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Biotechnology in Puerto Rico: Myths and Hazards
by Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero
Thanks to our warm and wonderfully stable tropical climate, they (the biotechnology corporations) can grow three breeding generations of conventional and/or biotechnology-derived plants. The climate in the winter months allows them to rapidly complete a growth cycle and give back the results in time to match planting schedules in other parts of the world. The island’s convenient location and good infrastructure, well-trained and educated workforce, stable government and relationship with the United States, fertile soils, reasonable living costs and ease of shipment to other parts of the world are additional positive factors. (Emphasis added)
— Luz Cruz-Flores, Research Manager, Monsanto Caribbean, Puerto Rico
The government of Puerto Rico is wagering on biotechnology as a way out of the economic debacle that the Caribbean island is suffering. Local media frequently quote experts from academia, the business community and government agencies who proclaim that this high tech industry will not only save our economy but also provide countless other benefits, like the cure for cancer and an end to world hunger.
The government of Puerto Rico is wagering on biotechnology as a way out of the economic debacle that the Caribbean island is suffering.
Once again, our government, in alliance with local and foreign business interests, rushes down a path of economic and technological development without pausing to ponder the possible social and ecological costs or long-term impacts. The story repeats itself. We saw this happen in the late 20th century with the pharmaceutical boom, with its legacy of toxic waste and Superfund sites; petrochemicals, an equally toxic sector that is now an empty shell of what it used to be in the 1970s; and strip mining, which thankfully never even started.
Of particular concern to the Biosafety Project is the use of Puerto Rico as a commercial seed farm and laboratory for genetically engineered crops, also known as GMOs for “genetically modified organisms.” What are the environmental and human health risks caused by their planting and consumption? In response to these concerns, Luz Cruz-Flores, research manager for Monsanto Caribbean and president of the Puerto Rico Seed Research Association, said this:People concerned about the safety of biotech foods will appreciate that study after study has documented the safety of agricultural crops developed using biotechnology — for both the environment and the dinner table. The most telling fact is that there has not been a single documented case of an illness caused by a food developed with biotechnology since they first came on the market… Crops and food using biotechnology are among the most tested in history and are certified long before they are released onto the market.
If biotech foods are as safe and harmless as Cruz-Flores claims, then why the opposition to having them labeled? Monsanto and other GMO seed producers stubbornly oppose labeling, spending large sums of money, engaging in massive lobbying and public relations efforts and even going to the extreme of goading the US to take the matter to the World Trade Organization. Why? Biotech industry spokespeople constantly talk about the need to educate the public in order to quell “unfounded fears” about biotech foods and yet they insist on keeping consumers ignorant about these products. Why?
The bad example of the biotech papaya
An article on local biotech activity published in El Nuevo Día, Puerto Rico’s leading daily newspaper, on September 25, 2006, quotes Judith Rivera of Pioneer Hi-Bred (a DuPont subsidiary), who recommended bringing GMO papaya to Puerto Rico: “There is a GMO papaya that they’re using in Hawaii, which is not being used in Puerto Rico and could be of high economic impact to farmers.”
The GMO papaya, introduced to Hawaii in 1998, was genetically altered to resist ringspot virus, which inflicts substantial damage to the harvest. It must be pointed out that Hawaiian papaya growers were never informed of this, let alone asked for their consent.
It was only a matter of time before this biotech product started spreading through pollen and seed dispersal and started to contaminate the fields of papaya growers who did not want GMOs in their farms. GMO Free Hawaii carried out thorough and extensive testing and confirmed that the biotech papaya spread with no control and polluted countless commercial farms, both conventional and organic. As a result of this genetic contamination, nowadays it is practically impossible to find GMO-free papayas in the islands of Hawaii and Oahu.
According to the USDA’s own data, in 1995 the Hawaiian papaya harvest exceeded $22 million but today is less than half of that. In 1997, prior to the introduction of biotech papaya, growers were receiving $1.23 per kilogram for their papayas. The following year that figure descended to 89 cents when the major importers, Canada and Japan, refused to buy GMO papaya. The reason for this rejection is simple and plain: consumers do not want biotech foods, and will reject them whenever given a choice. Anyone who doubts it must consider the following fact: Non-GMO commodities always command a higher market price than their non-genetically engineered counterparts.
Today the commercial growing of papaya is at its lowest point in decades; in fact right now production levels are lower than in the worst moment of the ringspot epidemic. Since 1998 Americans have doubled their papaya consumption but the land area in Hawaii planted with it has decreased 28% since the introduction of the biotech variety.
…biotech papaya spread with no control and polluted countless commercial farms, both conventional and organic.
Was the GM papaya really the only way to fight the ringspot virus? According to Hawaiian organic farmer Melanie Bondera:The University of Hawaii and the US Department of Agriculture could have aggressively educated or required farmers… to chop down and burn all virus-infected trees. The reduction of the virus would have kept the disease at its usual endemic levels… Farmers could also have been advised not to grow in huge plantations, to intercrop, to use soil amendments to grow healthier trees, plant trap-crops for the aphid vector, and spray or spread silicates to block aphid penetration of leaves. The amount of time and money to do this would have been far less than the efforts to force the introduction of the GM papaya.
Rivera is right, GMO papaya has had a high economic impact in Hawaii. Why she wishes to extend such an impact to Puerto Rican papaya growers is a complete mystery to us.
In her interview with El Nuevo Día, Rivera also praises herbicide-resistant GMO crops.
Instead of promoting the use of herbicides and herbicide-tolerant crops, academia, the public sector and trade associations should promote sustainable alternatives. This would require a rethinking of the very concept of a weed. Weeds do not exist in nature; they are defined by social convention. A weed is a useless plant with no economic value. But by what criteria is a plant declared useless and lacking in value? Many of these so-called useless plants are edible.
Let’s take for example the “useless weed” Portulaca oleracea, a wild plant that grows both in India and Puerto Rico (where it is known as verdolaga). It is a vegetable rich in magnesium, vitamins C and E, vitamin A carotenoids, vitamin B complex, iron, potassium, phosphorus and Omega 3 fatty acids.
In fact, many so-called weeds are important sources of vitamin A and are abundant in the tropical countries where vitamin A deficiency is a problem. So instead of sinking hundreds of millions of dollars into products like vitamin A-rich “golden rice,” farmers and agronomists would be better off fighting hunger by turning to these wild plants.
Many weeds also have powerful medicinal properties, as has been amply documented since the dawn of agriculture and medicine. Take the European herb Plantago major (of the Plantaginaceae family), which also grows in Puerto Rico, where it is known as llantén. It is useful as first aid in cases of bee and ant stings, burns, and scorpion and snake bites, and has also been found to be helpful against breast cancer, high blood pressure, conjunctivitis, stomach ulcers and vaginal complications. The aforementioned verdolaga has been used to treat arthritis, burns, insect stings, constipation, plus it’s antimicrobial and diuretic.
The stunning nutritional and healing properties of these and countless other wild herbs and weeds are a real problem for pharmaceutical and biotechnology corporations that spend billions of dollars (much of it from the public sector) to develop overpriced and often hazardous drugs.
Furthermore, many of these wild plants fulfill important agroecological functions; some repel pests, others provide habitat and food for beneficial animals like pollinators, fight erosion or even fix nitrogen.
…new schools of ecological thinking… combine modern science with ancient traditional wisdom…
But such a rethinking of our relationship with so-called weeds would require us to rethink the prevalent model of industrial agriculture, with its dependence on monocultures, artificial inputs and centralized institutions. Obviously this would not be convenient to agribusiness transnationals and would not be of any interests to the ideologues of the biotech revolution and Puerto Rico’s “knowledge economy.”
Rivera, quite predictably, extolled the use of pest-resistant GMO crops. These crops secrete an insecticidal bacterial toxin, Bt. Bt crops, which today are mostly corn and cotton, are based on three assumptions: (1) that the Bt toxin is inoffensive to humans, (2) that beneficial insects will not be harmed, and (3) that pests will not develop resistance. All three of these have been proven false.
Agrochemical pesticides and Bt crops are founded on erroneous and outdated assumptions about the functioning of agroecosystems. The new schools of ecological thinking that combine modern science with ancient traditional wisdom, which include agroecology and permaculture, hold that a pest is simply an organism whose natural predators have been decimated. Therefore, institutions like the Agriculture Department and university campuses, instead of promoting pesticides and GMO “solutions,” should instead direct their efforts toward the restoration of predator species that are natural allies of agriculture.
For example, in Puerto Rico one of the worst agricultural pests is the rat, and it is a well known fact that local animal species like the múcaro (screeching owl, Megascops nudipes), guaraguao (red-tailed hawk, Buteo jamaicensis) and the Puerto Rican boa (Epicrates inornatus) are a natural form of rodent control. And there are also species of bats and birds that feed on pests and make the use of pesticides unnecessary. As is the case with weeds, rethinking our relationship with pests along ecological lines is not compatible with the prevalent agricultural model or with the profit interests of transnational corporations that sell poisonous agrochemicals and biotech seeds whose need and safety remain unproven.
Where do we go?
Some academics, agronomists and agribusinessmen, who remain set in the ways of conventional agriculture, will consider the statements against chemicals and GMOs and in favor of a new relationship between agriculture and ecology to be ridiculous. But what is really ridiculous is to continue, like sleepwalkers, down the path of conventional industrial agriculture, which is not only ecologically suicidal, but is also socially backward and adverse to the interests of consumers.
But what is really ridiculous is to continue, like sleepwalkers, down the path of conventional industrial agriculture…
Biotech corporation spokespeople go on about their good intentions toward farmers. But the biggest problem of Puerto Rican farmers (and for that matter, agriculture in many other places) is the pitiful sums of money that they get paid for their product. This problem, which is not technical in nature but economic and political, will not be solved by the Monsantos of the world, and in any case they have no interest in solving it. Unfortunately, academia, trade associations and government agencies seem more interested in looking after the interests of agribusiness corporations than after those of the farmers.
The move toward an agriculture that is ecologically sound and fair to the farmer and consumer cannot count on the government or major corporations, since they are committed to the pompously named “knowledge economy,” which includes as an essential component the roughshod introduction of GMO products. The initiative belongs to farmers (especially small ones), conscious consumers, environmentalists, committed academicians and scientists and many other sectors which may not have money but have more than enough brawn and guts.
Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero is a Puerto Rican environmental educator and journalist. He’s a fellow of the Oakland Institute, a Senior Fellow of the Environmental Leadership Program, and founder and director of the Puerto Rico Project on Biosafety (http://www.bioseguridad.blogspot.com).
Altieri, M. Genetic Engineering in Agriculture: The Myths, Environmental Risks, and Alternatives (Segunda edición). Food First Books, 2004.
Benedetti, María. Bendiciones Botánicas para Boriquén. Verde Luz, 1999.
Bondera, Melanie. “Hawaiian Papaya: Market Loss and Contamination.”
Greenpeace. “The Failure of GE Papaya in Hawaii,” mayo de 2006. http://www.greenpeace.org/seasia/en/press/reports/copy-of-papaya-the-failure-o
Independent Science Panel. The Case for A GM-Free Sustainable World, 2003. http://www.indsp.org/ISPreportSummary.php
Ruiz Marrero, Carmelo. Biotech Crops and Foods: The Risks and Alternatives. Oakland Institute, 2006. http://www.oaklandinstitute.org/?q=node/view/336
Smith, Jeffrey. Seeds of Deception: Exposing Industry and Government Lies About the Safety of the Genetically Engineered Foods You’re Eating. Yes! Books/Chelsea Green Publishing. http://www.seedsofdeception.com
[12 may 08]