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A debate over biotech food in Latin America

(Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2002 -- CropChoice news) --

WASHINGTON, DC, December 16, 2002, Environmental News Service -- A forum on Latin America and biotechnology did little to paint a clear picture of the future for genetically modified crops in the nations south of the United States. 'But it did clearly illustrate that the real debate over agricultural biotechnology rests between the European Union and the United States.

Today's "Latin America Biotechnology Forum," hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, detailed how Mexico, Brazil and Argentina are all at very different points on the path to acceptance of genetically modified (GM) foods. The agricultural industries in all three countries all seem keen to deploy biotechnology in their fields, but their governments and public citizens are not so sure.

And none of these countries can escape the shadow of the U.S./EU debate, which is threatening to boil over into a major trade dispute.

The United States produces some two-thirds of the world's genetically modified crops and is embroiled in a bitter dispute with the European Union over its four year moratorium on the approval of new GM crops. The U.S. agricultural industry claims it has lost hundreds of millions, including $200 million in corn sales, because of the moratorium. In late November, the European Union proposed stricter labeling and traceability of all food and animal feed containing more than 0.9 percent genetically modified ingredients. EU officials say they are simply responding to the European public's demand for tight controls.

These new regulations could affect more than $4 billion in U.S. agricultural trade. It is not surprising U.S. officials are warning of possible action through the World Trade Organization (WTO).

"The EU moratorium on approvals is a blatant violation of the WTO treaty," said David Hegwood, counsel to the Secretary of Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture. "If we can get the moratorium lifted without taking a case, then it saves us a whole lot of time and trouble. But that's our ultimate objective, to get the moratorium lifted."

Hegwood, the luncheon speaker at today's forum, focused not on Latin America, but on the need to pressure Europe to change its ways. The ripple effect of EU policies, he said, is having a devastating impact on African nations who have refused U.S. food aid for fear of genetically modified crops.

"The fear of Europe is keeping food out of the mouths of hungry people in Africa," Hegwood said, adding that African governments are needlessly concerned that the food aid will end up in crops or beef tagged for export to Europe. These exports then could be rejected by the EU because of its moratorium, he explained.

Still, many countries as well as UN Secretary General Kofi Annan have supported the right of African nations to ban genetically modified foods. South Africa and Japan, among others, have said they can help fill the void if U.S. GM corn is not accepted as food aid.

But the villain is clear in Hegwood's eyes, and the implications are grave, he said.

"European consumers aren't sure about biotechnology so hungry people in Africa don't eat," Hegwood said. "If European attitudes are influential enough to take food away from hungry people in Africa, imagine what impact it is having in the rest of the world."

"If it happens to the United States, it will happen to every country that utilizes biotechnology," Hegwood said.

According to representatives from Latin America at today's forum, these attitudes are indeed having an impact on their countries. The governments of Argentina, Brazil and Mexico are all concerned about the export market for genetically modified goods and this economic concern has been added to a list of worries over the environmental and social impacts of agricultural biotechnology.

The patents for GM crops are held by only a handful of multinational corporations and this weighs heavy on the minds of many Mexicans, according to Jose Luis Solleiro, member of La Comisión Intersecretarial de Bioseguridad y Organismos Genéticamente Modificados (CIBIOGEM)'s Biosafety Council and technical director of AgroBIO Mexico.

"There is concern over increasing economic control by the multinationals," Solleiro said. "The idea that biotechnology only benefits big multinational corporations has very deep roots in Mexico."

Mexico allows genetically modified foods to be imported as long as they are labeled, but the planting of GM crops has not been allowed. The fear that genetic modifications could end up affecting the native corn is a paramount concern for Mexicans. Corn has it origins in Mexico and is the staple food for much of the population.

Fears over this biosafety aspect of genetically modified crops has prompted the introduction of six separate Congressional resolutions addressing the issue, said Alvaro Rodriguez Tirado, managing director of Estrategia Total, an agricultural consulting firm.

"Mexican society has increased pressure on Congress to do something," Tirado said, adding that a recent survey indicated 40 percent of Mexicans in support of GM crops, 40 percent opposed and 20 percent undecided.

Brazil has had an import and production ban on genetically modified crops since 1998, much to the distaste of the Brazilian representatives at today's forum. Biotechnology could help the country lower its high costs of production, according to Paulo D'Arrigo Vellinho, executive director of the Brazilian Poultry Industry Union and vice president for the South Region of Brazil.

"All we have in Brazil is a political issue," agreed Luis Antonio Barreto de Castro, head of the Genetic Resources and Biotechnology/Brazilian Agricultural Research Corp. from the Ministry of Agriculture and Supply, known as Cenargem/Embrapa.

"Agriculture is the only sector that is profitable in Brazil," Barreto de Castro said, adding that he hoped economic pressures could help prompt the incoming government to reconsider the policy against GM crops.

There was evidence later today, however, that some change may be afoot. Brazil's new agricultural minister told Globo TV today that Brazil might need to import corn next year from genetically modified crop producers to feed its livestock.

Many Brazilian farmers already grow GM crops in Brazil. Barreto de Castro said government officials estimate some four million hectares of GM soybeans are been grown throughout the country. This accounts for some 25 percent of the Brazil's soybean production.

GM soybeans is a crop Argentina has embraced with gusto, as some 90 percent of its soybean crop is genetically modified, according to Marcelo Regunaga, Argentina's former agricultural secretary. Argentina is the world's number one soybean exporter and has found the GM version of the crop a major boon to its agricultural industry.

"We don't subsidize agricultural production so we need to be competitive through means that can lower our costs of production," Regunaga said. "And these products have a positive impact on the environment."

Less pesticides and higher yields, Regunaga said, have many in Argentina convinced that genetically modified crops are the future. But its experience with GM corn shows that all is not rosy with agricultural biotechnology.

GM corn from biotechnology giant Monsanto was introduced in 1998 but has not been approved in Argentina. Argentina exports some 9.5 million tons of corn a year. Although only some of its corn is exported to European markets, the fear that GM corn would be rejected has led the government to avoid the genetically modified variety.

Argentina's dilemma is not one farmers in the United States are facing as they embrace genetically modified crops with increasing enthusiasm. Some 34 percent of U.S. corn is genetically modified, as is some 71 percent of U.S. cotton and 75 percent of U.S. soybeans.

"Biotechnology foods do not create an environmental concern, nor are they a threat to consumers or producers," said Tom Sell, majority deputy staff director for the House Committee on Agriculture. "There is wide consumer acceptance in the United States."

"Scientists say these foods are safe - that is the established consensus," added Karil Kokenderfer, director of international trade environmental affairs and coordinator of biotechnology for the Grocery Manufacturers of America. Kokendefer expressed the unanimous view of all the forum's panelists that labeling, especially the regime planned by the European Union, is unnecessary.

"Labeling is not knowledge nor a surrogate for food safety," she said. "It is not an appropriate import control nor is it a reflection of consumer values."

The European approach, added Terry Medley, vice president of global regulatory affairs for DuPont Agriculture and Nutrition, will not enhance public confidence as it is intended.

"It will cause more trouble and distrust," he said.

More than 35 countries, however, have followed Europe's lead and developed some form of labeling requirement for genetically modified foods.