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Latin American UN environment office urges caution on genetically engineered crops

(Friday, March 5, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- Diego Cevallos, IPS News, 03/03/04: MEXICO CITY - The United Nations Environment Programme warned Wednesday in Mexico that transgenic crops could pose a threat to biodiversity and human health, and recommended that the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean act with caution in using genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

This stance clashes with the position taken by its sister organisation, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), in 2001.

The UNEP opinion on the controversial issue is laid out in its Global Environment Outlook report (GEO 2003) for Latin America and the Caribbean, presented in the Mexican capital Wednesday to enthusiastic applause from environmentalists.

"It is quite surprising that the UNEP has taken this stance, one that we agree with," Silvia Ribeiro, of the non-governmental Canada-based Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC Group), told IPS.

María Colín, legal adviser for the environmental watchdog Greenpeace-Mexico, said, "We should celebrate" this declaration by an agency of the United Nations system because it represents "an important new approach."

According to the GEO 2003 report prepared for the UNEP regional office, the application of this kind of biotechnology -- introducing the genes from one species of plant or animal into another -- could endanger natural genetic diversity.

Of the document's 281 pages, just two take up the issue of "transgenic contamination". The rest of the text outlines the results of a broad investigation of the general state of the environment in Latin America and the Caribbean, conducted under UNEP auspices.

Nevertheless, environmentalists placed great importance on the mere mention because it is an area in which transnational biotech and seed companies invest and earn billions of dollars a year -- and against which the activists are waging an intense battle.

GEO 2003 warns of the possibility that modified genes might be spread accidentally amongst species outside the laboratory, and could pose a real danger to the biodiversity that is fundamental to humanity's food security.

The report states that the debate on GMOs involves polarised positions and major commercial interests, and that the precautionary principle should be applied as the norm until scientific consensus exists on the matter.

ETC Group and Greenpeace activists agreed that UNEP has taken a stance that favours their groups' campaign against transgenics, and even wields arguments similar to theirs.

The area planted with genetically modified seeds worldwide reached 67.7 million hectares in 2003, nine million more than in 2002, according to figures from the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications, a non-governmental organisation that promotes the use of GMOs.

The commercial varieties of transgenic crops -- soya, maize, cotton and canola -- are controlled by just five transnational corporations based in the industrialised North, which own the patents for those seeds.

More than 90 percent of the area planted with transgenics is located in Argentina, Canada and the United States, but these crops are expanding rapidly in other countries.

In South America, for example, genetically modified soya has expanded from Argentina to Paraguay and Uruguay, and is widely planted in southern Brazil.

The UNDP's Human Development Report for 2001 stated that GMOs could be the key to fighting hunger in the world and that this branch of biotechnology should not be ignored, a position that won the ire of environmental activists.

According to the UNDP, the environmental impact of GMOs has not been proven. What is certain is that there are 850 million hungry people in the world who could be fed with these kinds of crops, said the U.N. agency.

The ETC Group's Ribeiro believes the new position taken by the U.N. Environment Programme "vindicates the U.N. system."

This is a bold declaration, "because it contradicts Washington and the biotech companies, which argue that transgenics are the solution to ending world hunger," she said.

Transgenics are organisms that have been modified in laboratory through the introduction of genes from another species -- plant or animal -- or the use of deactivated viruses or bacteria as vector agents.

Their application in agriculture is intended to increase crop yields or to improve other characteristics, such as resistance to extreme climates, pests or herbicides.

But anti-transgenic activists argue that GMOs pose a threat to human health and the environment and create total dependence of farmers on the transnationals that provide the transgenic seeds.

Monsanto, Dupont, Syngenta, Aventis and Dow, leaders in transgenics and also in pharmaceuticals and agrochemicals, argue that the GMOs pose no such threats and that their main interest is to fight world hunger.

According to the policies of the transnationals, farmers who use the genetically modified seeds are legally prohibited from saving seeds from those harvests to replant in the next season.

Traditional agricultural practice is to select the best seeds from a harvest to be used in the next planting season -- the oldest method of crop improvement.

Transgenic seeds have been used without authorisation and have contaminated wild species with their altered genetic material, as occurred with maize in Mexico, the birthplace of this grain crop.

UNEP cites the Mexican example in its report as a reason for concern about the introduction of modified genes into domestic plant varieties.

"I hope the governments of Latin America and the Caribbean take into account the UNEP position on transgenics and adopt policies that are less permissive with respect to the companies that promote them," said Greenpeace spokeswoman Colín.

Source: http://www.ipsnews.net/interna.asp?idnews=22681