Rodrigo Artunduaga-Salas, Ph.D
The Latin American and Caribbean Region (LAC) is made up of 30 countries: Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Belize, Bolivia , Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Grenada, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Organization of the Eastern Caribbean States-OECS, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, St Kits and Nevis, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, Uruguay, and Venezuela..
This Region has an average per capita income of nearly US$ 4.000 a year, the highest of all the developing world and has large Natural resources and great diversity of Ecosystems, however presents continuing extremes of economic inequality between the rich and the poor, in the wealthiest country of the region the average income reaches almost US$ 9000 a year. In the poorest it sits at just under US$400. Latin American and the Caribbean Countries (LAC) are strategic for global food security, both because they include three of the 12 global centers of origin of crops of mayor socioeconomic importance and due to their enormous biodiversity . Although representing only 7% of the Earth's surface, LAC contain approximately 90% of the planet's biodiversity which is concentrated primarily in 18 countries, nine of which are in the American hemisphere .
LAC population is expected to increase from 490 to nearly 680 million by 2025. It is possible that more than 30% of the cereal consumption of LAC will be imported by 2020.
Since 1950 25% of the globally world's topsoil has been lost and continued erosion at the present rate will result in the further irreversible loss of at least 30% by the year 2050. A similar percent may be lost to land degradation. FAO has projected that over the next 20 years: arable land in developing countries could be expanded by 12% at acceptable economic and environmental costs (although such expansion would inflict damage to the remaining biodiversity). The increase in food demand that is expected to occur in these countries during the same period is 61%. In LAC, the only large tracts of land that have the potential for conversion to arable land are the Brazilian Cerrados and the Llanos of Colombia and Venezuela .
According to some theories, human beings appeared in America about 30,000 years ago. Agricultural practice began about 7000 to 10,000 years ago in different parts of the hemisphere, where three centers of plant domestication have been recognized: Mesoamerica, the Andes and the Amazon. More than 45 groups of cultivated species originated in the Andean region, 12 were domesticated in the Amazon and 100 were domesticated in Mesoamerica.
Human beings have used about 5000 of the 250,00 existing plant species. Today, no more than 500 are of economic importance, and only 15 are responsible for the production of about 80% of the calories produced by modern cultivars. In this regard, the Americas stands out for the many crops it has contributed to world agriculture.
Genetic resources have been utilized intensely in agriculture. Genetic diversity has always been the raw material for both the food and pharmaceutical industries. Biodiversity is an indispensable resource for farmers to select and grow cultivars adapted to ecological, cultural and economic needs.
The challenges and opportunities for LAC are large, given the high participation of the agricultural sector in the region's gross domestic product. In addition, LAC possesses a rich base of flora, fauna, and microorganisms essential to obtaining new products fort the pharmaceutical and food industries.
The agricultural scenarios of the region are not homogeneous. Those in the temperate zones of the north and south differ from the scenarios of the high mountain plains or those of the wet and dry tropical lowlands and medium-elevation hillsides, such as those in Central America, the Andean countries and some Caribbean nations.
In the case of agriculture in temperate ecosystems, the situation of technological engagement is better than in the tropical areas. This is the case with soybean and wheat, where the results of other areas have been used, including the recent import of transgenics such as "RR soybean". In tropical areas, with the exception of rice, there is no available technological counterpart for the Region. However; the technological gap with the world's leading countries is widening with respect to many crops.
Global, regional, and national development will undoubtedly be influenced by the rise of new biotechnologies in years to come. The commercialization of genetically modified products by biotechnology techniques not only has the potential to increase production and productivity but will also alter the characteristics of the agriculture production supply.
The significant impacts on production and productivity cause by commercially available transgenic crops are widely recognized, but strong controversies have arisen over possible adverse impacts on natural resources, the environment, the agricultural productivity, and human health.
The Andean region comprises five countries: Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela, with a total area of 4,104,816 Km2, and a total population of 103 million. As mentioned above three of the twelve centers of origin and domestication of species are located in LAC. Numerous plants that have provided food for humanity came from the Andean Region including : Potato (Solanum tuberosum), Sweet Potato (Ipomoea batatas), Maize (Zea mays), Tomato (Lycopersicon esculentum ), Beans (Phaseolus vulgaris), Cassava (Manihot esculenta), Peanut (Arachis hypogea), Pineapple (Ananas comosus), Cocoa (Theobroma cacao), Peppers (Capsicum annum, C. pubescens & C. frutescens), Papaya (Carica papaya), la Mora de Castilla (Rubus Glaucus)., Cotton (Gossypium hirsutum & G. barbadense) and Tobacco( Nicotiana tabacum).
The full nutritional and medicinal value of many others plants of LAC origin has not yet been determined. This include grains such as Quinua (Chenopodium quinoa); Kañiwa (Chenopodium pallidicaule) and Amaranthus (Amaranthus caudatus). Tubers such as Bitter Potato (Solanum juzepczukii); Oca or Ibia (Oxalis tuberosa); Ulluco (Ullucus tuberosus;); Mashwa or Cubio (Tropaeolum tuberosum). Roots such as Arracacha (Arracacia xanthorrhiza); Achira (Canna edulis); Jicama (Pachyrhisus tuberosus); Yacón (Polymnia sonchifolia); Mauca or Chago (Mirabilis expansa); Maca (Lepidium meyenii) and Ajipa (Pachyrhisus ahipa). Legumes such as Cacha (Phaseolus polyanthus); Tarwi (Lupinus mutabilis); Torta (Phaseolus lunatus) ; Pajuro (Eritrina edulis) and Pacay (Inga feuillei). Vegetables such as: Zapallo ( Cucúrbita máxima) and Achokcha (Cyclanthera pedata). Fruits such as: Pitaya (Acanthocereus sp); Pepino (Solanun variegatum); Uchuva (Physalis peruviana); Tomato tree (Solanum betacea); Granadilla(Passiflora ligularis); Curuba (Passiflora mollisima); curuba de Indio (Passiflora mixta); Tin-Tin (Passiflora pinnastistipula); Curuba Antioqueña (Passiflora antioquiensis); Badea (Passiflora quadrangularis); Cherimoya (Annona cherimolia); and Ciruela de Fraile (Bunchosia armeniaca).
The potential contribution of biotechnology to sustainable agriculture is truly great, but the introduction of new transgenic varieties in tropical ecosystems deserves careful oversight and monitoring.
In LAC, progress in biotechnology research has been particularly rapid in some of the most valuable crops of the region. Scientists hope that the development of transgenic plants will help to alleviate both the heavy use of pesticides and the susceptibility of traditional cultivars to a number of pest and a biotic stresses.
Another important fact that needs to be considered is that LAC and in particular the Andean region is the center of genetic diversity. For a large number of species that are mentioned above, however an issue directly referred to in the Convention of Biological Diversity is that the Andean region must respond to questions about the like hood of genes spreading from transgenic crops to wild relatives and an uncertainty about possible impacts on genetic crop diversity.
The adoption and expansion of biotechnology in LAC has increased in recent years. One indicator used to measure the progress in the biotechnology agricultural sector is the number of field tests of transgenic crops estimated to be near 870 in the region since 1997. Nevertheless, with very few exceptions, transgenic crops tested in agro ecosystems" of LAC have been developed in northern industrialized countries.
If we take into account that the cultivated area for the majority of conventional crops is greater in the developing countries than in the industrialized countries (14.5 times greater in rice, 3 times greater in cotton, 2 times greater in corn and almost the totality of cassava and sweet potato) we can assume that the demand for transgenic cultivars will increase in developing countries.
LAC must take advantage of these technologies if they want to move forward in agricultural development. However, the region must also make an objective, technical evaluation of possible risks for human health, the environment and the agricultural and cattle production that could result from the introduction of these technologies into tropical ecosystems.
As a reflection of world tendencies, we can observe in a region a process of acquisition and fusion of national seed companies by multinational companies. This is sharpened by the weakness of the LAC governmental institutions dedicated to scientific and technological development in agriculture sector, which makes the capacity of countries more vulnerable to generate value to indigenous crops. For this reason it is necessary to develop specific transgenic crop varieties for LAC. Since 1987, applications to realize experimental tests with transgenic crops in laboratory or greenhouse conditions have been approved in LAC.
Experiments in countries or regions that are centers of origin and diversity are important due to the presence of natural pests of the crops being field tested and to the region's great environmental diversity. The demand for research on small plots and in different ecosystems (especially tropical and moderate) shows the importance that research centers and multinational companies give to the experimental information obtained in these areas.
Cotton and some types of corn are of great economical importance in LAC. In certain regions of Mexico, transgenic varieties of cotton resistant to insects or herbicides are grown commercially. Since 1995, more than 100,000 hectares have been planted in Mexican cotton regions. This experience is of great importance to the other countries in the region for analyzing the level of monitoring needed, especially with respect to the behavior of insect populations and to the development of resistance by insect pests.
As for the incorporation of these technological advances in production systems, Argentina and Mexico are noted in their adoption rate of transgenic soybean resistant to glyphosate (Round Up). Relative to the total soybean production, transgenic soybean has exponentially increased from 6% (36,735 hectares) in 1996, to 25% (1,756,000 hectares) in 1997, to 60% (4,800,000 hectares) in 1998, and to 80% (5,760,000) in 1999. In 1999, Bt-Cotton and Bt-Maize in Argentina were grown in 15,000 and 192,000 hectares respectively.
It is necessary to conduct research which furthers our knowledge of ecosystems; expression and stability of incorporated genes, the botany and geographical distribution of those species for which LAC is the center of origin, and the technical basis for risk assessment and risk management for human health, the environment and agriculture production. This will allow field trials, production, and commercialization of transgenic crops to develop more smoothly. These strategies require infrastructures, trained personnel, and monitoring to identify early potential problems.
While some countries in LAC have Biosafety regulations, the majority do not. What is even more critical is that many do not have the sort of multiple- and inter-disciplinary personnel needed to carry out risk analyses and risk management within a methodological framework as stipulated by modern regulations. Hence their potential advantages can not be utilized to guarantee necessary Biosafety requirements to protect the environment, human health, the agricultural production, and the equitable distribution of the benefits for the welfare of its inhabitants.
LAC represents close to 6% of the total field trials now taking place in developing countries worldwide. Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Mexico have had the largest number of trials and these have been increasing steadily since 1987 when the first field trial took place in Chile (Table 2).
Fifty two countries have Biosafety legislation worldwide. In LAC two categories are found : those with legislation and those without. Countries that have legislation show re differences in scope. Some have a wide scope and with legal coverage for transgenic plants, animals and microorganisms as is the case in Argentina (Resolution 124/91), Brazil (Law 8974/95), Cuba, Mexico (Official Mexican Norm 056-FITO/95), Peru (Law 27104)and Bolivia . For others the scope only covers plants: Costa Rica, Colombia (Resolution 3492/98), Chile (Resolution 1027/93), Paraguay, and Uruguay. A subdivision of the first group alludes to the application such as "Winter Nurseries": transgenic seed production for export (Chile, Costa Rica, Uruguay).
For all countries analyzed, the legislation covers research and development for greenhouse and field trials, excluding Colombia and Uruguay whose legislation does not cover laboratory research. Regulations for commercialization are specific also with the exception of Colombia and Uruguay.
Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, and Peru established Biosafety legislation following the mandate of the Convention of Biological Diversity. Chile, Costa Rica and Uruguay adapted existing legislation for seeds and plant health inspection services.
In LAC, Biosafety Commissions or councils are advisory in character with the exception of Brazil's Technical Commission for Biosafety which can make recommendations to the Ministry of Agriculture which in turn has the final authority regarding crop commercialization. As the same time brazil's Ministry of Agriculture can not authorize any field trial without the final decision of the Technical Commission for Biosafety. Regarding the hierarchy of legislation, in the region, this goes from laws (Brazil, Costa Rica, Chile, and Cuba) to decrees (Argentina and Bolivia) to resolutions (Colombia and Uruguay).
Different agencies have been involved in forming Biosafety Committees in the region, including representatives of the: ministries of agriculture, health, environment, commerce and foreign relations and related bodies such as the scientific community, civil society, agriculture producers, nongovernmental organizations, consumers, environmentalists, and the private sector.
Countries without specific legislation and these include Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Venezuela, and the majority of the Caribbean countries
It is clear that LAC must continue to develop and perfect existing regulatory instruments on a par with related international agreements in order to prevent or minimize possible risks derived from the use and handling of transgenic products . For this to occur competent national institutions must also develop institutional capacities in order to manage and evaluate field trials. Only then will countries in the region be able to take full advantage of transgenic crops capable of enhancing agricultural production and improving food security.
Biosafety & Plant Genetic Resources
Unit's head Colombian Agricultural Institute ICA
Calle 37 # 8-43 Of. 507
COL AA 151123 BOGOTA Colombia
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Last Updated on 8/11/00
By Karen Lutz Benbrook