically modified organism", or as biotech crops. What are the environmental and human health risks caused by their planting and consumption? In response to these concerns, Luz Cruz-Flores, research manager for Monsanto Caribbean and president of the Puerto Rico Seed Research Association, said this in a 16-page supplement published in September in the weekly Caribbean Business titled "Biotechnology: Transforming our quality of life":

"People concerned about the safety of biotech foods will appreciate that study after study has documented the safety of agricultural crops developed using biotechnology- for both the environment and the dinner table. The most telling fact is that there has not been a single documented case of an illness caused by a food developed with biotechnology since they first came on the market... Crops and food using biotechnology are among the most tested in history and are certified long before they are released onto the market."

Such declarations are truly surprising in light of the growing number of prominent scientists that warn that the technology of genetic engineering is based on erroneous and obsolete assumptions and that it therefore presents inherent and unacceptable risks for society and the ecosystem.

For starters, interested readers might want to read the work of the Independent Science Panel (http://www.indsp.org/). This group of some twenty scientists with expertise in agroecology, agronomy, botany, medical chemistry, ecology, microbial ecology, nutritional biochemistry, physiology, toxicology and virology , released a report on GE crops and foods that concluded that "By far the most insidious dangers of genetic engineering may be inherent in the process itself".

One can also read the critiques and warnings of EPA toxicologist Suzanne Wuerthele; Harvard Genetics professor Richard Lewontin; professors Brian Goodwin, Jacqueline McGlade, Peter Saunders, Richard Lacey, Norman Ellstrand, Peter Wills, Gordon McVie and various other colleagues, available in this URL: http://www.gmwatch.org/archive2.asp?arcid=6281

We do not pretend that the aforementioned experts have the last word. The biotech industry and its supporters boast their own lists of prominent scientists that wholeheartedly support GMOs. Our point is that the issue of GMO safety remains an open question among scientists.

If biotech foods are as safe and harmless as Cruz-Flores claims, then why the opposition to having them labeled? Monsanto and other GMO seed producers stubbornly oppose labeling, spending large sums of money, engaging in massive lobbying and public relations efforts and even going to the extreme of goading the US to take the matter to the World Trade Organization to this end. Why? Biotech industry spokespeople constantly talk about the need to educate the public in order to quell “unfounded fears”? about biotech foods and yet they insist on keeping consumers ignorant about these products. Why?

When the subject of labeling was brought up in a biotechnology symposium held by the PR Agricultural Extension Service in 2002, a representative of Dow Agrosciences jumped up from his seat and said “that can't be done because people will think there is something wrong with the product”?. Such is the faith the biotech companies have in the intelligence and criterion of consumers. Such is the faith that they have in the safety of their GMO products.

The bad example of the biotech papaya

An article on local biotech activity published in El Nuevo DÖa, Puerto Rico's leading daily newspaper, on September 25 2006, quotes Judith Rivera of Pioneer Hi-Bred (a Dupont subsidiary), who recommended bringing GMO papaya to Puerto Rico: "There is a GMO papaya that they're using in Hawaii, which is not being used in Puerto Rico and could be of high economic impact to farmers."

The biotech papaya definitely has had a high economic impact among commercial planters in Hawaii, but in no way can this impact be deemed positive.

The GMO papaya, introduced to Hawaii in 1998, was genetically altered to resist ringspot virus, which inflicts substantial damage to the harvest. It must be pointed out that Hawaiian papaya growers were never informed of this, let alone asked for their consent.

It was only a matter of time before this biotech product started spreading through pollen and seed dispersal and started to contaminate the fields of papaya growers who did not want GMO's in their farms. GMO Free Hawaii carried out thourough and extensive testing and confirmed that the biotech papaya had spread with no control and polluted countless commercial farms, both conventional and organic. As a result of this genetic contamination, nowadays it is practically impossible to find GMO-free papayas in the islands of Hawaii and Oahu.

According to the USDA's own data, in 1995 the Hawaiian papaya harvest exceeded $22 million but today is less than half of that. In 1997, previous to the introduction of biotech papaya, growers were receiving $1.23 per kilogram for their papayas. The following year that figure descended to 89 cents when the major importers, Canada and Japan, refused to buy GMO papaya. The reason for this rejection is simple and plain: consumers do not want biotech foods, and will reject them whenever given a choice. Anyone who doubts it must consider the following fact: Non-GMO commodities always command a higher market price than their non-genetically engineered counterparts.

Today the commercial growing of papaya is at its lowest point in decades, in fact right now production levels are lower than in the worst moment of the ringspot epidemic. Since 1998 Americans have doubled their papaya consumption but the land area in Hawaii planted with it has decreased 28% since the introduction of the biotech variety. (For more information: http://www.higean.org/).

Was the GM papaya really the only way to fight the ringspot virus? According to Hawaiian organic farmer Melanie Bondera:

"The University of Hawaii and the US Department of Agriculture could have agressively educated or required farmers to chop down and burn all virus infected-trees. The reduction of the virus would have kept the disease at its usual endemic levels Farmers could also have been advised not to grow in huge plantations, to intercrop, to use soil amendments to grow healthier trees, plant trap-crops for the aphid vector, and spray or spread silicates to block aphid penetration of leaves. The amount of time and money to do this would have been far less than the efforts to force the introduction of the GM papaya."

Rivera is right, GMO papaya has had a high economic impact in Hawaii. Why she wishes to extend such an impact to Puerto Rican papaya growers is a complete mystery to us.

Herbicide resistant crops

In her interview with El Nuevo DÖa, Rivera also praises herbicide resistant GMO crops. As a matter of fact, most of the acreage planted with biotech crops in the world is devoted to Roundup Ready (RR) soy and canola, made by the US-based Monsanto corporation. This type of crop is immune to Roundup, a herbicide made also by Monsanto. Roundup is probably the most profitable and most widely used agrochemical product in the world right now. With RR seed, Monsanto can sell the seed and the herbicide as a single package.

Are herbicide-tolerant crops a good idea? One of Monsanto's main rationales for its RR crops is that the Roundup herbicide is allegedly relatively benign for human health and the environment. But such assurances are contradicted by recent findings. An epidemiological study carried out in Ontario, Canada, found that exposure to glyphosate, Roundup's active ingredient, almost doubles the risk of miscarriages in advanced pregnancies. More recently in France, a team led by Caen University biochemist Gilles-Eric Seralini discovered that human placental cells are very sensitive to Roundup, and that even in very low doses glyphosate can disrupt the endocrine system.

According to the Independent Science Panel, "children born to users of glyphosate had elevated neurobehavioral defects. Glyphosate caused retarded development of the foetal skeleton in laboratory rats, (it) inhibits the synthesis of steroids, and is genotoxic in mammals, fish and frogs. Field dose exposure of earthworms caused at least 50% mortality and significant intestinal damage among surviving worms. Roundup caused cell division dysfunction that may be linked to human cancers." Furthermore, in 2005 the UK Royal Society unveiled the results of a four-year study of GE crops. The study, carried out in 266 farm plots all over the country, confirmed that herbicide resistant crops harm wildlife, including wild flowers, bees and butterflies.

And on top of all this, there is also the predictable appearance of Roundup-resistant superweeds, a phenomenon that has been documented for at least a full decade. A weed that could resist five times the recommended Roundup dosage was found in Australia in 1996, and in 2000 scientists discovered a herbicide-tolerant canola plant that cross-pollinated with a related weed. That same year, canola weeds resistant to three herbicides, were reported in western Canada. Since then, reports of glyphosate-tolerant weeds have only increased.

Naturally, the use of RR seed has multiplied the use of Roundup and this in turn accelerated weed resistance to its active ingredient. The experience with agriculture in the last few decades has made it abundantly clear that weeds and pests develop resistance to poisons they are exposed to with each passing generation. Eventually, more agrochemical poisons must be used to achieve the same effect. When the chemical finally becomes useless, the life sciences corporations "solve" the problem by introducing even more toxic substitutes. In the long run, agrochemical poisons only exacerbate the problems of agriculture and their only beneficiaries are the very corporations that produce and sell them.

Instead of promoting the use of herbicides and herbicide-tolerant crops, academia, the public sector and trade associations should promote sustainable alternatives. This would require a rethinking of the very concept of weed. Weeds do not exist in nature, they are defined by social convention. A weed is a useless plant with no economic value. But by what criteria is a plant declared useless and lacking in value? Many of these so-called useless plants are edible.

Let's take for example the "useless weed" Portulaca oleracea, a wild plant that grows both in India and Puerto Rico (where it is known as verdolaga). It is a vegetable rich in magnesium, vitamin C and E, vitamin A carotenoids, vitamin B complex, iron, potassium, phosphorus and Omega 3 fatty acids.

In fact, many so-called weeds are important sources of vitamin A and are abundant in the tropical countries where vitamin A deficiency is a problem. So instead of sinking hundreds of millions of dollars into products like vitamin A-rich "golden rice", farmers and agronomists would be better off fighting hunger by turning to these wild plants.

Many weeds also have powerful medicinal properties, as has been amply documented since the dawn of agriculture and medicine. Take the European herb Plantago major (of the Plantaginaceae family), which also grows in Puerto Rico where it is known as llantén. It is useful as first aid in cases of bee and ant stings, burns, and scorpion and snake bites, and has also been found to be helpful against breast cancer, high blood pressure, conjuctivitis, stomach ulcers and vaginal complications. The aforementioned verdolaga has been used to treat arthritis, burns, insect stings, constipation, plus it's antimicrobial and diuretic.

The stunning nutritional and healing properties of these and countless other wild herbs and weeds are a real problem for pharmaceutical and biotechnology corporations that spend billions of dollars (much of it from the public sector) to develop overpriced and often hazardous drugs.

Furthermore, many of these wild plants fulfill important agroecological functions, some repel pests, others provide habitat and food for beneficial animals- like pollinators-, fight erosion or even fix nitrogen.

But such a rethinking of our relationship with so-called weeds would require us to rethink the prevalent model of industrial agriculture, with its dependence on monocultures, artificial inputs and centralized institutions. Obviously this would not be convenient to agribusiness transnationals and would not be of any interests to the ideologues of the biotech revolution and Puerto Rico's "knowledge economy".

Pest resistant crops

Rivera, quite predictably, extolled the use of pest-resistant GMO crops. These crops, known as Bt, secrete an insecticidal bacterial toxin. Bt crops, which today are mostly corn and cotton, are based on three assumptions: 1) that the Bt toxin is inoffensive to humans, 2) that beneficial insects will not be harmed, and 3) that pests will not develop resistance. All three of these have been proven false.

Harmless to humans? Since 2004 Norwegian scientist Terje Traavik, of the Institute for Gene Ecology of Tromso University, has reported findings about Bt cornbased on studies carried out in the Phillipines. Traavik documented that populations near fields of Bt corn developed allergy symptoms, which ceased when subjects were removed to areas where no Bt was being planted.

With regards to the second assumption, the adverse effects of Bt crops on beneficial insects were known at least as far back as 1999, when research led by John Losey of Cornell University discovered that Bt corn pollen was toxic to monarch butterflies under laboratory conditions. Losey's vociferous critics ignore that subsequent research confirmed that Bt crops indeed are a hazard to "non-target" species.

"The potential of Bt toxins moving through insect food chains poses serious implications," warns University of California entomologist Altieri. "Recent evidence shows that the Bt toxin can affect beneficial insect predators that feed on insect pests present on Bt crops... the toxins produced by the Bt plants may be passed on to predators and parasitoids via pollen. No one has analyzed the consequences of such transfers on the myriad of natural enemies that depend on pollen for reproduction and longevity."

Research shows that Bt crops adversely affect ladybugs that eat Colorado potato beetles, a major potato pest, and lacewing larvae that fed on pests that were fed Bt corn had a strikingly high mortality rate. Furthermore, the Bt toxin persists in the soil for months, by binding to clay and soil particles. It has been found to persist for as long as 234 days.

As for assumption number three, Altieri had warned years ago that, "No serious entomologist questions whether resistance will develop or not. The question is, how fast?". In Makhathini Flats, South Africa, the majority of small-scale farmers that used Bt cotton have stopped planting it because they could not repay their debts. A five-year study by Biowatch South Africa showed most farmers that planted Bt cotton had not benefited. In India, Bt cotton failed huge numbers of farmers in Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, many of whom were driven to suicide as a result of heavy debts from purchasing Bt cotton seed, which was 3-4 times the price of conventional cotton.

Agrochemical pesticides and Bt crops are founded on erroneous and outdated assumptions about the functioning of agroecosystems. The new schools of ecological thinking that combine modern science with ancient traditional wisdom, which include agroecology and permaculture, hold that a pest is simply an organism whose natural predators have been decimated. Therefore, institutions like the Agriculture Department and university campuses, instead of promoting pesticides and GMO “solutions”?, should instead direct their efforts toward the restoration of predator species that are natural allies of agriculture.

For example, in Puerto Rico one of the worst agricultural pests is the rat, and it is a well known fact that local animal species like the múcaro (screeching owl/ Megascops nudipes), guaraguao (red-tailed hawk/ Buteo jamaicensis) and the Puerto Rican boa (Epicrates inornatus) are a natural form of rodent control. And there are also species of bats and birds that feed on pests and make the use of pesticides unnecessary. As is the case with weeds, rethinking our relationship with pests along ecological lines is not compatible with the prevalent agricultural model or with the profit interests of transnational corporations that sell poisonous agrochemicals and biotech seeds whose need and safety remain unproven.

Where do we go?

Some academics, agronomists and agribusinessmen, who remain set in the ways of conventional agriculture, will consider the statements against chemicals and GMOs and in favor of a new relationship between agricultura and ecology to be ridiculous. But what is really ridiculous is to continue, like sleepwalkers, down the path of conventional industrial agriculture, which is not only ecologically suicidal, but is also socially backward and adverse to the interests of consumers.

Biotech corporation spokespeople go on about their good intentions toward farmers. But the biggest problem of Puerto Rican farmers face (and for that matter, agriculture in many other places) is the pitiful sums of money that they get paid for their product. This problem, which is not technical in nature but economic and political, will not be solved by the Monsantos of the world, and in any case they have no interest in solving it. Unfortunately, academia, trade associations and government agencies seem more interested in looking after the interests of agribusiness corporations than after those of the farmers.

The move toward an agriculture that is ecologically sound and fair to the farmer and consumer cannot count on the government or major corporations, since they are committed to the pompously named "knowledge economy", which includes as an essential component the roughshod introduction of GMO products. The initiative belongs to farmers (especially small ones), conscious consumers, environmentalists, committed academicians and scientists and many other sectors which may not have money but have more than enough brawn and guts.

PUERTO RICO PROJECT ON BIOSAFETY

Darlington Building, apt. 703

1007 Luis Munoz Rivera Avenue

San Juan, Puerto Rico 00925

Tel. (787) 771-4473, 203-2615

E-mail: carmelo_ruiz@yahoo.com

Internet: http://www.bioseguridad.blogspot.com

Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero is an author, environmental journalist and director of the Puerto Rico Project on Biosafety. He is a fellow of the Oakland Institute (oaklandinstitute.org) and Senior Fellow of the Environmental Leadership Program (elpnet.org).

Sources:

Altieri, M. "Genetic Engineering in Agriculture: The Myths, Environmental Risks, and Alternatives" (Segunda edicion). Food First Books, 2004.

Benedetti, Maria. "Bendiciones Botanicas para Boriquen". Verde Luz, 1999.

Bondera, Melanie. "Hawaiian Papaya: Market Loss and Contamination".

Greenpeace. "The Failure of GE Papaya in Hawaii", mayo de 2006.
http://www.greenpeace.org/seasia/en/press/reports/copy-of-papaya-the-failure-o

Independent Science Panel. The Case for A GM-Free Sustainable World", 2003. http://www.indsp.org/ISPreportSummary.php

Ruiz Marrero, Carmelo. "Biotech Crops and Foods: The Risks and Alternatives". Oakland Institute, 2006. http://www.oaklandinstitute.org/?q=node/view/336

Smith, Jeffrey. "Seeds of Deception: Exposing Industry and Government Lies About the Safety of the Genetically Engineered Foods You're Eating." Yes! Books/Chelsea Green Publishing. http://www.seedsofdeception.com