Published on Monday, March 11, 2002 by the Inter Press Service
Activists to Seek Ban on Transgenic Crops
by Jorge Piña
ROME - Non-governmental organizations around the world have decided to ask the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to declare a global moratorium on transgenic crops, after reports came out that genetically modified corn was being grown in Mexico, where it is illegal.
The request will be set forth by a meeting of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to be held parallel to the Jun 10-13 World Food Summit in Rome, Luca Colombo, with the international environmental watchdog Greenpeace, told IPS.
Civil society organizations worldwide, alarmed by reports from two United States researchers that genetically engineered corn was being cultivated in Mexico, called on the Mexican government, through its embassy in Italy, to take the necessary measures to enforce the country's ban on the planting of transgenic crops, said the activist.
The danger is that other varieties of corn will be contaminated by transgenic corn in Mexico, which would have serious consequences for peasant farmers, said Colombo, who is the head of Greenpeace's campaign against genetically modified organisms.
Around 170 civil society groups in Mexico called on FAO to help put an end to the cultivation of genetically modified corn in that country. But that is something that can only be done by the Mexican government, high-level officials at the Rome-based United Nations agency pointed out to IPS.
FAO is an information-sharing forum that can sponsor meetings to discuss such questions, if asked to do so by the governments of its member countries. But it is not an executive power, nor can it tell national authorities what to do, underlined Peter E. Kenmore, one of the agency's experts on transgenic crops.
For example, FAO cannot force non-European Union (EU) countries to limit their use of pesticides in accordance with guidelines approved by that bloc, but can only inform them of the EU's decision, and point out that they must live up to certain standards if they want the EU to purchase their farm products, said another FAO official, Ricardo Labrada.
The question of a ban on transgenics might be discussed at the World Food Summit, whose agenda has not yet been set, if agreed by the heads of state and government who will be attending, said Nuria Urquia, a FAO export on phytogenic resources.
It might also be debated at the FAO regional conference for Latin America, scheduled for Apr 22-26 in Havana, she added.
Last year, two U.S. researchers found evidence that transgenic corn was being grown in two Mexican states - the southern state of Oaxaca, on the Pacific Ocean, and the south-central state of Puebla, which borders Oaxaca and is near the capital.
The corn was being planted by small farmers who were unaware that it was genetically modified, using seeds that were imported by Mexico in packages that had no labels indicating that they contained transgenic organisms.
The Mexican government banned the cultivation of genetically modified organisms in 1998, and has systematically denied that such crops are planted there. However, last year it acknowledged that the US scientists' reports were valid.
The Convention on Biological Diversity defines biotechnology as ''any technological application that uses biological systems, living organisms, or derivatives thereof, to make or modify products or processes for specific use.''
In March 2000, FAO released a statement on biotechnology, which, it says ''provides powerful tools for the sustainable development of agriculture, fisheries and forestry, as well as the food industry.
''When appropriately integrated with other technologies for the production of food, agricultural products and services, biotechnology can be of significant assistance in meeting the needs of an expanding and increasingly urbanized population.''
FAO further states that ''genetic engineering has the potential to help increase production and productivity in agriculture, forestry and fisheries. It could lead to higher yields on marginal lands in countries that today cannot grow enough food to feed their people.''
However, it recommends that the technology be used cautiously, in order to prevent potential harmful effects on the environment and human and animal health, such as the risk of ''transferring toxins from one life form to another, of creating new toxins or of transferring allergenic compounds from one species to another.
''Risks to the environment include the possibility of outcrossing, which could lead, for example, to the development of more aggressive weeds or wild relatives with increased resistance to diseases or environmental stresses, upsetting the ecosystem balance. Biodiversity may also be lost,'' the statement warns.
In addition, FAO advocates efforts to enable developing countries, and poor farmers in particular, to reap greater benefits from biotechnological research, with the support of increased public funding and through cooperation between the private and public sectors.
But recognizing the potential of and the possible contributions of genetically modified crops to global food production does not mean ignoring the possible risks to human health and the environment, warned FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf.
Like all new technologies, transgenic crops are tools that can be used for good or bad ends, and regulated democratically to benefit the needy or manipulated to favor groups that wield political or economic power, said Diouf.
So far, the main beneficiaries of transgenic products have been private biotechnology firms and large agribusiness interests, mainly in industrialized countries, he added.
Copyright © 2002 Inter Press Service