Opposition to GE Crops Mounts in Latin America

Environment: Diverse views within Mercosur on GM-seeds

Montevideo, Sep 7 (IPS/Daniel Gatti and Gustavo Gonzalez) --
Member countries of the Southern Common Market (Mercosur), as
well as its associate members, are far from reconciling their
positions on the cultivation of genetically modified food crops.

Mercosur, which is made up of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and
Uruguay, is home to policies that limit or even ban the
production of genetically modified (GM) crops, as well as others
that encourage their use.

Genetic modification is a process in which some of the genes of
one organism are inserted into another, using a virus or bacteria
as a carrier. The changes for certain traits, such as higher
yields, are selected for reproduction.

The genetic manipulation may involve the combination of animal
genes with plant genes in order to alter the seeds, generally of
corn and soy, to permit changes in the foods derived from these

According to critics, genetically modified products can produce
allergies, resistance to antibiotics, viral infections and even
cancer in some people.

The environmental organisation, GRAIN, states that South American
governments "redirected their economies toward the export of GM
products as a key to growth," and have become "the latest
opportunity for agro-industrial transnationals that are
encountering obstacles to their expansion in North America and

"The massive flow of dollars has made (South American)
governments insensitive to the obvious environmental and social

costs, and, in the long term, the risks for safe food supplies"
caused by GM organisms, argues GRAIN.

Within Mercosur, the most contradictory situation is in Brazil,
where the federal government authorised the marketing of several
types of genetically modified seeds, while the judiciary passed a
resolution covering the entire nation that prohibits the release
of GM soy into the environment.

The legal measure was decided after legal claims were made by
Brazil's Consumer Institute and by the Brazilian branch of the
international environmental organisation Greenpeace. The decision
particularly affects the interests of the transnational
corporation Monsanto.

The state of Rio Grande do Sul, which is an economic leader in
its agricultural production and where soy is one of the principal
crops, leads the opposition in Brazil against GMs. In March the
state banned the use of GM products within its territory.

The state legislature is currently considering a bill that would
declare Rio Grande do Sul a permanent "GM free zone."

In August, more than 2,000 people participated in a meeting of
several citizen organisations in Porto Alegre, the state's
capital. The meeting culminated with the adoption of the "Rio
Grande do Sul Charter" and a street demonstration against
genetically altered organisms.

The Charter was approved by groups such as the Landless Rural
Workers Movement, trade unions, professional associations, and
groups of ecologists, Catholics, farmers, as well as research
centres and women's movements.

Citing "hundreds of scientific and experimental documents," the
text maintains that the GMs "are a threat and a risk to human
health and to food safety, as well as being transgressors against
nature's harmonic processes."

The Charter also states that the production and businesses
arising from research linked to GMs in agriculture "are in the
hands of a small group of transnational companies."

These companies merge and "take control over fundamental areas in
the survival of humanity and of the species in general, the
processing and distribution of food, petrochemicals and other
chemicals," states the document.

The Charter's signatories demand that the federal, state and
municipal governments immediately suspend any action that
legalises the production and marketing of GM foods, whether

nationally produced or imported, as well as freeing up resources
to clarify this new technology's risks.

They also demand a public investigation and, in accordance with
ethical principles, a study of the process's social, economic and
environmental sustainability, "oriented toward the solution for
the majority, and not to increase the concentration and

In Paraguay, a Bio-Safety Commission of experts, citizen
organisations and parliamentarians designated by the government
recommended that the executive office declare the nation "free of
genetically modified organisms."

Soy is Paraguay's primary agricultural product and the
commission's pronouncement would be a serious obstacle for the
transnationals' plans for GM products, indicated the citizen

Argentina and Uruguay, for their part, have not yet taken real
steps towards openly debating the issue.

Since Argentina opened the doors for the cultivation of modified
soybeans in 1996, the nation has become the world's second
largest producer of GM soy, with four million hectares in

The Bio-Safety Commission created by Carlos Menem's government to
study the issue has been harshly criticised by environmental
groups due to the heavy participation of representatives from the
industrial sector and the absence of ecologists, consumer
advocates and agricultural representatives.

In Uruguay, several experimental sites have been authorised,
primarily for GM corn and soy varieties.

A governmental Risk Evaluation Commission includes the technical
advice of just four experts, and has not allowed the
participation of Uruguayan civil organisations.

In Chile, an associate member of Mercosur, environmental and
consumer organisations charge the government with allowing GM
cultivation to increase and permitting the sales of GM foods
without implementing appropriate safety measures.

The Sustainable Chile Foundation released a report last week
indicating that "the surface area planted with GM products grew
four-fold between 1997 and 1998, from 7,152 hectares to 28,541

The Chilean government claims that it has based its position on
the defence of free trade and that GM foods are not sold within

the country, but seeds cultivated in Chile are exported to North

The Sustainable Chile Foundation maintained there are still risks
because the GM seeds are not grown in quarantine, which implies
"an imminent risk of biological contamination of nearby crops and

The foundation and the Conscientious Consumer's League claim that
"genetically modified corn not used for seed is being used to
feed pigs and chickens," representing unknown risks to Chileans
who eat meat that is potentially contaminated with modified