Transgenics lose ground, but refuse to give up

by Diego Cevallos

Mexico City, 20 Feb (IPS) -- The rate of growth of the number of hectares planted in transgenic crops worldwide has fallen off drastically in the past two years, following a three-year boom that began in 1996, leading environmentalists to begin to speak of a crisis in the sector.

However, advocates and producers of genetically modified crops are not giving up, and have announced a new offensive to boost sales of seeds.

Speaking at a meeting on trade and the environment running Monday through Wednesday in Mexico City, Hope Shand, the director of the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), a Canada-based non-governmental organisation (NGO), said that despite the slowdown in the industry’s growth, there is no room for complacency regarding GMOs, which continue to pose a threat.

The area covered by crops that have been genetically engineered with the genes of other species to boost productivity or make them resistant to pests grew 25-fold from 1996 to 2000: from 1.7 million hectares to around 43 million hectares.

The boom in transgenic crops put environmental groups on the alert, as well as governments, which decided to limit the introduction of genetically modified organisms due to the lack of conclusive evidence on whether or not they pose a risk to health or the environment.

As the debate on the question continued to rage, the annual rate of growth of transgenic crops fell from 44% in 1998 to 8% over the past two years, according to a study by RAFI.

The “International Conference on Trade, the Environment and Sustainable Development: Prospects for Latin America and the Caribbean” was organized by the Centro de Estudios para el Cambio en el Campo Mexicano (CECCAM), the Centro de Analisis Social, Informacion y Formacion Popular (CASIFOP), and RAFI under the auspices of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

The drop in production of transgenics indicates that the furor over genetically modified crops is entering into crisis, states the report by RAFI, which adds that according to industry analysts, sales of transgenic seeds are starting to level off.

In the meantime, Monsanto, the world’s leading producer of transgenic seeds, announced early this month that its plans this year include an aggressive campaign promoting genetically modified organisms in the United States, Asia and Latin America. Monsanto hopes to significantly boost its seed sales, particularly in Argentina and Brazil, said a company executive, Hendrik Verfaillie.

Biotech companies argue that while there are no conclusive studies showing that transgenics pose a risk, their research and development will save millions of people from hunger by making crops easier and faster to produce.

The International Food Policy Research Institute warned that global food production was facing severe risks today due to soil degradation, drought and pollution.

Transnational corporations like Monsanto argue that genetically modified organisms are the solution, because fast-growing or vitamin-fortified crops can be developed, as well as crops that can be grown in severe conditions.

In 1999, 34.8 million hectares were planted with Monsanto’s genetically engineered seeds, accounting for 87% of the total land surface under transgenics that year, says the RAFI study.

Monsanto dominates 80% of the global market for transgenic seeds, while firms like Aventis, Syngenta, BASF and Dupont account for percentages ranging from 3 to 7%.

Last year, nearly all of the transgenic crops, which are basically corn, soybean, cotton and rapeseed, were planted in the United States, Canada and Argentina.

Attempts to market such products globally fell flat, because a number of countries, especially European nations, blocked imports, while others announced that they would soon follow suit.

In addition, consumer movements in many parts of the world rejected genetically modified foods, while in other areas they are sold without labels identifying them as transgenic products, or are smuggled across borders, according to the international environmental lobby Greenpeace.

Experts say that transgenics could be a vehicle for unknown diseases, and pose a threat to native plant species and biodiversity.

Environmentalists and others also argue that it is not fair that a handful of transnational giants have the power over biotechnology, and decide how to market their seeds and at what price.

The arrival of the biotechnology that gave rise to transgenic crops has led to economic changes that are transforming the chains of production in favour of concentration in the hands of a few large companies, Walter Pengue, with the University of Buenos Aires’ centre for advanced studies, told participants at the conference.

The biotech revolution is taking shape based on an invisible alliance between international trade and transnational corporations that back the deregulation of transgenic products, said Lucia Gallardo, with Accion Ecologica de Ecuador, who referred to her experience coordinating the Ecuador-based Network for a Latin America Free of Transgenics.

The RAFI report urges environmentalists and consumers to remain on guard against transnationals that are keen on selling more and more transgenic seeds.

On Feb. 14, the European Union approved new legislative restrictions on the production and sale of transgenic foods, while it is studying the possibility of declaring a three-year moratorium on licenses to produce genetically modified organisms.

In just a few years, the production of transgenics took on global dimensions, and in May 2000, the Biosafety Protocol was signed in the Colombian resort city of Cartagena, promoting the regulation of the global trade in biotech products.