Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs, also known as cross-genetic products) have aroused much interest in Chiapas and in Mexico due to their possible implications, especially in agriculture. We are reminded that something more than 6% of the GNP in Mexico is generated by agriculture, and the figure in Chiapas is close to 18%. In addition, Mexico--the birthplace of several important agricultural products (maize, tomato, cotton, chile, squash and beans), whose cultivation is today the primary source of income for millions of Mexicans --could see itself especially affected by the spread of GMO technology.
The purpose of this Bulletin is to synthesize for our readers some of the information available from various sources, touching on the high points of the debate concerning GMOs. In a subsequent "Chiapas al Dia," we will follow up the issue, looking in particular at the implications for Mexico and Chiapas. This first introductory part to the subject is organized as a guide, through a questions and answer format.
What are genetically modified products (GMOs)?
A Genetically Modified Organism (or cross-genetic) has, within its genetic material, a gene or genes from another plant, animal, bacteria or virus. That is, in the genetic information of, say, a plant, a gene from another organism is incorporated, which provides that plant with a new and desirable trait. This in itself is nothing new. We learned in high school about the experiments of the Austrian monk, Gregor Mendel, who studied the hybridization of certain plants, "crossing them" so they would present with certain traits that he wanted.
Mendel, however, worked with different varieties of the same species. The new technology allows genes to be taken from any living organism and introduced into another.
This means that any characteristic of a plant - for example, resistance of a wild plant to a particular illness - can be introduced in the laboratory into wheat, maize or into any other crop where they want to develop resistance to that illness.
Who has developed the research and technology concerning the GMOs?
The majority of the research centers that have developed this technology belong to large corporations, most of them in the United States and Europe. Some investigation has also been done in the public and/or university arenas, but the main body of technology has been developed by large businesses. In the United States, the open collaboration lent by the Department of Agriculture to business leaders in this technology is well-known. In addition, US business leaders in that field, along with the US government, reinterpreted intellectual property laws in the eighties, in order to allow exclusive control and monopoly rights for all biological products and processes.
This has obvious implications: a few large companies have obtained patents for technology and its uses. The development of technology in this area has been so rapid that current legislation has not been able to be amended or reformulated adequately in most countries, thus allowing the "monopolistic and exclusive control over genes, plants, animals and other living beings - including human genetic material." (RAFI)
The largest agro-chemical companies in the world are:
Company Income in 1997 (Billions of US dollars)
Grupo Aventis (France) 4.6
These ten agro-chemical companies and their USD26.2 billion in income represent 85% of the world agro-chemical trade, valued in total at USD30.9 billion.
What do the agro-chemical businesses have to say about this?
The companies defend the development of this technology by invoking conservation of the environment and the need to increase food production for a growing world population. Philip Agnell, Director of Communications for Monsanto, expressed it in this way:
"Today, we meet the world's food needs with a limited resource base (6 million square miles of land in production) that is not likely to expand significantly unless we destroy more rain forests and wetlands. Simply to feed an increased population, that base will need to produce 60 - 100% more food in the next 30 years or so - and to do so without causing irreversible environmental damage. Today, the productivity of that land is being inexorably degraded through massive erosion (25 billion tons of topsoil lost each year), promiscuous irrigation (causing salinity and mineralization of soil) and through unsustainable use of chemicals [*] biotechnology is the single most promising approach to feeding a growing world population while reducing damage to the environment [*] Farming that combines conservation tillage and seeds improved through biotechnology have been proved in a number of studies to reduce soil erosion by 90%, increase soil tilth and fertility and increase crop yields to farmers."
Where has the most research been done on GMOs, and which country has planted the most GMOs?
The United States is the leading country in the research, promotion and use of GMOs, as can be seen from the previous list of the 10 largest companies in this field, since it includes four US companies. President Clinton and Vice-President Gore have steadfastly defended GMO technology. The majority of the GMOs have been planted in the United States. There have been significant plantings in only eight countries (among them, Mexico), although Mexico is far from leading in this regard, with only 100,000 hectares of these kind of crops, according to official figures.
An interesting fact concerning Monsanto helps one understand to what degree this technology is concentrated in just a few hands: of the 27.8 million hectares planted with cross-genetic plants throughout the world, 88% of the seeds came from just one provider, Monsanto itself.
Are there advantages and disadvantages to the distribution, use and consumption of GMOs?
There are, obviously, factors both for and against. Genetic manipulation can make a crop more resistant to a particular pest, illness or insect, avoiding the need to constantly use herbicides during its development. From the point of view of the producer, as well as of the consumer, a crop free of pesticides and insecticides can have an enormous advantage: for the lowering of costs, for the improved conservation of the environment and also because harvests can be more abundant.
There are essentially four kinds of GMOs. In addition to the previous example, of varieties resistant to pesticides, there are:
At this point, the disadvantages appear to be many:
Who are the big winners and losers?
In general, the large agro-chemical transnationals have reported enormous profits by encouraging the use of GMOs. The most probable losers, in the mid and long term, will be the small and mid size campesinos, who will not have the resources to acquire the improved varieties, and will, therefore, lose their ability to compete with agro-business. They could even lose control over the sale and distribution of the GMOs they do decide to plant, although the problem of the hoarding of campesinos' products is not a problem exclusively of the transgenetics.
As an example, a US company is experimenting with a variety of coffee that will grow already decaffeinated on the bush. By not having to decaffeinate the bean through a relatively costly process - that uses chemicals that are damaging to the environment - a significant increase in sales can be predicted, through the reduction in costs, as well as through the appeal of not using chemicals in the extraction. If the large company is controlling the sale and distribution of the seed, as well as the storage, processing and sale of the bean, it will be difficult for the small campesino coffee worker to be among the beneficiaries.
The current tendency is for a widening of the gulf between the companies and the campesinos, responsible over the millennia for the selection and improvement of thousands of agricultural products that we now consume. The agro-chemical companies are now putting direct pressure on governments, or through multilateral bodies such as the WTO, to grant them broad or exclusive rights on aspects of the innovations, especially those having to do with biodiversity. Who will compensate the campesino communities for their centuries old work in the improvement and protection of biodiversity? The rural poor will be excluded, in practice, from any compensation and benefits of the development of the bioengineering being carried out by the great agro-chemical companies.
The Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI, with headquarters in Canada) says: "By extending intellectual property systems to the world level, the monopoly of control over biological processes and products puts world food security at risk, undermines conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity and threatens to marginalize the world's poor even more."
What have various countries done to regulate GMOs?
In February of this year, 175 countries met in Cartagena, Colombia, for the purpose of producing international agreements on the use, management, distribution, planting and processing of GMOs. The meeting, held under the aegis of the UN Biodiversity Convention, failed due to the boycott of a group of eight countries, primarily grain producers, led by the United States, who rejected any environmental control on their exporting of transgenetic products (The other countries were Canada, Australia, Japan, Argentina, Switzerland, New Zealand and Russia).
Faced with a lack of international accords, different domestic measures have been taken in some countries, primarily in the northern hemisphere. The majority of countries in the European Union have laws regulating GMOs. In addition, on June 24, fifteen Environment Ministers of the European Union declared a moratorium, suspending the approval of new GMO varieties until stricter laws come into effect in 2002.
Luxembourg, Norway, France and Great Britain, among others, suspended the importing and cultivation of transgenetic maize in 1997, and others, such as Greece and India, provisionally prohibited experiments in genetic modification of grains. Commercialization of transgenetics is already prohibited in England.
In southern hemisphere countries, the regulation of biological safety is still in its infancy, and, because of that, there are more transgenetic companies every day who are carrying out their experiments and the distribution of GMOs in southern hemisphere countries, without their knowledge and/or approval.
Nonetheless, the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul officially declared itself "transgenetic free" this year. Rio Grande do Sul just happens to be one of Monsanto's experimental sites in Brazil. The government of that state prohibited all genetic testing, declared the 79 experimental camps that are already in existence to be illegal, and prohibited the cultivation and commercialization of GMOs. Agreements were also set up between that state and 10 supermarket chains in Europe, guaranteeing the availability of non-transgenetic products (ref: Ana de Ita).
What is most lacking in order to fully understand the effects that GMOs will have on the environment and on us?
More and more information. Especially in southern hemisphere countries. Precisely understanding the possible effects of GMOs is a huge task, because studies must be made in almost every country, given that the results vary according to the ecosystems present in each one. Greenpeace says: "It is improbable that scientific certainty or consensus will be achieved during this phase of the process, concerning the development of GMOs, and it is therefore necessary to take precautions in this area."
In January 1999, various campesino, indigenous, environmental and non-governmental organizations enacted the "Latin American Declaration on Transgenetic Organisms" in Quito, Ecuador. In it was demanded "a moratorium on the release, and commerce in, transgenetic products and products derived from them, until complete proof of their safety and absence of risks exist, and until our societies have had the opportunity to know about and to debate in an informed manner concerning these technologies, their risks and impact, as well as to exercise their right to decide on their use."
What is "terminator" technology?
The technology called "terminator" renders the seeds of agriculturally improved products sterile. The US company, Monsanto, upon its acquisition of Delta & Pine Land Company, obtained the patent held by the latter, granted by the United States government, for "terminator" technology. The patent allows the commercialization of "improved" seeds of a wide range of crops that are crucial for the world food supply (rice, wheat, sorghum, soy and others) to be under that company's control.
The technology has serious consequences for agriculture, because it will mean a great increase in the costs of seeds for campesinos, who will now have to acquire them annually.
Camila Montecinos, of the Center for Education and Technology in Chile, says in this regard: "The governments should make the use of this technology illegal. It is an immoral technology that robs the campesino communities of their thousand-year-old right to save their seeds for sowing, and of their role in plant improvement." The companies respond that this technology is limited to doing what hybridization techniques achieved in maize and with other crops. Hybrid seeds are either sterile, or they lose their qualitative characteristics in the second generation. Because of that, almost all campesino maize growers buy their seeds every year. Montecinos responds: "Poor campesinos have not been able to purchase improved hybrids either*there is a key difference. Hybridization, in theory, allows the crossing of varieties in order to obtain plants with better yields and more vigor, that cannot be achieved in any other way. This is the logic of technology. In the case of the [terminator] technology, there is no agricultural advantage for the campesino. The only purpose is to facilitate monopolistic control, and the only beneficiary will be agro-industry" (RAFI).
In response to the world protests this technology has provoked, Monsanto stated, in April of this year, that it would not market the "terminator" genetic protection until "a complete independent investigation has been carried out [into the technology], and all points of view are taken into consideration," including environmental, economic and social considerations. It was not clear, however, who would be carrying out the investigation. Nor has Monsanto withdrawn its patent applications for the "terminator" technology, still pending in 87 countries.
What is bio-piracy?
The RAFI defines bio-piracy as "legal complaints of ownership of biological resources, products and processes, that are based on the innovation, creativity and genius of the South (developing nations). Bio-piracy refers to the use of intellectual property systems in order to legitimize ownership and exclusive control over knowledge and biological resources, without recognition, compensation or protection for the contribution of the informal innovators." That is, the campesinos.
The RAFI has documented many cases of bio-piracy. One of the most controversial has to do with the patent awarded by the United States government concerning human cells extracted from a 26 year old indigenous Guaymi woman (Panama). The blood test was of interest because the Guaymi indigenous are carriers of a unique virus, whose antibodies could turn out to be useful in research into AIDS and leukemia. The patent would have granted exclusive rights for the sale, distribution and use of any products resulting from the research on the cells of the Guaymi woman. The US government withdrew the patent in 1993 because of pressures from the Guaymi General Congress, indigenous organizations, NGOs and the European Parliament.
What other aspects of this phenomena should be of interest to us?
"Bio-prospecting" is becoming a very lucrative activity for some businesses specializing in the exploitation of bacteria and enzymes. Unlike what happens with GMO technology, those that are carrying out bio-prospecting are usually relatively small companies that specialize in providing products of biological origin to large companies, in order to help them reduce costs and increase their profits.
These bio-prospector companies depend on their skills (or sagacity) in order to have access to biodiversity, to control it and to patent it. Their objective is to have exclusive rights to enter into an area of great diversity (almost always in southern hemisphere countries), to extract from there microbes, bacteria, living tissue, blood, etc., to carry out experiments on this material and then to patent any product that turns out to be useful. Agreements are generally signed with governments of those countries with great biodiversity, usually including direct monetary compensation, plus, sometimes, a portion of the royalties generated by the commercial exploitation of the resulting products. The companies try to see that the agreements grant them exclusive and unrestricted access.
Enzymes are an object of special attention by these companies, since 99% of them exist in microorganisms that cannot be created in the laboratory. "Extremofile" enzymes, which prosper in especially difficult circumstances (great cold, heat or atmospheric pressure), are especially sought after, because of their usefulness in industrial processes.
The problem is that the details of these agreements are rarely known about prior to their signing, nor is there any provision for the gathering of opinions from interested parties in "host" countries. For example, the Merck Company signed an agreement for bio-prospecting in 1991 with Costa Rica, in order to gain exclusive access to the rain forest in that country for two years, and to then patent any resulting product. Costa Rica NGOs pointed out that, in exchange for granting one sole company access to 5% of the world's biodiversity, Costa Rica received a million dollars, plus the promise of receiving 5% of the royalties generated by the sale of the new products. Incidentally national innovators and people residing in the forest area were pushed aside.
A similar accord was signed in Mexico in August of 1997 between the US company Diversa and the UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico), granting it access to various Mexican ecosystems, including protected areas, in order to extract bacterial biodiversity and to patent any enzyme that is isolated and developed from the extracted bacteria. The details have not been released publicly, but the case will be dealt with in a later "Chiapas al Dia" Bulletin.
For more information:
Overseas Development Institute: firstname.lastname@example.org
DEAR READER: Help us to write the next "Chiapas al Dia" Bulletin on this subject. If you know instances of the use of GMOs, especially in Mexico and Latin America, or of references on the subject, please email us with the information.
Center of Economic and Political Investigations of Community
Translated by irlandesa for CIEPAC, A.C.
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Last Updated on 9/9/99
By Karen Lutz