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Puerto Rico: Biotech Island

by CARMELO RUIZ-MARRERO

In the global debate regarding genetically modified (GM) foods and organisms (GMO’s), the little-known role of the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico in testing and propagating GM crops has gone largely unnoticed and unexamined. The agricultural biotechnology activity in this tropical US colony is simply massive.

“Puerto Rico attracts agricultural biotechnology companies because of the tropical climate that permits up to four harvests yearly and the willingness of the government to fast-track permits”, according to professors Margarita Irizarry and José Rodríguez Orengo, of the University of Puerto Rico’s Medical Sciences Campus. “Furthermore, the opposition to GM foods is almost non-existent on the island and no particular environmental group is protesting the presence of Dow, Syngenta Seeds, Pioneer HiBred, Mycogen Seeds, Rice Tech, AgReliant Genetics, Bayer Croposcience, and Monsanto.”

Since 2004 we at the Puerto Rico Project on Biosafety have been trying to find out just what is going on in our land regarding GM crops. We have obtained very little information so far, but what little we have managed to get is quite worrying.

The most recent US Department of Agriculture Biotechnology Regulatory Services (BRS) data we have obtained show that as of January 2005 it had authorized 1,330 field releases for experimental GM crops in the island, which resulted in 3,483 field tests. Of the field releases, 944 were for corn, 262 for soy, 99 for cotton, 15 for rice, 8 for tomato, 1 for papaya and 1 for tobacco. According to the documentation, these releases were being authorized as early as 1987, almost a full decade before US authorities permitted GM foods for human consumption. Where in Puerto Rico exactly? What traits have been tested? The BRS says it’s all “confidential business information”.

With the sole exception of Hawai’i, no state in the USA has had so many GM crop experiments per square mile. The only ones that had more field tests than Puerto Rico’s 3,483 were Hawai’i (5,413), Illinois (5,092) and Iowa (4,659). Keep in mind that Puerto Rico has less than 4,000 square miles, whereas Illinois and Iowa each have over 50,000 square miles. Puerto Rico surpassed California by far, which had only 1,964 field tests, although California is 40 times larger.

These data, of course, must be updated. We have been walking around with these and showing them to everyone for four years now. But we do not see any reason to believe that the situation has significantly changed since 2005.

It must be pointed out that not all the GM crop activity in our territory is experimental. There is also commercial GM production, about which we know even less. Commercial GM crop production is exported to the US- and who knows where else- for use as seed.

Most of these crops are planted in the southern plains, between the municipalities of Juana Díaz and Guayama, and especially concentrated in the stretch of land between the towns of Santa Isabel and Salinas, south of expressway 52 and north of route 1. Various eyewitnesses have told us that security in these lands is extreme. You cannot even stop your car alongside these fields without having policemen show up and ask you what your business is. And no, you cannot film or even take photos. They claim to be concerned about theft of crops. While we acknowledge that theft- of both produce and machinery- is one of the most serious problems facing Puerto Rican agriculture today, we also note that no other farming operations in the island enjoy such dilligent police protection.

GM crops can also be found in the northwest town of Isabela, where Monsanto Caribbean has an experimental station right on the south side of highway #2. Plus, we would not be surprised at all to find more of these crops in the fertile and bountiful Lajas valley, in Puerto Rico’s southwest, possibly the very best farmland in the whole island.

Successive governments of both major political parties, the Popular Democratic Party (PDP) and the New Progressive Party (NPP), have put biotechnology at the center of their strategies for attracting investment. From the Cold War days of the manufacture boom, known as “Operation Bootstrap”, we have moved on to biotechnology, both agricultural and pharmaceutical, with pompous slogans like “The Knowledge Economy” and “Mentes a la Obra” (Operation Mindstrap?). The Puerto Rico Industrial Development Corporation markets Puerto Rico as the “Bio-Island” and agressively sells investors on the advantages and desirability of setting up biotech operations in the island.

The life sciences industry, which is how the biotech corporate giants like to call themselves, are very grateful for Puerto Rico’s fine investment climate. In 2006, then-governor Aníbal Acevedo-Vilá (PDP) was named “governor of the year” by the Biotechnology Industry Association in its annual convention in Chicago.

In January 2009 senator Berdiel Rivera (NPP) introduced bill #202, which aims to promote agricultural biotechnology. As if the biotech corporations needed any more support than they have already gotten from the PR government in the last 20+ years!

Mr. Rivera and his fellow senators who support Senate bill 202 should take notice of GM-related developments outside the island. Just in May, the American Academy of Environmental Medicine declared that GM foods pose a serious health risk. Referring to a number of studies, the Academy concluded that “there is more than a casual association between GM foods and adverse health effects” and that “GM foods pose a serious health risk in the areas of toxicology, allergy and immune function, reproductive health, and metabolic, physiologic and genetic health.”

And 2008 saw the release of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development report (IAASTD), a unique, unprecedented and definitive report on the state of world agriculture. It was authored by over 400 international experts, subjected to two independent peer reviews, and was the product of an inclusive and participatory process in which industry, governments and civil society participated as equal partners, with the support of UN agencies and the World Bank.

The report concluded, in a nutshell, that the model of industrial, corporate, globalized agriculture cannot continue, as it is unsustainable and is literally eating up the planet’s patrimony, and favors in its stead small-scale agroecological production that uses local resources and minimizes the use of fossil fuel-based inputs- precisely what environmentalists and organic farmers had been advocating for decades.

With regards to biotechnology and GM crops, the IAASTD report was cautious and unenthusiastic. Instead of the uncritical cheering one hears from governments and the mainstream media, the report counseled caution and called for further studies regarding GM foods’ safety.

And while all over the world the safety and necessity of GM crops and foods is increasingly questioned, over here in Puerto Rico our government is selling us this technology as if it were the last coke bottle in the desert.

Some well-intended folks have argued to us that Senate bill 202 will regulate GM crop activity in Puerto Rico and that this is preferrable to having these crops without any regulation or control. But this technology cannot be controled. Once planted outdoors, GM crops cannot be controlled or recalled. They proliferate and multiply, as living things will. No country that has allowed the entrance of GM crops has been able to control them. Therefore, bill #202 will only further legitimize and entrench this dangerous and unnecessary technology in Puerto Rico.

CARMELO RUIZ-MARRERO, journalist, author and unintentional comedian, directs the Puerto Rico Project on Biosafety. The Puerto Rico Biosafety Project’s bilingual blog can be accessed at: http://bioseguridad.blogspot.com/

SOURCES:

American Academy of Environmental Medicine. Position paper on genetically modified foods, May 2009. http://www.aaemonline.org/gmopost.html

Biotechnology Industry Organization. “BIO names Puerto Rico governor ‘Governor of the Year'”, April 10 2006.

IAASTD Report, 2008. http://www.agassessment.org/

M. Irizarry and J. Rodríguez-Orengo. “Biotechnology in Puerto Rico: Educational and Ethical Implications”, 2009.

TexPIRG Education Fund. “Raising Risk: Field Testing of Genetically Engineered Crops in the United States”, 2005.

Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero is a Puerto Rican journalist.

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