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Biotechnology in Puerto Rico: Myths and Dangers

Biotechnology in Puerto Rico: Myths and Dangers


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By Carmelo Ruiz Marrero

Biotechnology has come into vogue and the government of Puerto Rico is betting on it as a way out of the economic debacle that the country is suffering. Once again, in alliance with local and foreign business interests, it embarks on a path of economic and technological development without inquiring at all about the possible social and ecological costs and long-term impacts.

Biotechnology has come into vogue and the government of Puerto Rico is betting on it as a way out of the economic debacle that the country is suffering. Expressions from academia, private business, and government agencies are published in the news media to the effect that this high-tech industry will not only save our economy but also deliver countless benefits, such as a cure for cancer and an end to cancer. hunger in the world, among many others.


Once again our government, in alliance with local and foreign business interests, embarks on a path of economic and technological development without investigating the possible social and ecological costs and long-term impacts. The same story is repeated as with the pharmaceutical boom of 936, with its balance of toxic garbage and Superfund sites; petrochemicals, an equally toxic sector now in decline; and open pit mining - originally proposed in the 2020 plan.

Of particular concern for the Biosecurity Project is the use of Puerto Rico as a commercial seedbed and laboratory for genetically altered crops, also called transgenics. What risks to the environment and human health can its sowing and consumption cause? In this regard, Luz Cruz Flores, research manager at Monsanto Caribe and president of the Puerto Rico Seed Research Association, said the following in a 16-page supplement published last month in the Caribbean Business weekly entitled “Biotechnology: Transforming our quality of life ”:

“People concerned about the safety of transgenic foods ('biotech foods') will appreciate that study after study has documented the safety of agricultural crops grown through biotechnology - for the environment and for the dinner table. The most salient fact is that there has not been a single documented case of a disease caused by a food developed with biotechnology ... Crops and foods that use biotechnology are among the most tested in history and are certified as safe long before they are released to the market . "

Such expressions are truly surprising in view of the growing number of leading scientists who are warning that genetic engineering technology is based on faulty and outdated premises and that it presents inherent and unacceptable dangers to our society and ecosystem. Anyone who has not heard about these scientific criticisms should enlighten themselves a little more on the subject.

I recommend that you start by reading the documentation of the Independent Science Panel (www.indsp.org/). This group, made up of a score of prominent scientists from seven countries, covering the disciplines of agroecology, agronomy, biomathematics, botany, medical chemistry, ecology, histopathology, microbial ecology, molecular genetics, nutritional biochemistry, physiology, toxicology and virology, maintains that "The most serious dangers of genetic engineering are inherent in the process itself."

You can also read the reviews and warnings of EPA toxicologist Suzanne Wuerthele; Richard Lewontin, professor of genetics at Harvard; Professors Brian Goodwin, Jacqueline McGlade, Peter Saunders, Richard Lacey, Norman Ellstrand, Peter Wills, Gordon McVie and several other colleagues, available on this page: http://www.gmwatch.org/archive2.asp?arcid=6281

If GM foods are as safe and harmless as the Monsanto representative tells us, then why the opposition to labeling them? Monsanto and other GMO seed companies are stubbornly opposed to labeling and have spent substantial funds and extraordinary lobbying efforts around the world to that end. Why? So much so that they talk about the need to educate the public about the "virtues" of biotechnology, and at the same time they insist on keeping consumers ignorant about their products. Why?

At a biotechnology symposium held by the Agricultural Extension Service in 2002, labeling was raised, and a representative from Dow Agrosciences jumped up and said that it can't be done "because people are going to think there's something wrong with it. product". Such is the faith that biotechnology companies have in the intelligence and good judgment of us consumers. They just don't trust us, and they're also not confident in the safety of their GMO products.

The bad example of transgenic papaya

An article published in El Nuevo Día on September 25 quoted Judith Rivera, spokesperson for the seed company Pioneer Hi-Bred (a subsidiary of Dupont), who opined that genetically altered papaya should be planted in Puerto Rico: “There is a papaya that they use in Hawaii, that is not being used in Puerto Rico and that could have a high economic impact for farmers ”.

Definitely and without a doubt, the transgenic papaya has had a high economic impact among its commercial planters in Hawaii, but this impact cannot be considered positive in any way.


The transgenic papaya, introduced in Hawaii in 1998, was altered to resist a virus (ringspot) that causes damage to the crop. It should be noted that Hawaiian papaya growers were never informed of this action, much less asked for their consent. It was only a matter of time before this papaya proliferated through pollen and seed dispersal and began to contaminate the crops of farmers who did not want to have GMOs on their farms. The organization GMO Free Hawai conducted extensive and meticulous tests and found that transgenic papaya has proliferated uncontrollably and contaminated countless commercial plantations. As a result of this contamination, it is now virtually impossible to produce GMO-free papaya on the islands of Hawaii and Oahu.

According to data from the federal Department of Agriculture itself, in 1995 the Hawaiian papaya harvest exceeded $ 22 million but today it is less than half that. In 1997, before the introduction of transgenic papaya, farmers received $ 1.23 per kilogram from their papayas. The following year that figure dropped to 89 cents when the largest buyers of the product, Canada and Japan, refused to buy GM papaya. The reason for this rejection is simple: the consumer does not want transgenic food, and whenever he can choose, he will opt for the non-transgenic product. This is why non-transgenic agricultural products are priced higher than transgenic ones.

Today papaya cultivation in Hawaii is at its lowest point in decades, in fact there is less production now than at the worst time of the ringspot epidemic. Since 1998, Americans have doubled their consumption of papayas, and yet in Hawaii the area cultivated with it has dropped 28% since the introduction of the GM. (For more information: http://www.higean.org/) Mrs. Rivera is quite right, the genetically altered papaya has had a high economic impact in Hawaii. Why she wants the Puerto Rican papaya growers to enjoy this impact is a mystery to us.

Herbicide resistant crops

In his interview with El Nuevo Día, Rivera also praises transgenic herbicide-resistant crops. In fact, most of the GM crops grown in the world today are Roundup Ready, from the Monsanto company. This type of crop is resistant to the herbicide Roundup, also made by Monsanto. This is possibly the most lucrative and widely used agrochemical in the world today. With the Roundup Ready seed, Monsanto can sell the seed and herbicide as one package.

Are herbicide resistant crops really a good idea? One of Monsanto's main justifications for its Roundup Ready seeds is that Roundup is allegedly relatively benign to human health and the environment. But recent findings contradict such claims.

An epidemiological study done in the Canadian province of Ontario found that exposure to glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, nearly doubles the risk of miscarriage in late pregnancies. More recently in France, a team led by Gilles-Eric Seralini, a biochemist at the University of Caen, discovered that cells in the human placenta are very sensitive to Roundup, and that glyphosate can affect the endocrine system, even at very low doses. . Children born to glyphosate users have elevated levels of neurological defects that affect their behavior, reports the Independent Science Panel. Roundup also caused dysfunctional cell division that could be related to cancer in humans.

There are also harmful effects on the ecology and wildlife. Glyphosate caused growth retardation in the fetal skeleton of laboratory rats, inhibits steroid synthesis, and is genotoxic in mammals, fish, and toads. Earthworm exposure caused a mortality of at least 50% and significant intestinal damage among the surviving worms.

Further confirmation of these harms emerged in 2005 when the UK Royal Society presented the results of a four-year study on GM crops. The study, conducted in 266 fields across the country, confirmed that herbicide-resistant crops harm wildlife, including wildflowers, bees and butterflies.

And on top of all this is the problem of the emergence of Roundup-resistant superweeds, a phenomenon documented for at least a decade. Naturally, the use of Roundup Ready seed has multiplied the use of Roundup and this has accelerated the development of resistance to this product on the part of weeds. It is not surprising. Experience with agriculture in the last decades shows that when repeatedly exposed to agro-toxic poisons, weeds and pests develop resistance over the generations. Eventually you have to use more and more pesticides to achieve the same effect. When the pesticide finally becomes useless, the agrochemical industry "solves" the problem by introducing even more toxic products. In the long run, pesticides only exacerbate agricultural problems, and their only beneficiaries are the corporations that produce them.

Instead of promoting the use of herbicides and GMOs compatible with them, academia and public and private institutions in charge of promoting agriculture should develop sustainable alternatives. For this, it would be necessary to redefine the concept of weed or weed, since many of these supposedly useless plants are edible or medicinal, or they fulfill important functions, such as repelling pests, fighting erosion or fixing nitrogen in the soil. Here in Puerto Rico we have several examples, such as purslane, anamú and plantain.

But such reconceptualization of our relationship with the so-called weeds would imply rethinking the prevailing model of industrial agriculture, dependent on monocultures, synthetic inputs and centralized institutions. Obviously, this would not suit the transnational agribusiness companies and it will surely not interest the ideologues of the biotechnology revolution and the so-called knowledge economy either.

GMOs against pests?

Rivera, like all GMO advocates, mentions pest-resistant crops. These crops, known as Bt, emit an insecticidal bacterial toxin. Bt crops, which today are mostly corn and cotton, are based on three premises: 1) that the Bt toxin is harmless to humans, 2) that beneficial insects will not be harmed, and 3) that pests will not develop resistance. All three premises have been proven wrong.

Harmless to humans? Since 2004 Norwegian scientist Terje Traavik, from the Institute of Genetic Ecology at the University of Tromso, has reported findings from studies on Bt maize that he has conducted in the Philippines. He documented that inhabitants of populations near crops of that corn developed allergy symptoms and the symptoms stopped when they were removed to areas where Bt corn was not planted.

Around the second premise, the detrimental effects of Bt crops on beneficial insects have been known at least since 1999, when research led by Charles Losey of Cornell University discovered that pollen from Bt corn is toxic to plants. monarch butterfly larvae under laboratory conditions.

"The potential for Bt toxins moving through insect food chains has serious implications," warns Miguel Altieri, an entomologist at the University of California. "Recent evidence shows that Bt toxin can affect beneficial insectivorous predators that feed on pests present in Bt crops. Toxins produced by Bt plants can be transferred to predators and parasitoids via pollen. No one has analyzed the consequences of such transfers on the various natural enemies that depend on pollen for reproduction and longevity. "

Scientific research shows that Bt crops negatively affect insects that eat the Colorado potato beetle, causing substantial losses to agriculture, and larvae that feed on pests that ate Bt corn had abnormally high mortality. In addition, the Bt toxin persists in the soil for up to 234 days, binding to particles of mud or soil.

Regarding the third premise, Altieri warned years ago that "no serious entomologist asks whether resistance will arise or not. The question is, how fast?" In Makhathini Flats, South Africa, most small farmers who planted Bt cotton stopped using it because they could not pay their debts. A five-year study by Biowatch South Africa showed that the majority of farmers who planted Bt cotton had not benefited. In India, Bt cotton failed large numbers of farmers in Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, and many committed suicide as a result of the huge debts they took on buying Bt seed, which is 3-4 times more expensive than conventional seed. .

Agrotoxic pesticides and Bt crops are based on erroneous and obsolete premises about the functioning of an agroecosystem. New schools of ecological thought, such as permaculture and agroecology, which combine modern science with ancient and traditional knowledge, establish that a pest is simply an organism whose natural predators have been decimated. Therefore, institutions such as the Department of Agriculture and university campuses, instead of promoting pesticides and GMOs supposedly resistant to pests, should direct their efforts towards restoring the populations of predators that are natural allies of agriculture.

For example, in Puerto Rico the rat is one of the worst pests in agriculture, and it is a well-known fact that native animals such as the múcaro, the guaraguao and the Puerto Rican boa constitute a natural control of rodents. In addition, there are species of bats and insectivorous birds that also control pests for free and make the use of pesticides unnecessary. As with the issue of weeds, rethinking our relationship with pests in ecological terms is not compatible with the prevailing model of doing agriculture or with the interests of transnational companies that sell us poisonous agrochemicals and transgenic seeds whose safety and necessity are not they tried.

Where to go?

Some academics, agronomists and agribusinesses, attached to conventional agriculture, will consider the proposals against the agrochemicals and transgenics sold by the transnational agribusiness companies and in favor of a new relationship between agriculture and ecology ridiculous. But what is really ridiculous is to sleepwalking with the current agricultural model, which is ecologically suicidal, as well as socially backward and adverse to consumer interests.

Biotechnology corporations continually express an interest in solving problems for the farmer. But the Puerto Rican farmers' biggest problems are not weeds or pests, but the shortage of labor and the ridiculous amount paid for their produce. These problems, which are not technical but political and economic in nature, will not be solved by the Monsantos of the world, and in any case these corporations are not interested in solving them at all. Unfortunately, academia, agricultural unions and government agencies seem to be more concerned with serving corporate interests than those of the farmer.

The movement towards an ecological and fair agriculture for the farmer and the consumer cannot count on the help of the government or large corporations, since they are committed to the "knowledge economy", which includes as an essential component the imposition of products of biotechnology to swallow it and without due precaution. The ball is in the court of farmers (especially small ones), conscientious consumers, committed environmentalists, academics and scientists, and a host of related sectors that, although they lack funding and political power, have commitment and tenacity to spare.

October 26, 2006
* Carmelo Ruiz Marrero
Director, Puerto Rico Biosafety Project
Internet: http://www.bioseguridad.blogspot.com

Carmelo Ruiz Marrero, author of the book "Transgenic Ballad: Biotechnology, Globalization and the Clash of Paradigms", is a journalist and educator dedicated to clarifying environmental problems in Puerto Rico and internationally. He is also a Fellow of the Oakland Institute (oaklandinstitute.org) and a Senior Fellow of the Environmental Leadership Program (elpnet.org). From 2002 to 2004 he was also awarded a scholarship by the Association of Environmental Journalists (sej.org).


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