Argentina was the first Latin American nation to openly espouse the production and consumption of GMOs in the mid-1990s, but most other Latin American nations were reluctant to follow suit until another important regional player took the lead. The stalemate on approval/disapproval of GM food crop production was broken by Brazil last month. Steve Lewis finds out what happened next.

The stalemate on approval or disapproval of GM food crop production in Latin America was broken by Brazil last month, and since then, other Latin nations have not wasted time to take steps toward the limited approval of GM crops and food products.

The governments of Brazil and other Latin American nations are attempting to de-politicise the GM issue. That is accomplished through the establishment of GM regulatory commissions that are not directly controlled by the government. They are normally made up of experts in fields related to biotechnology that represent at least three concerned parties: the agriculture/food industry, the government, and environmental/health professionals.

On 23 August, Brazil’s President Cardoso signed a legal provision that established the National Commission for Biosecurity Techniques, and defined its responsibilities and composition. The scope of the Commission’s responsibility includes establishing policies and procedures for the commercialisation, creation, cultivation, experimentation, storage, and transportation of GMOs, and products that contain them.

Prior to creating the Commission, the Brazilian government took several major steps toward controlled production and consumption of GMOs. The first was the agriculture minister’s announcement in July that Roundup Ready (RR) soybeans could be legally planted in the upcoming growing season. Prior to that, the federal government had ruled that all food products with GM content of 4% or more must be labelled as such. Ironically, the labelling requirement passed before the sale of food products containing GM ingredients was legalised in August.

In late August a federal court overruled a previous court decision that banned the sale of GM food products. The new ruling did away with a fine of nearly US$4,000 per day on companies that sold food products containing GMOs in Brazil.

Even before Brazil took action on the GM issue, the government of Paraguay had made it clear that it would follow its neighbour’s lead. Faced with the reality that they occupy a landlocked nation dependent on Brazilian ports to reach outside markets, Paraguayan agricultural authorities made it clear that it was in the nation’s best interests to harmonise their GM policies with those of Brazil. Seeing that its three MERCOSUR partners were approving GMO consumption and cultivation, Uruguay quickly announced a labelling plan that would clear the way for the sale of GM food products. Some RR soybeans are already produced in Uruguay and formal approval of that crop appears to be forthcoming.

Mexico takes a stance

During the last week of August, the third kingpin of Latin American agriculture made its pro-GMO stance clear after several years of wavering on the subject. Mexico’s Assistant agriculture minister Victor Villalobos announced that the Fox regime would promote the production of GM foods because the security of the nation’s food supply depends on it.

Speaking of anti-GM groups, Villalobos was quoted by El Norte newspaper as saying: “These protesting organisations make their living from ecological terrorism, so when tuna and whale-related issues died down, they lashed out at GMOs.” His comments fell on fertile ground because there is growing sentiment in Mexico that environmental causes such as protection of dolphins and whales are being used as ruses to shut Mexico out of leading export markets.

Villalobos pointed out that experimentation is now underway in Mexico involving the genetic modification of 25 species of cotton, maize, papayas, pineapple, potatoes, tomatoes, soybeans, squash, and tobacco. He also made it clear however that Mexico must protect its biodiversity and therefore it will proceed slowly and cautiously with the commercial cultivation of GM crops. Unofficial commercial production of GM crops has been going on in Mexico for years, although the government will have to take steps to establish a commission similar to that in Brazil to monitor and control GM cultivation.

Other nations prepare for GM production

In August, the Panamanian government created the National Commission for Biosecurity and Bioethics, which is responsible for drafting a law that will regulate the consumption and production of GMOs in that Central American nation. At present there is no Panamanian law covering human consumption of GM food products and authorities there believe that GMOs are already sold in the nation’s food stores.

Panamanian growers associations are pressing the new biosecurity commission to approve commercial production of certain GM crops that will make their members more internationally cost competitive. Monsanto management in Central America explained that the biotech giant does not yet sell GM seeds in Panama for lack of legislation covering the conditions of sale, however the company is moving ahead with sales to Honduras, which was the first Central American nation to pass a GM law.

Agricultural authorities in Bolivia, Honduras, and Nicaragua- three of Latin America’s poorest nations- see the introduction of GM food crops as one of their few hopes for remaining internationally competitive. In the case of Honduras and Nicaragua, genetic modification of coconut palms offers hope of alleviating the lethal yellowing that has devastated their Atlantic Coast plantations. In Bolivia, farmers see genetic modification as the most viable means of combating the plant diseases that have seriously undermined the nation’s banana and potato yields in recent years. Given the need to compete with the world’s most agriculturally advanced nations, Latin American farmers generally see GM food crops as a tool they must have in order to avoid being shut out of lucrative export markets.

By Steve Lewis, correspondent

To view related research reports, please follow the links below:-

World Market For GM-Food Testing

World Agricultural Biotechnology: GMOs to 2004

Handbook on the Labelling of Genetically Modified Foods, Ingredients and Additives