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PUERTO RICO: BIOTECHNOLOGY AND THE "KNOWLEDGE ECONOMY"

The unrestricted development of biotechnology- without any reservations, let alone precautionary measures- is the public policy of the government of Puerto Rico.

Governor Aníbal Acevedo-Vilá has been pretty explicit about it in his economic policy, which he pompously calls the "knowledge economy". Back in January the PR Senate approved a bill making the "knowledge economy" official government policy. The bill, which was presented by right-wing senator José Garriga-Picó and had the support of all political parties, stresses attracting investment in pharmaceuticals and biotechnology.

The legislation calls for a reduction in the required permits ("reducción de permisología") for "knowledge industries". Economic Development and Commerce Secretary Jorge Silva-Puras, has repeatedly made public statements to the effect that the government is creating a "favorable climate" for biotech companies and accelerating permits for their activities. Given Puerto Rico's recent history, this means that the public interest and environmental protection will be snubbed for the sake of making our country "competitive" in the global "gene revolution".

Another noteworthy item in the Senate-approved law is an increase in state and US government funds for research and development. Translation: public subsidy for private interests, more public money for scientific research that benefits pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies that currently have more than enough money and power.

The legislation sets specific tasks for state-run educational institutions and media. The University of Puerto Rico is to broaden related technical and administrative education, while the Education Department will identify resources for science and technology education. What this means is that our youth will be indoctrinated with the advertising and propaganda discourse of the Monsantos and Syngentas of the world. There won't be a serious and responsible discussion about the hazards of biotechnology in the classrooms, and there won't be any room for critical and alternative discourses either. The result will be batch after batch of alienated pharmaceutical technicians and biotech agronomists, unable to see beyond the worldview prepared for them by transnational corporations and utterly incapable of understanding the environmental and public health impacts of their work, let alone its ethical and geopolitical aspects.

The PR Corporation for Public Broadcasting is supposed to promote public appreciation for the "knowledge economy" in its broadcasting, meaning that Monsanto, the US Department of Agriculture and the like will have unlimited use of the public airwaves for their propaganda. There won't be any subtantial debate on biotechnology, the negative effects of green revolution technologies or the real causes of hunger, or a good serious look at alternatives like permaculture and agroecology, much less at radical proposals like food sovereignty.

The legislation-turned-law also calls for the formation of a 17-member Knowledge Economy Advisory Council that will include, not surprisingly, businesspeople and bankers. This Council, which is tasked with helping enforce the "knowledge economy" and advising the legislature and government agencies, will not have farmers, environmentalists or other troublesome outside meddlers and assorted party poopers. And if they are ever admitted, they will be tokens to be used as propaganda mascots to make the world believe that all interested sectors in Puerto Rico are duly represented and listened to in the brave new genetic revolution.

The Puerto Rico government's uncritical acceptance of all things biotech and its pursuit of a "knowledge economy" are virtually identical to Argentina's massive acceptance of genetically engineered soy and its goal of establishing a "national biotechnology". Argentina's Grupo de Reflexión Rural (http://www.grr.org.ar/) described the situation of their country in a recent communique, and some passages in it depict an outlook that is virtually identical to the one here in Puerto Rico:

"This political class needs a project, Taylor-made to fit the miserable measure of its ambitions as a parisitic caste, a project conceived to give their descendants a role in the world... It's a niche in the privatization and enclosure of science and technologies that, in close alliance with major corporations and their patent systems, may allow them recognition and to associate themselves with globalized power."

The Puerto Rico ruling class's pretentious ambition of making our country into a "world leader in biotechnology" is as pitiful as Argentina's pseudo-leftist political leadership's goal of setting up a "national biotechnology". In Argentina's case it is a phony form of anti-imperialism that presents no real alternative to corporate behemoths like Monsanto or to American president George Bush Jr.'s vision of a US-dominated hemispheric "free trade" order. For one thing, this technology is patented to the very last gene and most minute technical procedure, and most of the world's biotech patents are owned either by Monsanto or the US government.

The "pretentious scientific-business project of a so-called national biotechnology [is a] pseudoscientific pipe dream which does nothing other than to cover up the miserable offering of its own country as laboratory and its own population as guinea pigs for all type of genetic engineering events", denounces Argentina's GRR. "By legitimating this model, possibilities for recovering our food sovereignty are narrowed, paths to the full exercise of a participatory democracy in which the population decides its own destiny are closed, and possibilities for all types of debate about country projects we want for our descendants are eclipsed."

Any resemblance to Puerto Rico is... pure coincidence?

In Puerto Rico's case it is even more laughable because Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States.

The US has full sovereignty over our country, yet we cannnot vote in presidential elections and do not have representation in the Congress. How's that for "world leadership"? We are not leaders even in our own land.

Bringing agricultural biotechnology experiments to our country is no futuristic scenario or mere proposal.

Puerto Rico has been for some time the biotechnology industry's tropical paradise island. USDA documents show that as of January 2005 a total of 1,330 field releases had been granted to experimental GM crops in the island, which have resulted in 3,483 field test sites. Of these field releases, 944 were for corn, 262 for soy, 99 for cotton, 15 for rice, 8 for tomato, one for papaya and one for tobacco.

With the exception of Hawaii, no state of the USA has so many of these experiments per square mile. The only states that have had more field releases are Hawaii (5,413), Illinois (5,092) and Iowa (4,659). Consider the vast difference in size: Illinois and Iowa have over 50,000 square miles each, while Puerto Rico has less than 4,000. Puerto Rico has more field releases than California, which has had 1,964 of them, although it is 40 times bigger than Puerto Rico and its Central Valley is probably the world's most productive agricultural zone.

"These are outdoor, uncontrolled experiments", affirmed Bill Freese of the environmental group Friends of the Earth, commenting on the situation in Puerto Rico. "These experimental GE traits are almost certainly contaminating conventional crops just as the commercialized GE traits are. And the experimental GE crops aren't even subject to the cursory rubber-stamp 'approval' process that commercialized GE crops go through, so I think the high concentration of experimental GE crop trials in Puerto Rico is definitely cause for concern."

Why are the corporate gene giants so bent on bringing so much of their field testing here? Various responses to this question were offered at a symposium on biotechnology held in 2002 by the local Agricultural Extension Service. One of the presenters gave a most interesting explanation: "good political climate".

And industry is finding it harder every day to find "good political climates". All over the world there are small and medium-sized farmers, environmentalists, intellectuals, indigenous peoples, progressive activists, and everyday people from all walks of life, organizing, educating and mobilizing against GM crops and for a socially just and ecologically sound agriculture. They are in Bangladesh and France, as well as in Brazil, South Africa and in the United States, struggling for food sovereignty, agrarian reform, for the preservation of seed as patrimony of the world's peoples, for an alternative globalization based on solidarity, and to demonstrate that another future is indeed possible. There are more than enough alternatives. There is no need to turn to GM crops to feed the hungry or to get the Puerto Rican economy off the ground. We do not even need to spray pesticidal poisons on our crops in order to fight pests, or to cause any environmental harm to grow food. An inspiring agroecological revolution is sweeping the world, in poor and rich countries alike, which manifests itself in home and community gardens, seed exchanges, community-supported agriculture, farmers' markets, food co-ops, movements for food sovereignty and agrarian reform, and the success of organic agriculture. I will not elaborate on these, as I have already done so in previous writings.

Faced with this crossroads, our government will probably try to promote both things simultaneously: the hasty and uncontrolled development of GM crops together with organic farming. Such a posture would be inherently absurd, as countless and thouroughly documented instances of genetic contamination have already proven beyond doubt that GM crops cannot co-exist with their non-GM counterparts. Trying to accomodate the organic mode of production to the current agroindustrial model- inherently antiecological, socially backward, that exists only for corporate profit- will only turn organic farming into a pathetic parody of itself.

(Ruiz-Marrero is the author of "Transgenic Ballad: Biotechnology, Globalization and the Clash of Paradigms". He is also Director of the Puerto Rico Project on Biosafety.)

PUERTO RICO PROJECT ON BIOSAFETY
Darlington Building, apartament #703
San Juan, Puerto Rico 00925
e-mail: carmelo_ruiz@yahoo.com
blog: http://www.bioseguridad.blogspot.com/
list server: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/proyectodebioseguridad

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