The use of transgenic or genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is an increasingly prevalent practice throughout the world that has pitted complex policy issues against one another. On one side of the debate is the ability of GMOs to feed the world’s increasingly large and diverse population and to allow developing countries to economically advance via transgenic crops. The other side of the dispute focuses on the unknown health and environmental risks posed by GMOs, along with potential monopolistic practices in which large multinational corporations (MNCs) involve themselves.
In Peru, the debate over the introduction of GMOs into the country has been very public, involving a plethora of participants such as scientists, chefs, farmers, restaurant owners, politicians, and far-ranging members of civil society. Several Peruvian cities, including Cusco, Lambayeque, Hu?nuco, Ayacucho, and San Mart?n, were the first to declare themselves “GMO-free zones.”[i] Lima, the nation’s capital, soon joined these cities as the newest GMO-free zone in late April.[ii] Lima’s move came just days after President Alan Garc?a and former Peruvian Minister of Agriculture Rafael Quevedo had signed Supreme Decree 003-2011-AG on April 15.[iii]
The decree, which was actually drawn up two years ago, set up an agency to regulate the research, production, and trade of GMOs.[iv] Rafael Quevedo, who has since resigned from office due to intense criticism surrounding his stance on GMOs, claimed that the order was merely “a regulation which tries to eliminate errors, control the use of genetically modified organisms, and make sure they don’t come into the country if they are found to be a risk.”[v]
However, many citizens felt that the decree paved the way for a flood of transgenic products into the country, which could hurt its rich biodiversity and its growing market for high quality organic products. The immediate backlash against the signing of the decree indicated that there, indeed, existed widespread support for a GMO-free Peru. Such indications were soon confirmed, as Peru’s Congress recently repealed the decree on June 8 by a 56 to 0 vote, with two abstentions.[vi] The bill has placed a “10-year moratorium on the entrance of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) for cultivation and breeding or any other type of transgenic products.”[vii] However, the transgenic battle in Peru is far from decidedly won, as the moratorium simply puts the heated spar on a temporary hold.
So What do GMOs Got to do With it?
GMOs result from a process of genetic engineering (GE) that transfers “specific traits, or genes, from one organism into a different plant or animal.”[viii] The result is a genetically altered product, which has enhanced traits not inherent to the plant or animal. “The majority of genetically modified crops grown today are engineered to be resistant to pesticides and/or herbicides so that they can withstand being sprayed with weed killer while the rest of the plants in the field die.”[ix] The added genes can also increase a food’s nutritional value or its resistance to natural disasters and pests, traits that are especially appealing to developing nations that often face food shortages or increasingly unpredictable weather.
The Malthusian Fallacy Makes its Comeback
Thomas Malthus, the legendary nineteenth century political economist, predicted that population growth would occur at such a rate that food supply would be unable to keep pace.[x] Therefore, overpopulation and the lagging food supply would result in widespread famine and poverty. Many economists have criticized this theory, claiming that Malthus left out important factors like innovation and system efficiency. However, the fear of not being able to feed the world’s population remains a major concern today, thus adding to the interest in advanced technology like GMOs.
In 2009, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) reported that the world’s population was expected to increase by 2.3 billion by 2050, with most of the growth taking place in developing countries.[xi] The FAO claimed that in order to feed this population, world food production would need to increase by 70 percent, with around 90 percent of the increase ideally coming “from higher yields and increased cropping intensity.”[xii] GMOs have been lauded for their ability to increase yields and to use less land, while also decreasing the risk of crop destruction by pests and natural disasters. The resulting improvement in food security, as well as the provision of a more complete diet, makes GMOs a popular solution to be explored. If production and exports increase in tandem, developing countries could also see a promising increase in their standards of living.
An Apple a Day ?
“An apple a day keeps the doctor away” is an old adage that highlights the importance of eating healthily in order to ward off physical ailments. Of course, we all know that eating an apple does not magically make us healthy, but could it actually bring on disease? GMOs have been integrated into a variety of foods, including corn, potatoes, fruits, rice, and soybeans.[xiii] Often, genes are added from other species to increase yield or to make certain foods healthier. However, the long-term health risks involved with GMO consumption remain unknown, as their use and consumption have only recently become widespread.
Proponents of transgenic foods claim that there are very few health risks involved with GMOs, a position that has been strengthened by several medical trials. However, the International Journal of Biological Sciences notes that a recent study has linked some varieties of GM corn to kidney and liver damage in laboratory rats.[xiv] Such mixed results make it difficult to identify the long-term health risks involved with the consumption of transgenic foods, while scientists also remain split over their short-to-medium run risks. This presented an important health dilemma in Peru: should GMOs have been introduced to increase food security and to provide a more well-rounded diet to its citizens, or was the Peruvian Congress wise to support further research on the long-term effects of GMOs before their introduction was entertained?
If a Butterfly Flaps its Wings ?
The debate surrounding the introduction of GMOs in Peru also begged the age-old philosophical question, “If a butterfly flaps its wings?” The theory, known as the “Butterfly Effect,” takes this seemingly insignificant event and compounds it multiple times over. Disasters such as tsunamis or the massive eruption of a volcano have been attributed to this delicate little butterfly that dared to flap its wings in China several decades before. Following this theory, the introduction of GMOs into Peru’s environment could be like the flap of the butterfly’s wings, setting off a chain reaction of events that may prove disastrous in the future.
Peru possesses one of the world’s richest environments, housing segments of both the Andes Mountains and the Amazon Rainforest, in addition to an extraordinarily extensive range of biodiversity and natural resources.[xv] Many members of Peru’s civil society were concerned that introducing a new species into such a fecund natural environment could have damaging and irreversible consequences, raising questions such as: how will transgenic crops react with Peru’s naturally occurring flora and fauna? how might the existing ecosystem be affected? how will the food chain be protected from disturbance in certain areas? And, of particular concern, what effect will GMOs have on Peru’s illustrious potato cultivation? If GM potatoes or other transgenic crops react poorly with Peruvian potato species, competition amongst the crops might ensue, resulting in the disappearance of naturally occurring species.[xvi]
The second main concern was that damage to the environment is almost always irreversible. Just as with ozone depletion and the melting ice caps, environmental changes are hard to combat and sometimes impossible to completely eradicate. Recent studies have shown that farmers, not surprisingly, end up using more pesticide when planting pesticide-resistant GM crops, as weeds become resistant along with their crops.[xvii] Such increased pesticide use creates extensive environmental damage and health risks due to expanded consumption and exposure. Also, many GMOs have been tested in nothing more than a laboratory setting or in another country’s natural environment, so it is possible that transgenic seeds could react differently in Peru than they have in other areas. Therefore, much of Peruvian civil society sought the moratorium on GMOs, advocating a more complete diagnosis of possible risks prior to introducing transgenic seeds/crops.
Exploitation by Any Other Name (Might be Monsanto)
Putting aside the potential economic and health benefits that GMOs pose, it is important to consider the role of producers of GM seeds and products, such as the multinational corporation (MNC) Monsanto, which specializes in agricultural biotechnology. It is no secret that MNCs, such as Coca-Cola and Chiquita, do not always uphold the lofty ethical standards that some would expect. If demand and production of transgenic food continue on an upward slope, farmers could become dependent on GM seed to sustain their competitive edge in a market flooded with these controversial products.
Additionally, more and more farmers will have to buy GM seed from the major manufacturers that hold the intellectual property rights to transgenic patents for certain genome combinations. For example, until 2014, Monsanto has the rights to its Roundup Ready seed, which is resistant to the pesticide Roundup and makes it easier to spray crops en masse.[xviii] However, Monsanto is coming out with a new seed, called Roundup Ready 2 Yield, which contains a slightly different structural arrangement that will increase yields but still provide resistance to pesticides.[xix] Some believe that this timing is not coincidental, and critics claim that Monsanto is trying to pressure farmers into switching to the newer version before its patent on the original seed runs out.[xx] This would extend Monsanto’s monopolistic advantage over other seed companies and allow the firm to essentially set prices in this field.
Such a situation seems eerily similar to privatization of the water industry in Bolivia in the late 1990s. After privatization became a condition for aid, many countries pushed to bring down barriers to water services and to allow foreign MNCs to break into the industry. The result has been “steep and sudden price hikes,” along with, in some instances, no access to the water supply, adversely affecting the poorest inhabitants in the country. These economic concerns led to both the Cochabamba and El Alto revolts, which eventually ousted industry giants like Bechtel and Suez from their sites of operation.[xxi]
Can a parallel be drawn, and perhaps even expected, between Bechtel and Monsanto? Transgenic seeds, like water, may become necessary for farmers to stay competitive in both domestic and foreign markets. When a product becomes a necessity and only large companies hold the intellectual rights to it, potentially perilous situations can result. Monsanto already has made re-planting its seeds during the next planting season illegal, and farmers have witnessed price hikes in recent years.[xxii] Just ask Kansas farmer Luke Ulrich, whose Monsanto seed costs have increased by almost 50 percent from 2008 to 2009.[xxiii] Allowing these MNCs to exercise major control over seed production and price setting, and thus their production and exports, could become a slippery slope in any country.
What You Don’t Know Won’t Necessarily Fail to Kill You
Another major issue regarding GM food is that it is hard to know which foods are transgenic, which contain traces, and which are GM-free. The labeling system, which has been enacted in Peru via its Consumer Code, is a novel idea.[xxiv] After all, consumers have the right to know what they are buying and consuming. However, the process of labeling can be complicated and often involves obfuscation due to difficulties with tracing items to their origins and figuring out just what percentage of a product is transgenic.[xxv] In fact, an effective labeling system can incur large administrative costs, especially if the system is not uniform across borders.
Furthermore, the question could be raised as to whether it is even possible to properly label GM foods. After all, the system seems much like the Kimberley Process for diamonds, which was put in place because of serious concerns over the trade in “blood diamonds.” The process tracks the origin and transit of diamonds in order to ensure that they were neither mined using slave labor nor obtained as a result of resource conflict.[xxvi] Yet the process is not flawless, and many blood diamonds still end up being sold as “conflict-free”. This also occurs with GMOs. Just recently, “the Peruvian Association of Consumers and Users (ASPEC) tested 13 products purchased in major supermarkets and shops in Lima. Ten of the 13 showed the presence of GMOs.”[xxvii]
The Birds and the Bees ? and the Pollen and the Wind
The mislabeling of GMOs is not the only means by which transgenic products could cross Peruvian borders without consent. Even with the newly enacted moratorium on GMOs, there is still no guarantee that such products will not enter the country. After all, Peru shares a border with Brazil, one of the world’s top GMO growing countries.[xxviii] Cross-pollination has been noted in numerous countries, and GM seeds already have shown up in nations that had previously banned their import. The first report of cross-fertilization in South America occurred this past March, involving GM and non-GM maize in Uruguay.[xxix] Therefore, even though Peru has banned transgenic products, GMOs could still potentially cross borders by such carriers as the wind and bees.
Additionally, farmers would have to devise an intricate system of planting in order to keep their GM and organic crops separate, as products of both are increasingly popular in the current market. Cross-pollination can also occur accidentally between fields, or genetically engineered traits can transfer into organic crops that were planted in a field that contained GM crops the season before. This may also increase implementation costs and further confuse whatever labeling system is in place.
The (Not So) Long Arm of the International Law
International environmental law is a relatively new field and does not contain much concrete law regarding binding constraints or a robust system of penalties. The main treaty regarding GMOs and the environment is the Cartagena Protocol, which was enacted in 2003 and signed by Peru the following year.[xxx] The protocol “enables a Party to ban the import of a LMO (living modified organism) if the importing Party determines that insufficient scientific information and knowledge are available about the GMO, about the receiving environment, or about the potential interaction between them.”[xxxi] The protocol allows the importing country to make up its own mind about LMOs based on the available evidence and decide whether to allow or deny their entry.
Also, the Cartagena Protocol emphasizes the precautionary principle, or Principle 15 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development (1992), which states that “where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.”[xxxii] The principle calls for risk analysis and proper mechanisms in order to reduce the uncertainty of the potential impact of GMOs on the environment. The Codex Alimentarius Commission provides such a framework for developing food standards and undertaking risk analysis on the safety of biotech foods.[xxxiii]
To be Transgenic or Not to be Transgenic?
Peru’s thriving ecosystem and its hugely important organic sector have provided viable arguments against the introduction of GMOs into the country. In addition, the research regarding health and environmental risks posed by transgenic foods remain both immature and limited, particularly regarding the long-term effects of GMOs. In light of so many unknown factors, it is only sensible that Peruvians have demanded further testing before these products are introduced into their daily environment. It also remains an individual’s right to choose what to put into their body, a right that could be severely undermined due to the mislabeling of products.
However, one must also imagine a world in which every technological advancement must wait in prolonged limbo before being implemented, while, in the meantime, other countries are taking advantage of such an innovation. Should a country forgo every technological advancement that is not 100 percent safe based on possible risks? Will Peru fall behind during the moratorium, stepping aside to allow others to take advantage of the increased production, food security, and trade that GMOs offer? Or is Peru ahead of the curve, realizing that opening its country to further control by foreign MNCs is a slippery slope, and that environmental and health risks are often irreversible? Will Peru be lauded as the prophet or exposed as the fool? The next ten years will surely forecast the role that GMOs will play in the future of Peru. In the meantime, the issue will remain in limbo, lying dormant until the next grand, transgenic debate.
Carrie Burggraf is a research associate at the Center for Hemispheric Affairs, where this article originally appeared.