Banning GM crops is a mistake

By: Joaquín Zenteno Hopp*.

Bolivian researcher, PhD candidate: “Responsible Innovation”.

Mohnsenteret, HVL Norway.

 

 

Confusion, misinformation, and heightened emotions are to be expected in any debate on society, science and technology. Genetically modified crops (referred to as GM crops or GMOs throughout the article) are no exception. Yet, what fascinates me is that while a staunchly anti-GMO stance is still in vogue among highly educated social circles concerned with ethical and environmental issues, the scientific community is in outcry arguing there is no reason for their ban. This is a curious phenomenon and in my opinion, a fantastic one to study.

Underscoring the complexity of this topic, I would like to share four important ideas. I do this based on my experience with academic and field studies of GM soy in several Latin American countries and in Norway. My main message is that the negative impacts associated with GMOs are not caused by GMOs themselves, but by external factors that influence the way GMOs are used by farmers and perceived by society. In this sense, I believe it is necessary to restate basic concepts of applied biology and agriculture, clarify the problem of chemical contamination, revalue critical voices, and conduct a systematized bibliographic review. Taking into account these four points, I consider that it is a mistake not to allow the use of GM crops in Bolivia. I hope that this article will clarify why.

 

Gene transfer, a key concept in applied biology 

It is understandable that there is resistance to biotechnological products that seem to trample on the natural order. This makes even more sense if one judges GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms, also called transgenics) from religious perspectives or if one takes issue with the concept of reshaping the essence of life. But a close look at the molecular dynamics that occurs within a transgenic organism (when the cell’s genetic code is slightly modified) shows that there is no significant difference between a transgenic and a non-transgenic plant or animal. In other words, the transfer of genes between two cells without human interference (natural transfer) versus the transfer of a gene made in a lab (induced transfer) is technically the same. An objective assessment would describe the natural world as an open laboratory that constantly creates “new genetic mixes”. This is called “mutation” and it is the engine of evolution, a constant genetic experimentation that produces new forms of life that are better adapted to an adverse environment (Custers et al., 2019).

Of course the problem is that GM crops are human creations; creatures created in a lab. This generates, and rightly so, great skepticism. It is true that nature prefers genetic changes that take into account the contextual evolutionary and ecological history of a cell -but this is not the only natural way to bring about genetic changes. Gene transfer between cells in nature is primarily random and spontaneous and therefore more likely to have unforeseen effects than gene transfer in a lab. The changes made in a GM crop are minimal, highly controlled and also tested over several years. Therefore, GMOs are induced mutations that imply a statistically lower risk than natural mutations. This is of course a sweeping statement, so it is always important to carry out independent evaluations to determine the risk in each case. Nevertheless, the main idea is that GMOs are not alien products compared to their natural counterparts. It is therefore a mistake to speculate on possible risks GMOs might pose that are inherently different from those of any other natural being, plant or animal.

It should be stressed that there are other genetic techniques used for food production (such as induced mutagenesis by radiation) where the randomness of changes in genes is much greater than that which occurs in nature. This implies that the possibility of risk of causing undesirable ecological effects is relatively greater. Some of the best known techniques are mutagenesis, triploidization and cell fusion. However, the products of these techniques are not considered to be transgenic and there are no (or minimal) national or international restrictions on their use. This is because they are products (and techniques) that have been used for several years, sometimes decades, and their social acceptance is very broad – many of these products are even considered organic! Therefore, if the ecological risk of GMOs were considered high, most conventional and organic products would have to be regulated with equal or greater rigor than GMOs. Obviously this is not practical, logical, or necessary.

 

The problem of chemical contamination

Those who are aware of the environmental damage caused by the use of chemicals spread by the GM technology package (glyphosate) will be surprised that I promote their use. They would even tell me, with good reason, that the biggest problem is that the majority of GMOs are produced by corporations who seek, first and foremost, to satisfy their economic interests. I am also irritated; to say the least, that GMOs have been monopolized by a chemical-dependent industry that promotes monocultures. It is unpleasant to think of plants that are resistant to a chemical designed to kill everything else. It is even more provocative to state that the expansion of the agricultural frontier is intrinsically tied to the model propagated by GMOs. This is outrageous! But beware -here’s a topic that many misunderstand.

GMOs (and their related inputs) are the part of the package that comes with the expansion of the agricultural frontier, which happens for reasons external to the technology. The agricultural frontier advances because there is an avid and lucrative market for a given product (be it soybeans, corn, coca, palm oil among others) and therefore the advance occurs with or without GMOs. Furthermore, transgenic production is technically more efficient than conventional production and thus is a decision taken after production has begun. Therefore, the priority for avoiding deforestation and degradation of non-agricultural land should be focused on coherent and ethical policies for land use that preserve the advance of the agricultural frontier itself, and not on whether production is GM or not. This approach also applies to the widely held argument that GMOs take away space for the production of other foods that are more important for Bolivia’s food security. The type of food produced will depend more on how land use is delimited and the direct commercial incentive given to each crop. Moreover, the fact that GMOs allow for more efficient production reduces the amount of land required to produce an equivalent amount of a conventional crop. It is in this sense that the debate on the advance of the agricultural frontier, type of agricultural production and the preservation of biodiversity should focus on the generation of specific policies on land use, productive diversity and conservation areas. While the debate on whether or not to produce GMOs, should focus on first defining what type of technology is most beneficial for working land already allocated to producing cash crops.

In general terms, the switch from conventional to GM production means an average reduction in toxicity of 37% and a reduction in costs due to lower pesticide use of 39% (Klümper and Qaim, 2014). This means an increase in production of 22% per area. In this sense, every farmer can increase her or his profits by up to 68% on average. This occurs not only because it is possible to produce more, but also because there is a reduction in costs due to less use of chemicals, farm machinery and labor. For countries like Bolivia, where small farmers do most of the production, the net social benefit is significant -even taking into account the impact of job loss for day laborers. In addition, the use of GMOs compared to conventional production worldwide has meant a 14% reduction in carbon emissions (Mahaffey, Taheripour, and Tyner 2016). This is because  herbicide-resistant GMOs (mainly glyphosate)  help to reduce the need to prepare the land with tractors, which also benefits the quality of the soil by generating less compaction (Belgian Research Institute VIB, 2016).

Now, the damage caused by glyphosate is concerning (obviously, it is a plant poison), and therefore I understand that there is social resistance to this chemical -but there is one very important detail that must be understood. Glyphosate is less toxic when compared to chemicals that would substitute it were it is banned ([i]). In other words, banning glyphosate immediately and directly encourages the use of even more harmful herbicides. This is because, as I have already mentioned, industrial production of commercial crops (e.g. soybeans) takes place regardless of whether or not GMOs are permitted. The point is that many transgenics have the main function of decreasing the need for application of agrochemicals to which crops need to be exposed to manage pests, diseases and weeds. This is important to ensure a lower impact on the environment and the health of farmers, even when taking into account that glyphosate was classified as a possible carcinogen by the WHO in 2015 (along with many other everyday chemicals!). How ironic! Many of those who resist GMOs do so because they are concerned about the levels of toxicity in agriculture. Yet in the agricultural world, the main reason why a professional agronomist advises adopting the use of GMOs (in addition to the economic one)… is precisely to decrease the use of toxic chemicals!

It can be argued that the push should be to encourage a less chemical-dependent model of agricultural production altogether and that, therefore, the focus should be on limiting the use of any type of technology that depends on herbicides.  Moreover, an agricultural model that promotes monocultures should be avoided, as this is the greatest threat to the biodiversity of our land. This would certainly be very good, but how realistic is it to be able to produce the large amount of biomass (food, animal feed, cotton for clothes, or even wine) that the world market demands without the use of chemicals and without large-scale production? Very few professionals in the field would take such an illusion seriously. Ask a wine or avocado producer if he/she would be willing to abandon his monoculture and rotate crops to benefit biodiversity. But if we were to take the issue seriously, the discussion should focus on how to avoid the use of chemicals and monocultures in all types of production, not just in GM production.

 

The focus should be on regulating conventional production as this is where the greatest environmental impact is generated (The Royal Society, 2016). This is not only due to toxicity, but also because of soil compaction and CO2 generation. The technical benefits of GMOs are precisely that they represent a way to produce more on less land and at a lower environmental cost. In addition, it is important to note that there are several dozen GM crops designed for use without any type of chemicals. These are GM crops that could be considered “transgenic organic“: crops with genetic characteristics that allow them to fight diseases without the need for external agents such as virus-resistance papaya in Hawaii or insect-eggplant in Bangladesh and India. I personally believe that the path towards a more sustainable and responsible agricultural model could be made viable with the help of this technology. 

 

A revaluation of critical voices 

There are alarming reports that denounce negative effects of GMOs on health, the economy and the environment. For the Bolivian context, some of the best known studies compiling these facts include: McKay y Colque (2015), Catacora-Vargas (2007), Seralini (2012) and all the reports, presentations and websites made by Vía Campesina, Greenpeace and  Friends of the Earth. The most striking case is the well-known “Monsanto Tribunal”, an international civil society mobilization in 2016-2017 organized to force Monsanto to account for crimes against humanity and ecocide. Given this background, it is critical to listen to and study these allegations, and above all to understand why they occur and how they originate.

A first observation is that these published reports are coordinated and financed by organizations that represent groups who consider themselves adversely affected by GMOs. This is unsurprising, but also means these stakeholders work primarily in organizations whose priority is safeguarding human rights. Therefore, their professional competence tends to be within the human and/or social sciences. They view as part of their mission to denounce and be critical of widespread social inequality in rural areas, the over-empowerment of agricultural corporations, and the increasing loss of ancestral/cultural knowledge of artisanal or subsistence agriculture. This perception turns even stronger as GMOs are a tool strongly supported by large landowners and agro-industrial companies.

Stakeholders with large investment capital are the most determined to adopt a technology that has clear technical and economic benefits. Large agricultural companies with a wide network of contacts and greater access to scientific and agronomic information lead the adoption of new agricultural technologies in developing countries (Trigo et al., 2013). Thus, the use of GM crops becomes more frequent the larger the investment. Obviously, this is because it is a technology that creates greater benefits at a larger scale of production. This however, does not mean that GMOs do not benefit smallholder farmers (Quaim & Kouser, 2013). In this context, and taking into account Bolivian history, it is not surprising that the debate on GMOs will become one more chapter in the symbolic struggle between smallholder producers and large wealthy farmer owners.

Moreover, activist organizations tend to get involved after there are indications of possible negative effects on the environment caused by any given production system. This implies that the baseline for their studies is the prevailing agricultural model at the time of sampling. Therefore, their work consists of first documenting the observed impact and then tracing the origin of that impact. Although this is methodologically valid, it leads to the simplified conclusion that the original problem is the type of technology implemented at the time of sampling, disregarding what happened previously. This is evidenced by the Argentine experience, where reports of negative effects caused by glyphosate took hold several years after GMOs had taken over almost the entire production system (Zenteno et al, 2015). The importance of taking this into account is that, once again, the benefits of GMOs become evident only when they are compared with the effects of other production systems, and not if they are evaluated in isolation or without the proper contextualization.

Far from wanting to discredit these civil organizations (or Non-Government Organizations, NGOs), I believe the objective should be to use their experience and knowledge to impact Bolivian agriculture more efficiently and positively. Their skills are essential, and in fact, uniquely positioned to foster responsible agricultural management. Civil society organizations have a key role to play in monitoring the agro-industrial sector and serving as a watchdog, and to express concerns about risks related to new technologies and production systems. However, instead of criticizing GMOs per se, objections should be directed at questioning issues of corruption and   land trafficking, land use policies, industrial agricultural models that abuse agrochemicals (as doctors  and vets may abuse antibiotics in human and animal health), the tendency to propagate monocultures and its propensity to degrade soils. In my opinion, the real problem lies in how international markets encourage our farmers to produce cash crops at such an intense and unbridled rate. That is the root issue that must be corrected and where these organizations have the power to generate change.

 

The need for a systematized bibliographic review 

Research carried out by the world’s best universities, science academies, and government regulatory agencies with top scientific credentials have produced hundreds of studies and reports with one clear and consistent message: “there is no reason to ban GMOs”. One of the greatest efforts to determine possible risks associated with GMOs is complied in a report from the European Commission (2012), which after 25 years of research carried out by 130 independent scientific projects including more than 500 research groups from recognized European universities and regulatory agencies states that it finds no risk to health or the environment (Tagliabue, 2017). Thus, the scientific consensus arguing that GMOs do not represent any greater risk than other forms of production is 95% (Landrum, Hallman, y Jamieson 2019). Even more important to consider is the letter signed by 110 Nobel Prize winners in 2012 that states: “Scientific and regulatory agencies around the world have repeatedly and consistently found that crops and foods improved through biotechnology are safe, if not safer (Pacher-Zavisin 2016, p1.) Finally, it is worth reading the various FAO reports on this subject.

For non-specialized readers, distinguishing the quality of scientific studies in this area is obviously very difficult. It takes years and a high degree of specialized training to distinguish which studies are reliable and which are not. This becomes even more difficult in a reality of mass misinformation. In the well-known “Post truth era,” dis-informants may not only be government agents and agro-industrial companies, but also civil society organizations and other apparently impartial groups. There is an expected aggressive corporate agro-industrial lobby promoting GM production -so one needs to be careful. To believe otherwise would be naive. But by the same token, one must beware of an equally, if not more aggressive anti-GMO lobby, which has an efficient media machinery that is well-financed and organized by mainly environmental lobbies from European governments, environmental NGOs and the organic industry, ready to discredit GMOs. The irony here is that GMOs could be organic agriculture’s best ally, if it were not for its ideological aversion to it.

Over the years, the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility (ENSSER) has led the way in the scientific production critical of GMOs. Another important organization is GenØk, a biosafety center in Norway known for its critical stance on GMOs and its active and interfering involvement in anti-GMO activities in developing countries like Brazil, Bolivia and Zambia. Its website reads: “GenØk works both nationally and internationally, and specifically aims to offer developing countries training and advice related to risk assessments of genetically modified organisms”. Far from having modest funding, these organizations receive generous support from key stakeholders and closely coordinate each other’s anti-GMO activities. GenØk is directly funded by the Norwegian government and supports activities relating to the precautionary and politicized Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, part of the UN Convention of Biological Diversity.

Specifically, GenØk has directly influenced Brazil’s and Bolivia’s biosafety regulation and funds prolific anti-GMO soy activities. A GenØk member (of Bolivian nationality) became a senior advisor to the Bolivian Ministry of the Environment, directly reporting to the Environment Vice Minister during the administration of Evo Morales (2006-2019). This GenØk member, advised by Europe’s elite set of anti-GMO activists also represented our country in international fora and became a highly vocal and opinionated Focal Point and main spokesperson for the Bolivian delegations to the Meetings of the Parties (MOPs) of the Cartagena Protocol from 2008-2018 (MM Roca, personal communication 2020[ii]).

There are also several key industries that support the anti-GMO perspective. These are not only environmental lobbyists and stakeholders of organic agriculture, but also corporations such as pesticide producers that lose markets with GMO production given that is more efficient and thus cheaper than other agricultural production systems. It is also important to consider that large corporations that develop GM crops are not necessarily against anti-GMO lobby. This irony lies in the fact that the greater the restrictions to commercialize GMOs and the higher the costs and requirements of biosafety regulations are, the less competition there is from public and private universities, research centers and small biotech entrepreneurs. In other words, the anti-GMO movement indirectly promotes the pro-GMO corporate monopoly! This is serious because it limits non-commercial biotechnology development focused on humanitarian objectives (such as the golden rice) and negatively impacts agricultural production. This is especially true for developing countries who need to increase their agricultural yields by developing their own tools and/or adopting the best technology available to face climate change and the many other challenges of biomass production (food, feed, biomaterials, biofuels).

It is therefore necessary not to fall into politicized literature. In my personal experience, this effort has taken me several years and great frustrations, but I have learned several valuable lessons. The main one has been to distinguish that the few studies made by scientific entities used as a basis to discredit, vilify or ban GMOs, account to about 5% of the total published literature; they repeat the same issues and cite each other. Often they slip into ideological value judgments about corporations and their negative role in society, demand social justice and invoke a utopian rural past. A clear example is the document written by UCCSN-AL  (a Latin American version of the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility (ENSSER) or by Greenpeace in response to the letter signed by the aforementioned Nobel Laureates. Another even more alarming example is that of Food & Water Watch, which contradicts that there is scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs with bibliographic references that state the opposite. This is important to take into account because as Nicolia et al. (2014), Perdue University or PennState University indicate: the scientific references in favor of GMOs include hundreds of reviews studies and meta-analysis (an analysis of many studies on the same subject) compiled under strict standards of independence and scientific rigor. What must change is the way in which this scientific information is communicated, since most of it is isolated from the public, written in highly technical language and not focused on highlighting key impacts.

 

It’s a mistake to be against GM crops 

Being against GMOs may seem logical and ethical because of specific values people hold relating to life and society, which flawlessly resonate with the type of message delivered by activist organizations that look to safeguard human rights and the environment. People generally trust these organizations, specially NGOs, and mistrust governments and big corporations, or even the use of new technology, so the message gets easily entrenched in the collective mindset of informed individuals (eg. educated and liberal), gullible people who get simplistic information from social media, or downtrodden and vulnerable rural society. It is true that these NGOs have providing a real and effective response to other socio-environmental problems such as climate change or plastic pollution, so their truthiness of their message is not doubted. Moreover, their expertise is precisely in communicating to strategic groups of society and creating a large political influence. This is not generally the case for agronomic associations or representatives of scientific institutions, which due to their specialty and training produce material for a type of public with very specific interests. This exacerbates as academics need to comply with certain “publishing rules” not needed in informal social media outlets. In my opinion, these are the main reasons why the anti-GMO vision and propaganda is still in vogue among social circles considered highly educated, liberal and concerned with ethical and environmental issues.

But banning GM crops is a mistake! I understand that the way the current government is trying to approve GMOs in Bolivia does not follow the procedures of popular debate and protocols that are recommended for these particular issues. There are many legal elements that must be addressed and resolved, especially regarding land trafficking, land use and inefficient and industrial agricultural production systems. Nevertheless, I believe that it would be a mistake not to support the approval that the government is enacting. The popular debate should rather be directed towards a long and comprehensive list of factors that impact agricultural production in Bolivia. They include, among others, better support for small farmers, agricultural laborers and rural communities: 1) Access to micro-finance for smallholders and agricultural loans or subsidies.  2) Agro-climate insurance.  3) Access to relevant scientific and technical information and any good technology including use of biological control and more rational  use of pesticides and fertilizers, improved seeds, access to  precision agriculture (such as use of artificial intelligence, robots, drones and sensors connected by the Internet of Things). 4) Improved infrastructure such as roads, ports, silos, processing plants, cold-chain.  5) Timely and efficient information about markets. Bolivia also needs better biosafety regulation, better policies for land use, better registration of tax payments and better control of black markets.

That is a much more sound recipe for supporting our Bolivian farmers! 

 

Works cited 

Belgian Research Institute VIB. 2016. «Effect of genetically modified crops on the environment». Fact Series. Rijvisschestraat 120, 9052 Gent, België Retrieved from: http://www.vib.be/en/news/Documents/vib_fact_genetisch%20gewijzigde%20gewassen_EN G_2016_LR.pdf

Catacora-Vargas, Georgina, Rosa Binimelis, Anne I. Myhr, y Brian Wynne. 2018. «SocioEconomic Research on Genetically Modified Crops: A Study of the Literature». Agriculture and Human Values 35 (2): 489-513

Custers René, Casacuberta Josep M., Eriksson Dennis, Sági László, Schiemann Joachim. 2019. Genetic Alterations That Do or Do Not Occur Naturally; Consequences for Genome Edited Organisms in the Context of Regulatory Oversight. Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology.

Eduardo Trigo Nicolás Mateo César Falconi. 20130 Innovación Agropecuaria en América Latina y el Caribe: Escenarios y Mecanismos Institucionales. Banco Interamericano de Desarrollo División de Medioambiente, Desarrollo Rural y Administración de Riesgos por Desastres.

European Commission. 2012. «Innovating for Sustainable Growth: A Bioeconomy for Europe». COM European Commission: Brussels, Belgium; p. 9.

Klümper, W and Qaim M. 2014. A Meta-Analysis of the Impacts of Genetically Modified Crops https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0111629

Landrum, Asheley R., William K. Hallman, y Kathleen Hall Jamieson. 2019. «Examining the Impact of Expert Voices: Communicating the Scientific Consensus on Genetically-modified Organisms». Environmental Communication 13 (1): 51-70. https://doi.org/10.1080/17524032.2018.1502201.

Mahaffey, Harry, Farzad Taheripour, y Wallace E. Tyner. 2016. «Evaluating the Economic and Environmental Impacts of a Global GMO Ban». AgEcon Search. 2016. https://doi.org/10.22004/ag.econ.235591.

McKay, B & Colque, G. 2016. Bolivia’s soy complex: the development of ‘productive exclusion’. The Journal of Peasant Studies. Volume 43. Issue 2: Soy Production in South America: Globalization and New Agroindustrial Landscapes.

Mesnage, R and Antoniou MN. 2017. Facts and Fallacies in the Debate on Glyphosate Toxicity. Front Public Health. 2017; 5: 316. doi: 10.3389/fpubh.2017.00316

Nicolia, Alessandro. Alberto Manzo. Fabio Veronesi and Daniele Rosellini. 2014. «An Overview of the Last 10 Years of Genetically Engineered Crop Safety Research». Critical Reviews in Biotechnology 34 (1): 77-88. https://doi.org/10.3109/07388551.2013.823595.

Pacher-Zavisin, Margit C. 2016. «Bio-bites!» Bioengineered 7 (6): 393-94. https://doi.org/10.1080/21655979.2016.1227206.

Quaim, Matin &  Kouser Shahzad, 2013. Geneticallly Modified Crops and Food Security. PLoS ONE 8(6): e64879 Available at https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0064879

Séralini, G.E. Clair, E.  Mesnage, R. Grss, S. Defarge, N.  Malatesta, M. Spiroux de Vendômois J. 2012. RETRACTED: Long term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize. Food and Chemical Toxicology. Volume 50, Issue 11, November 2012, Pages 4221-4231.

Tagliabue, Giovanni. 2016. «The EU legislation on “GMOs” between nonsense and protectionism: An ongoing Schumpeterian chain of public choices». GM Crops & Food 8 (1): 57-73. https://doi.org/10.1080/21645698.2016.1270488.

The Royal Society. 2016. GM plants: Questions and answers. Dirección: https://royalsociety.org/topics-policy/projects/gm-plants/

Zenteno, J; Hanche-Olsen, E; Sejenovich, H. (2014). Argentina: government-agribusiness elite dynamics and its consequences on environmental governance. In: Elite dynamics, the left tide and sustainable development. Environmental Politics in Latin America. Bull, B and Støen, CM (ed.). Earthscan Routledge Sustainable Development Series, UK.

[i] Although it is true that after some years there is a tendency for having to have a more intensive use of glyphosate in GMO crops, and even having to use other herbicides as complements, this is due to the resistance that any crop develops as a consequence of bad agricultural practices. This means that it also occurs with any other type of production where chemicals are used and good agricultural practices are not followed. Consequently, this is not a problem with glyphosate or from GMO crops, it is a problem of education. Despite that there are some studies affirming that the specific use of glyphosate has tended to generate higher resistance to herbicides, this is precisely because of its low toxicity (Mesnage y Antoniou, 2017). The use of glyphosate enables irresponsible farmers to keep with bad agricultural practices for further time than what it would have been possible with other herbicides. This is also a reason for which bees can be affected. A correct use of chemicals and land rotation does not generate chemical intensification and does not affect the ecosystem.

[ii] Personal interview PhD. Maria Mercedes Roca. Professor of Biotechnology, regulatory specialist. Executive Director, Consult MRS; Senior Fellow ISGP. Date of interview: June 2020.

* The views expressed in the blog are the responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of SDSN Bolivia or his institution.

2 thoughts to “Banning GM crops is a mistake”

  1. Estimado Joaquín,
    Para llegar a la conclusión que llegas sobre los transgénicos en Bolivia, tienes que tener en cuenta lo siguiente:

    1. La erosión genética de nuestros cultivos alimenticios es un problema de los transgénicos, además del fitomejoramiento convencional.
    2. La presión de selección sobre las malezas es insostenible, en el caso de resistencia a herbicidas (como de los amarantos en el cultivo de la soya en Estados Unidos).
    3. Cuatro transnacionales controlan el agronegocio soyero en Santa Cruz (CADM-Sao, Fino, Cargill, y Gravetal), según Fundación Tierra.
    4. El patentar los genes de nuestros cultivos alimenticios es un acto antiético. Los cultivos son la obra de cientos de generaciones de agricultores en los Andes (la papa, el camote), en la Amazonía (la yuca), México y Centroamérica (el maíz y frijol).
    5. Los gobiernos latinoamericanos son débiles y no pueden hacer frente a transnacionales agresivas, manipuladoras e inescrupulosas.
    6. El próximo paso que tomarán esas empresas es prohibir que los campesinos guarden sus semillas, como ha sucedido en Chile y el Perú.
    7. No nos oponemos al uso de la biotecnología, que va mucho más allá que los transgénicos.
    8. La trasmisión de genes de una especie a la otra puede suceder, como dices, sin embargo, es poco común, y no tiene los mismos efectos que la ingeniería genética dirigida por humanos, que se hace con ciertos fines específicos.
    9. Cuando hablas de apoyar a los campesinos y pequeños productores ¿qué es más importante que ayudar a que conserven el tesoro de sus variedades y que guarden sus semillas para su propia producción? Lo que más necesitan no son transgénicos, sino mejores tierras y acceso a mercados. No hay derecho a convertir a los campesinos en aplica-venenos de las transnacionales y consumidores de comida chatarra.
    10. En Bolivia las leyes perdonan el desmonte y penalizan la conservación y aprovechamiento sostenible del bosque. Los bosques de la Amazonía y del oriente de Bolivia no están destruyéndose para satisfacer el hambre de nuestro pueblo, sino para satisfacer la avaricia de pocos que exportan soya y carne a otros países.
    11. Tú preguntas ¿cuán realista es poder producir la gran cantidad de alimento que el mercado mundial exige sin el uso de químicos y sin la producción a gran escala? Estás confundiendo varios temas. Podemos oponernos a los transgénicos y aceptar algunos agroquímicos. La agricultura agroecológica, hoy más que nunca, es posible a gran escala sin transgénicos.
    12. El ejemplo del arroz amarillo es irrelevante. Es mucho mejor una dieta rica en frutas y verduras que una dieta monótona de arroz biofortificado.

    Atentamente, 
    Ing. Agr. Ana Gonzáles

    1. Estimada Ana,

      Agradezco mucho los comentarios y me alegra el que podamos conversar y aprender juntos. Entiendo la preocupación que existe con la conclusión a la que llego en el artículo, y por tanto haré todo el esfuerzo por aclarar cada punto. Mi mensaje final no está dirigido a apoyar el modelo agroindustrial actual, sino aclarecer el debate socioambiental que implica el prohibir o no el uso de transgénicos. Veo que en varios de los puntos que escribes existen confusiones muy comunes en este debate, y es precisamente esto lo que a mi me preocupa porque conllevan a que se tomen decisiones equivocadas. Explico con detalle cada punto:

      1. Sí existe un riesgo a la erosión genética de nuestros cultivos alimenticios. Esto es especialmente evidente es Argentina, donde grandes extensiones de tierra con una gran variedad de cultivos existentes hasta los años 80, se convirtieron en desiertos verdes dominados por la soya. Pero es importante entender que este no es un problema de los transgénicos. El modelo productivo de monocultivos en Argentina era ya una tendencia problemática y muy grande antes de que los transgénicos fuesen utilizados. Es más, la implementación de un modelo agroindustrial con base a monocultivos intensivo (al cual yo también soy critico) es un problema esencial de la agricultura convencional que se mantiene vigente al prohibir el uso de transgénicos. Es decir que prohibir el uso de transgénicos no tiene efecto sobre este problema y por tanto es un error confundir ambos temas. Para más información por favor ver: https://www.routledge.com/Environmental-Politics-in-Latin-America-Elite-dynamics-the-left-tide-and/Bull-Aguilar-Stoen/p/book/9781138790261

      2. La resistencia a herbicidas sí es un problema. El amaranto es un buen ejemplo por su resistencia particular a la soya transgénica, pero es sólo uno de las 383 otras malezas que han desarrollado resistencia a herbicidas comunes. La resistencia a herbicidas es un problema que se genera por malas prácticas agrícolas en todo tipo de cultivo, por lo que no es un problema particular a los transgénicos. La atención del público se torna hacia los transgénicos debido a que es una tecnología utilizada de manera indiscriminada. Transgénicos o no, el criterio esencial es que toda producción agrícola debe ser tratada con responsabilidad. La razón por la que muchos productores sobre utilizan el glifosato es porque es un químico de poca toxicidad (comparado con los que substituye) y por tanto les es fácil perder cuidado. Este es un problema de educación y de falta de control, no de la tecnología. Es un problema que existió antes de que los transgénicos fueran utilizados y que seguirá existiendo con cualquier otra tecnología si no se educa y no se controla un químico de manera adecuada. Para más información por favor ver: https://www.chilebio.cl/2016/12/16/producen-malezas-e-insectos-resistentes-los-cultivos-transgenicos/

      3. El empoderamiento de transnacionales como las mencionadas es un fenómeno causado por el tipo de modelo económico reinante en nuestros días. ¿Es esto culpa de una tecnología? ¿No ocurre acaso lo mismo con cualquier producción convencional? Las cuatro transnacionales mencionadas por Fundación Tierra están involucradas en el negocio de la soya en sí misma, no en si la producción es transgénica o no. Es decir que independientemente del tipo de tecnología que un productor utilice, el negocio de la soya se mantiene porque hay mercado para ello. Tratar este tema con el debate de los transgénicos es irrelevante. El asunto está en 1) determinar cuál es el tipo de producción con menos impacto ambiental, 2) apoyar los intereses nacionales frente a empresas transnacionales ya se por media de una política de impuestos bien implementada y/o apoyo a la industria nacional, 3) frenar el avance soyero a tierras no cultivadas y fomentar la conservación.

      4. El patentar genes no es antiético. Es un derecho que toda empresa tiene para incentivar emprendimientos biotecnológicos. Es un mecanismo económico que permite que haya innovación. Lo que no es correcto es patentar cultivos producidos por pueblos milenarios… pero apoyar el uso de transgénicos no implica patentar dichos cultivos. El maíz transgénico no es el maíz milenario. Ambos maíces pueden perfectamente coexistir en el mercado. En realidad, esa es precisamente la idea con la biotecnología. Brindar nuevas alternativas de cultivo complementarias a las ya existentes. No rebasar y dejar que otras técnicas, sabidurías o prácticas sea olvidadas. La idea es dejar a los productores a que ellos mismos puedan escoger lo que más les conviene según sus necesidades i ambiciones. Todo gobierno y ciudadanía debe hacer el esfuerzo por preservar sus cultivos y practicas milenarias, pero también motivar el uso de nueva tecnología. Para mayor información sobre posible contaminación genética horizontal: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/environmental-biosafety-research/article/risks-from-gmos-due-to-horizontal-gene-transfer/E1D9E1D6C1F8B7D2F052D9C01C359B64

      5. Si los gobiernos son débiles ante las transnacionales, pues entonces hay que implementar leyes e incentivos que fortalezcan a nuestros gobiernos, empresas nacionales y ciudadanos. ¿Pero en qué sentido ayuda en esto prohibir el uso de transgénicos? El debate sobre transgénicos se centra en qué tipo de producción es más beneficiosa para nuestros productores, mientras que el debate sobre empoderamiento de transnacionales es un tema que no se resuelve con prohibir a los transgénicos. El empoderamiento de empresas transnacionales es igualmente relevante para la producción convencional, como también para cualquier otro tema de tecnología (comunicación o transporte) o explotación de recursos naturales (petróleo o minería), etc. El querer prohibir el uso de una tecnología con claras ventajas económicas y ambientales para nuestros productores como estrategia para evitar el empoderamiento de un tipo de empresa es errónea.

      6. El problema de que campesinos en Chile y Perú no pueden guardar semillas es un problema de los tratados de libre comercio establecidos por los gobiernos de dichos países. Es sin duda preocupante que exista un involucramiento directo de empresas multinacionales es dichos tratados. Sin embargo, esto no se resuelve con bloquear una tecnología tal como explicaba anteriormente. Esto se resuelve cambiando la geopolítica que reina en el mundo actual. Es más, lo que sí debería preocupar es que los transgénicos hayan caído en manos de pocas transnacionales. Lo correcto sería permitir emprendimientos biotecnológicos que compitan con dichas transnacionales. Empresas creadoras de cultivos transgénicos enfocados en nichos de mercado agroecológicos o incluso humanitario, y no para el comercio masivo a gran escala como existe hoy en día. La manera de cambiar esto es disminuyendo las regulaciones actuales para la introducción de transgénicos en el mercado, puesto que los únicos que tienen los fondos para lograr soportar una regulación tan estricta (como la que existe hoy en día), son precisamente las empresas transnacionales. Para más información sobre emprendimientos agroecológicos y uso de cultivos transgénicos leer: https://geneticliteracyproject.org/2020/04/17/gene-editing-and-agroecology-compatible-yes-and-they-may-lead-to-more-eco-friendly-farming/

      7. –

      8. Los fines específicos que se pueden lograr con la ingeniería genética son precisamente la gran maravilla de esta tecnología. Permite crear cultivos que muy poco probablemente se habrían logrado crear de manera natural debido a que dichas mutaciones son principalmente aleatorias y existen por tanto miles de millones de alternativas. Por tanto, el que el ser humano pueda elegir una de estas alternativas de manera que permita crear un cultivo con características beneficiosas, es una maravilla. Ahora, el que el ser humano tenga dicho poder ante la vida da miedo, no solo porque puede ser intencionalmente mal utilizado, sino también porque supone que una nueva creación genética puede tener consecuencias no concebidas y desastrosas. Pero en esto hay algo muy importante que se debe tomar en cuenta. La ingeniería genética cambia uno, dos o tres genes al crear un transgénico como el utilizado en las variedades que se estarían produciendo en Bolivia. Mientras que en otras técnicas convencionales y orgánicas donde se crean nuevas variedades, ¡se cambian en promedio entre 50.000 a 80.000 genes en una sola planta! Es decir que la transmisión de genes en un transgénico conlleva un riesgo mínimo comparado con el riesgo de una modificación convencional u orgánica. Sin embargo, dichas técnicas convencionales no son reguladas (o las regulaciones son mínimas) puesto que se las consideran seguras y existen muy pocas malas experiencias a lo largo de los muchos años que se las ha utilizado. Es por tanto totalmente ilógico querer regular a los transgénicos de manera diferente o más estricta. Además, los cambios inducidos en los transgénicos son hechos con información especifica al gen que se está cambiando y por tanto con mucha más información sobre las posibles consecuencias y riesgos que con cualquier otra técnica.

      9. La idea es que los transgénicos sean solo una alternativa más en el paquete tecnológico disponible para el productor. Lo mas importante para los campesinos y pequeños productores de Bolivia es sin duda acceso a buenas tierras y mercados, pero también acceso a la mejor educación, infraestructura y tecnología. Según mi experiencia en varios países en Latino América, la razón principal por la que productores optan por utilizar transgénicos (además de la económica) es precisamente porque les permite “aplicar menor cantidad de venenos” que la convencional. Nuevamente, y este es quizá la mayor confusión con el uso de transgénicos, es un error relacionar el aumento del uso de herbicidas como una consecuencia particular al uso de transgénicos… Permítame que lo explique con detalle:

      El uso de herbicidas con transgénicos sí ha aumentado exponencialmente junto con la implementación de transgénicos (esto se ve en las importaciones de glifosato en países como Argentina). Sin embargo, el error está en no considerar los siguientes puntos aprendidos de la experiencia en Argentina: 1) el uso de herbicidas ya estaba subiendo de manera exponencial antes que el uso del glifosato fuese utilizado, de manera que la contaminación química por herbicidas ya estaba llegando a un nivel insostenible, 2) el paquete tecnológico de los transgénicos junto con el glifosato fue introducido para contrarrestar dicha contaminación, 3) el uso de glifosato comenzó a aumentar a nivel nacional porque hubo un boom en la expansión del área productora de soya debido al mercado internacional y la facilidad con la cual se la produce en comparación con otros cultivos, 4) las malas prácticas agrícolas como sobreutilización de suelos, poca o ninguna rotación de suelos y sobreutilización de glifosato, hizo que comience el problema de resistencia a herbicidas, lo cual fue combatido con utilizar más herbicidas, creando un problema aún mayor con el tiempo. Por tanto, el problema no es la tecnología en sí misma, sino que se trata de un problema de macroeconomía, de regulación de tierras, de educación, de responsabilidad, de modelo productivo, etc.

      10. El que no haya leyes efectivas contra el desmonte y la conservación y aprovechamiento sostenible de bosques es un tema urgente y necesita trabajo, pero nada tiene que ver con el debate sobre el uso de transgénicos. Es un error confundir los dos temas. Tal como explico en el artículo, el avance de la frontera agrícola se debe a que existe un mercado internacional para la venta de soya. Tal mercado es independiente a que la soya sea transgénica o no. Estoy muy de acuerdo con la idea de que es primordial apoyar “la producción de alimento para satisfacer el hambre”, pero esto se debe hacer por medio de regulaciones o incentivos que lleven a que el productor decida producir dichos alimentos. Se tiene por supuesto que también parar el avance de la soya en tierras no cultivadas; esto es regulación de suelos. El uso de transgénicos puede más bien ser de ayuda para producir una mayor cantidad de cultivo por hectárea, y por tanto ayudar a que haya menor competencia por terreno productivo.

      11. El uso de transgénicos no está en contra de la producción agroecológica. Esta es otra gran confusión. La producción de transgénicos puede más bien apoyar dicha producción. Hoy en día la mayor parte de los transgénicos producidos en universidades y centros de investigación independientes están diseñados para ser producidos bajo un modelo agroecológico. El problema es que no logran ser aprobados precisamente por las regulaciones existentes que sólo permiten que los productos de las grandes corporaciones sean aprobados. La mejor manera de contrarrestar el sobre empoderamiento de dichas corporaciones es lanzando al mercado cultivos genéticamente modificados que permitan la producción agroecológica a gran escala. Para más información sobre compatibilidad entre transgénicos y agroecología por favor leer: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0030727020907619

      12. El ejemplo del arroz amarillo no es irrelevante, todo lo contrario. Es un ejemplo que demuestra el gran potencial de los cultivos genéticamente modificados. La idea es proporcionar un alimento más en la dieta de personas que sufren de deficiencia de vitamina A, es decir como un complemento. Es por supuesto esencial acompañar dicha dieta con otros nutrientes. Esto es importante porque el uso de este arroz podría ayudar de manera directa a muchos de los 250 millones de niños que sufren de este problema en el sureste asiático y en África. La vitamina A sí puede ser adquirida por medio de otros alimentos (verduras y frutas), pero es estratico hacerla llegar por medio de arroz debido a que este es un alimento muy utilizado en la dieta y cultura de muchas sociedades. Implementar otros alimentos para asegurar el consumo de vitamina A es necesario, (y se debe hacer independientemente al debate sobre arroz dorado), pero es más difícil porque el arroz es fácil de transportar y guardar, además de que se lo puede utilizar en varios tipos de receta. La idea no es de ningún modo proponer una dieta hecha con base en sólo arroz, sino promover más alternativas de alimentación y producción para la generación de un sistema productivo y alimenticio más eficiente. No existe ningún indicio de que este arroz afecte la salud humana o el ambiente, y además no tiene patente, es gratis de utilizar y solo tiene fines humanitarios. ¿No es más bien terrible oponerse o limitar a que exista esta opción?

      Atentamente,

      Joaquín Zenteno Hopp

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