Andean meet sounds alert on Transgenics

by Kintto Lucas

Quito, Jun 11 -- The countries of the Andean Community trade bloc must agree on safety mechanisms against the risks posed by transgenic products, warned participants at the first Andean meet on biosafety, which wrapped up Friday in Ecuador.

The Andean Community, South America's second largest trade bloc, is comprised of Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela.

Experts in biosafety from a number of Latin American countries, representatives of the governments of Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Cuba and Venezuela, and of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), said that those making decisions on transgenic products lacked the necessary training to do so.

Authorities in Latin America "who decide on the introduction, use and handling of live organisms modified by biotechnology techniques are in need of greater training," said UNESCO delegate Arvelio Garcia Rivas.

Transgenic products are those of animal or plant origin whose genetic composition has been manipulated for various aims -- to expand shelf-life, boost nutritional value, performance and/or resistance to pests.

Biologist Elizabeth Bravo with the Ecuadorean environmental organisation 'Accion Ecologica', pointed out that genetically modified crops were new, and thus no one, not even the companies that created them, could predict their behaviour. "The possible alterations to human or environmental health are unpredictable," she stressed.

She also warned of the socioeconomic consequences of such products. "Farmers are forced to purchase genetically modified seeds from a single firm, on pain of losing the commercial competition race," she charged.

But "who guarantees that these new seeds are safe?" Bravo asked.

Most marketed transgenic products are food, seeds or agricultural inputs or medicine developed by a handful of transnational corporations led by the U.S. Monsanto or Switzerland's Novartis.

The companies' main products are pest and herbicide-resistant soya, tomatoes, potatoes, tobacco, cotton and corn.

Santiago Carrasco, with Ecuador's National Secretariat of Science and Technology, underlined the need for a "culture on biosafety" in the Andean region.

"The Andean countries must develop joint activities between the public and private academic sectors and the productive sector to strengthen biotechnology and biosafety applied to development," said Carrasco.

Jose Sanchez Parga, a member of the Ecuadorean Bioethics Committee, created at this week's gathering, said biotechnological developments made safeguards for human health and natural resources necessary.

"The development of knowledge on biotechnology must be harmonised, while safeguarding genetic diversity and wealth," he asserted. "Bioethics must be understood as a discipline aimed at humanising modern life and preventing the misuse of such knowledge."

Cuban biosafety expert Orfelina Rodriguez stated at the meeting that the principle of biosafety should not be sacrificed on the alter of free trade. "When a genetically manipulated live being escapes, the environment will never be the same again. The consequences are unpredictable," she warned.

Rodriguez said it was essential to control genetically modified seeds, and ensure that they have been approved and certified in their country of origin.

"Governments must inform the population on the risks of using transgenics, and must make labelling of such products mandatory, in order for consumers to know what they are consuming," she maintained.

The meeting coincided with a report by the magazine Consumers Tribune cautioning that transgenic products could be entering Ecuador without the knowledge of local inhabitants, as transgenic foodstuffs from the United States were not labelled as such.

Bravo also pointed to the possibility that soya imported from Argentina was genetically modified.

"Although Ecuador imports limited amounts of soya because it is basically self-sufficient, 80 percent of what comes from abroad is from Argentina. And no one can give assurances that the soya, as well as a large part of products purchased from that country, are not transgenic," Bravo told IPS.

According to 'Accion Ecologica', potatoes grown in the United States and imported by US fast-food franchises operating in Ecuador could be genetically modified, as well as the canola oil and ingredients used in chicken feed.

Ecuador's constitution, approved in November 1997, stipulates that national laws must regulate the entry of transgenic products. But in order to go into effect, that constitutional clause is pending parliamentary approval of a complementary law, or the enactment of an executive decree. "The problem is that Ecuador does not have the technical capacity to determine which are transgenic foods and which are not," said Bravo. "We could be sent cats instead of hares."

Information on biosafety must be disseminated in centres of learning, underscored participants at this week's gathering organised by UNESCO, the Science and Technology Foundation of Ecuador, the National Biotechnology Group and Ecuador's Central University.

A case in point came to light two weeks ago, when researchers at Cornell University in the US revealed that the pollen of Bt transgenic corn killed the larvae of the Monarch butterfly.

The study warned about the effects of the pollen on natural areas bordering fields of such corn in the United States, Canada, Argentina and Spain, where that variety of corn is produced and marketed. (IPS)

The above article by the Inter Press Service appeared in the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS).