Opinion and Analysis: Economy | Environment | Land Reform | Social Movements
Venezuela and the Battle against Transgenic Seeds
Over the past two months, efforts to introduce a bill in the Venezuelan National Assembly that could have paved the way for the entrance of transgenic seeds into the country met stiff opposition from the agroecology and ecosocialist movements, stopping Monsanto and other GM firms from getting a foothold in the country. These movements also managed to place the construction of a new seed law in the hands of the major stakeholders, and in particular, farmers and consumers. This essay will provide a detailed look at the current battle against transgenic seeds in Venezuela.
On November 4, 2013, the Country Plan (2013 – 2019) proposed by the late President Hugo Chavez, which includes an explicit commitment to ecosocialism, was voted into law by Venezuela’s National Assembly with the tenacious support of President Nicholas Maduro. As a result the measure gives a boost to the current legal and political struggle of the ecosocialist movement to prevent transgenic seeds from entering the country. There is a tremendous amount at stake because opening the door to transgenics would compromise the gains in collective stewardship of the means of agricultural production and the nationwide effort to implement agroecological farming methods. 
In Venezuela, successful resistance to the privatization of seeds was made possible by what Venezuela scholar George Ciccariello-Maher describes as dual power, the leverage that popular power has in relation to revolutionaries at the highest levels of the state.  The popular sectors include significant agroecology and ecosocialist movements. On account of their intense and rapid mobilization over the past month, the venue for deliberations on the Seed Law and overall seed policy has been extended from the legislature, where hasty action might have legalized transgenics, to the pueblo legislador, the people as legislators. What follows is approximately how events have unfolded.
Ecosocialists Mobilize to Stop Ambiguous Seed Law
Venezuela’s seed policy is based on an earlier 2002 Seed Law that was passed in a highly polarized political environment, just months after a short-lived coup against President Hugo Chavez and just weeks prior to an opposition led strike and sabotage of the oil industry. This law was superseded in April of 2004, when after halting a project to plant Monsanto transgenic soybeans on 500,000 acres of land, then President Hugo Chavez declared, “The people of the United States, of Latin America, and the world, ought to follow the example of a Venezuela free of transgenics.”  This declaration constituted a virtual ban of transgenics. It was also consistent with the government’s emphasis on endogenous development. Endogenous development, as Christina Schiavoni and William Camacaro describe it, means development from within, which “implies first looking inside, not outside, to meet the country’s needs, building upon Venezuela’s own unique assets. This means valuing the agricultural knowledge and experience of women, Afro-decendants, and other typically marginalized campesino (peasant farming) populations as fundamental to Venezuela’s food sovereignty. This also means preserving Venezuela’s native seeds, traditional farming methods, and culinary practices.”
The ban on transgenics received further support when in June 2012, Chavez made the Country Plan (2013 – 2019) his campaign platform; it includes among the five major objectives, “the construction of an ecosocialist economic model of production based on a harmonic relationship between human and nature that guarantees the rational and optimal use of natural resources, respecting the processes and cycles of nature” (introduction). The Plan also prioritizes the expansion of agricultural production, but only in a way that advances the goal of food sovereignty (1.4) and accelerates democratic access to the necessary resources for sustainable agricultural production (1.4.2).
The ink on the Country Plan hardly had been dry when Venezuela became a member of Mercosur (Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, Chile) in July of 2012, joining a commercial block that had already become major consumers of transgenic seeds. Although Venezuelans were by then consuming foods with GMO ingredients imported from Mercosur nations as well as other countries, this did not mean Venezuela automatically joined the transgenic seed club. Yet pressure was increasingly placed upon on state actors to consider all options for increasing crop yields.
In August of 2012, Minister of Agriculture and Land Yván Gil tried to put the issue to rest, declaring, “We have said that our position is firm; we are not in favor of transgenics. It is a matter of principle, in addition to being a complex issue. For now we have a long way to go with our conventional products.”  Two months later, the Monsanto lobby was hard at work in Caracas.
In October 2012, Rafael Aramendis, Monsanto representative for government affairs for South America, the Caribbean and the Andian region, was introduced to the National Assembly by opposition deputy Ricardo Gutiérrez (Podemos, State of Portuguesa). Gutiérrez said that his party proposed a debate over the use of transgenics in Venezuelan agriculture. He urged that the subject “be managed as a state policy without prejudice.”  This initial effort was vigorously opposed by ecosocialists and agroecologists, and by overwhelming opposition by Chavista deputies in the National Assembly. But the story does not end here.
Within months of Chavez’s death, the words of the “comandante supremo” in favor of ecosocialism and against transgenic seeds were again challenged in the halls of the country’s National Assembly by the introduction of a proposed Seed Law that reads like an eco-friendly document on the surface, even drawing the praise of some progressive pro-ecology news outlets.  This praise is understandable because one of the proposed law’s general provisions clearly articulates a ban on transgenics. Some of its articles, however, particularly article 34, can be interpreted as providing a legal basis for the use of transgenics. This inconsistency poses serious concerns of a possible loophole in the bill. The ambiguous proposal was introduced not by some well-known champion of neoliberalism, but a Chavista legislator, PSUV deputy José Ureña. Since there was concern that the proposal was on a fast track for passage on October 22 after only one planned legislative debate, a broad coalition of ecosocialist resistance immediately weighed in on the issue.
As the National Assembly was preparing to refer the bill for the first round of discussion, word spread that some of its provisions could legalize transgenic seeds, allow the patent of hybrid seeds, and impose cumbersome regulations on the use and exchange of semilla campesina (farmers’ seeds). Romulo Alvarado, Coordinator of the Agroecology School-Workshop “Consuelo Fernandez” of the Socialist Enterprise Pedro Camejo (Tucutunemo, Aragua) voiced the widespread concern of the agroecology community: “It is very important that the construction of the Seed Law be by the people (farmers and consumers) because this will permit us to avoid the development and proliferation of transgenic seeds and eliminate the use of agrotoxins. It is important to emphasize that it be the people, through the law, who safeguard seeds and the production of safe and uncontaminated food.” 
In a letter (dated October 19) from the National Front of Peasants and Fisherman Simon Bolivar, to Blanca Eekhout (Second Vice President of the National Assembly), the Front asked for a delay in the first discussion of the law by the legislative body. It argued that because of provisions that would legalize transgenic seeds, the proposed law “infringes on the fundamental principles that guarantees food sovereignty and security, as the seed is the very germ and commencement of the entire productive process; it also places at risk the Country Plan and the legacy of Comandante President Hugo Chavez.”  At the time this letter was sent, the National Front organizations were sure that the moment had arrived to define seed policy and they should be at the decision making table.
On the 21st of October 2013 a coalition of agroecologists, ecosocialists, members of cooperatives and other agricultural production units, and peasant activists gathered outside the National Assembly in Caracas to demand that the proposed Seed Law be drafted and debated — not within the confines of the National Assembly building, but rather among the pueblo legislador, and in particular among the peasant-producers who are among the major stake holders.  In a communiqué published that same day, the coalition maintained that the attempt to open Venezuela to a transgenic seed regime is part of the economic war against the Bolivarian Revolution and an effort to compromise the move towards food sovereignty. The coalition also expressed concern that the bill would threaten the biodiversity and ancestral bio-cultural traditions of the peoples of Venezuela. This argument clearly links ecosocialism to the indigenous and Afro-descendant contributions to ecological agricultural techniques. The communiqué singled out several features of the proposed Seed Law that the coalition interpreted as particularly ominous. These include:
- The law would establish intellectual property rights for the development of new varieties of seeds (articles 5, 6)
- The degree of regulation of semilla campesina would impose an undue burden on traditional practices of the exchange and distribution of seeds (articles 56, 60, 74, 75)
- Transgenic seeds could arguably be legalized (article 34)
- The quality of imported seeds would not be sufficiently regulated
- Only the National Seed Institute is mentioned as the caretaker of seed policy, when the communes and popular power ought to be included
- Insufficient attention is paid to biosecurity 
Article 34 is key. It states:
No material of genetic origin or constitution with genetically modified organisms, imported or obtained inside the country, may be used (literally ‘liberated’) without the corresponding certification of biological harmlessness issued by the National Seed Institute.
Chapter one, general provisions, however, asserts:
This Legal Project …prohibits, for reasons of public order, the production, importation, commercialization, consumption and use of transgenic seeds. 
So while the general provision clearly bans transgenic seeds, article 34 seems to condition their use on a certification process. These concerns about the draft of the Seed Law were clearly resounded within the legislative chamber. Also, on October 23, during the morning radio program of Radio South, deputies José Ureña, Víctor Bocaranda (member of the Popular Revolutionary Movement Argimiro Gabaldón) and Ana Felicién (of the Movement for a Venezuela Free of Transgenics) participated in a discussion about the proposed Seed Law during which Ureña committed to referring deliberations on the bill to the public domain.
On October 24, in a meeting called by Blanca Eekhout and other deputies, spokespersons for the Movement for a Venezuela Free of Transgenics made their case for the immediate broadening of the deliberations so that the Movement could impact the drafting of seed policy in particular, and agricultural policy in general. The aftermath of this meeting is, for the moment, a victory for agroecology inside Venezuela and the anti-transgenic movement worldwide.
As a result of popular mobilization, the venue of debate on the seed law was moved from the National Assembly to the major stakeholders, who were opportunely about to convene the second meeting of the Guardianes de Semillas (Guardians of Seeds) held in Monte Carmelo on October 28 and 29, 2013 (the first meeting was held on October 29, 2012).  At this historic conference, two legislators, Ureña y Acurero, participated in the discussions. As a result of pressure from the agroecological movement, it was decided that the original draft of the Seed Law should be put aside and a new law drafted. Such legislation would explain in its exposicion de motivos (preamble) that the law seeks to “develop and consolidate the role of popular organizations in the storage, safeguarding, and regulation of seeds based on the model of ancestral, peasant and communal production and knowledge, with an emphasis on local exchange and distribution to guarantee our food sovereignty and the construction of an ecosocialist model of production.” This grass roots version of a proposed seed law would also prohibit transgenic seeds from entering the country as well as banning the privatization or patenting of any seeds. A commission constituted by seven organizations, including the Campaign for a Venezuela Free of Transgenics, agreed to continue work on a draft of a new Seed Law.  Gabriel Pool, a Venezuelan peasant member of the collective Venezuela Free of Transgenics, summarized the nature of the public deliberations: “At this moment we are engaged in a popular consultation, in debates, in discussions on a national level with all of the peasant movements in order to construct a new Seed Law because the last one has been rejected by popular power.” 
Venezuelan Chamber Commerce Supports Transgenics
Among the most prominent advocates for the consideration of transgenic technologies to increase crop yields in Venezuela is FEDEAGRO (Confederation of Associations of Agricultural and Fish Products), which forms part of FEDECAMARAS (The Venezuelan Federation of Chambers of Commerce). In March 2013, Antonio Pestana, president of FEDEAGRO, argued that with a projected increase in the world’s population there will be an increasing need for arable land to be more productive because “we have to feed more persons using less land.” In Venezuela, Pestana argues, the farmer ought to use biotechnology as has been done over the past 16 years in Mercosur countries. “Of the 170 million hectares planted in the world through transgenic seeds, 40% reposes in this economic block,” Pestana comments. 
It is not likely that either the allies of transgenics within the legislature or other advocates of transgenics in the farming and business sector, will sway the agroecology forces in Venezuela; the latter seem convinced that democratic control over the means of agricultural production and the use of agroecology farming methods on small- and medium-scale farms is the best way forward towards food security, food sovereignty and the strategic goal of accelerating the formation of communes.
International Implications of Seed Policy in Venezuela
This debate over seed policy in Venezuela has critical national and international implications. On the eve of critical municipal elections and in the midst of the manipulation of supply by major food distributors, Venezuela is on the front lines of a significant resistance in South America against the ingress of transgenic seeds and in defense of the traditional semilla compesina. When the authors visited Venezuela during the summer of 2013, they witnessed an all-out effort to increase agricultural production, using agroecological and organic farming methods, both in urban and rural areas of the country.
Ecosocialism in Venezuela is part of a diverse worldwide movement that despite philosophical and political differences is still united in opposition to use of transgenic seeds and in support of agroecological farming. In the US, growing concern over GMOs in the food supply have led to two referendums (California in 2012 and Washington in 2013) that have called for labeling food to indicate the presence of GMO ingredients. These referendums were, however, defeated at the polls — no doubt with some help from corporate financed media campaigns. On October 21, 2013, the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility issued a statement that they “strongly reject the claims by GM seed developers and some scientists, commentators, and journalists that there is a ‘scientific consensus’ on GMO safety and that debate on the topic is ‘over’.”  On November 28, 2013, in Malvinas, Argentina, demonstrators were violently attacked for blocking construction of a Monsanto seed-drying plant. In Colombia, a nationwide agricultural strike two months ago lasted 21 days, resulted in the killing of twelve peasants, the wounding of hundreds, and the arrest of over six hundred protesters. The government finally met with strike organizers and agreed to suspend the Law 970 which had given the government control over seeds.  In Mercosur nations of Paraguay and Brazil there is also continued resistance to the use of transgenic seeds.  In many of these cases civil society has been largely excluded from deliberations about agricultural policy. A notable exception to this trend is Venezuela, where the peasant voice is having a major impact on the shaping of the Seed Law.
Frederick B. Mills, Senior Research Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs and Professor of Philosophy at Bowie State University
William Camacaro, MFA, is a Member of the Bolivarian Circle of New York “Alberto Lovera” and an expert on Venezuela.
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Authors’ note: All translations of the Spanish into English are by Frederick B. Mills. Translations of government documents are unofficial.
 Olivier De Schutter, United Nations Rapporteur on the Right to Food, offers this summary of agroecology: “[Agroecology] improves agricultural systems by mimicking natural processes, thus enhancing beneficial biological interactions and synergies among the components of agrobiodiversity. Common principles of agroecology include recycling nutrients and energy on-farm rather than relying on external inputs; integrating crops and livestock; diversifying species and genetic resources in agroecosystems over time and space from the field to landscape levels; and focusing on interactions and productivity across the agricultural system rather than growing large plots of single crops.” Olivier De Schutter. Food First Backgrounder. Institute for Food and Development Policy. Summer 2011. V. 17 (2). See also, Fred Magdoff (2 Jan. 2007). Ecological Agriculture: principles, practices, and constraints. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems: 22(2); 109–117.
 George Ciccariello-Maher (2013). We created Chavez: A people’s history of the Venezuelan revolution. Durham: Duke University Press.
 Schiavoni, Christina and Camacaro, William. “The Venezuelan effort to build a new food and agricultural system.” The Monthly Review, July-August 2009. V 61 (3). See also Gregory Wilpert (2007). Changing Venezuela by taking power. New York: Verso, pp. 79-80.
 Hernandez, Katiuska. “Gobierno descarta uso de cultivos transgénicos.” El Nacional, 08 10, 2013. http://www.el-nacional.com/economia/Gobierno-descarta-uso-cultivos-transgenicos_0_242375989.html#.UgcJ6BoNojU.twitter.
 Ovalles, Diana. “Monsanto Entró a Venezuela por la Puerta de la Asamblea Nacional.” Aporrea. October 26, 2012. Accessed December 6, 2013 http://www.aporrea.org/contraloria/a153057.html.
 Seed Law Project, 25 Sep 2003, Caracas. http://www.scribd.com/doc/177524847/LEY-DE-SEMILLAS-DOCUMENTO-DEFINITIVO-DEL-25-DE-SEPTIEMBRE-DE-2013-pdf.
 “Venezuela Goes for Ban on GM Seeds.” Nation Of Change. June 2, 2013. Accessed December 6, 2013. http://www.nationofchange.org/venezuela-goes-ban-gm-seeds-1370186417.
 Email communication, Dec. 6, 2013, from Rómulo Leonardo Alvarado Bermudez to William Camacaro
 “Comunicado del Frent Simón Bolivar.” Frente Simón Bolivar. October 19, 2013. Accessed December 6, 2013. http://www.scribd.com/doc/178117459/COMUNICADO-DEL-FRENTE-SIMON-BOLIVAR-pdf.
 ”Venezuela: Ley semilla, Ley del pueblo.” News release. November 18, 2013. Accessed December 6, 2013. http://www.creadess.org/index.php/informate/noticias/noticiero/23659-venezuela-ley-semilla-ley-del-pueblo.
 Venezuelalibredetransgenicos. “Comunicado.” News release. October 21, 2013. Accessed December 6, 2013. http://www.scribd.com/doc/178059281/COMUNCIADO-21-OCT-pdf; “Ley De Semillas, Material Para La Reproducción Animal E Insumos Biológicos.” In Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. Accessed December 6, 2013. http://www.wipo.int/wipolex/en/text.jsp?file_id=235638.
 ”Proyecto de Ley de Semillas.” laguarura.net. Last modified September 25, 2013. Accessed December 6, 2013. http://laguarura.net/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/LEY-DE-SEMILLAS-DOCUMENTO-DEFINITIVO-DEL-25-DE-SEPTIEMBRE-DE-2013.doc.
 Ibid. “Ley de semilla, Ley del pueblo.” News release. November 18, 2013. Accessed December 6.
 Conversation of Gabriel Pool with William Camacaro, Dec. 3, 2013.
 Parilli, María Beatriz. “Apenas el 25% de la superficie agrícol es utilizada en el país.” Última Hora. March 5, 2013. Accessed December 6, 2013. http://www.fedeagro.org/detalle5.asp?id=1717.
 “No Scientific Consensus on GMO Safety.” European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility. October 21. 2013. Accessed December 6, 2013. http://www.ensser.org/fileadmin/user_upload/ENSSER_Statement_no_scientific_consensus_on_GMO_safety_ENG_LV.pdf.
 “Anti-Monsanto Protest Attacked in Argentina.” Weekly News Update on the Americas. December 1, 2013. Accessed December 6, 2013. http://weeklynewsupdate.blogspot.com/2013/12/wnu-1201-anti-monsanto-protest-attacked.html.
 Andy Higginbottom, “Colombia Campesino Farmers Popular Strike – A Challenge to Free Trade Agreements (FTAs),” Stabroek News, last modified October 7, 2013, http://www.stabroeknews.com/2013/features/in-the-diaspora/10/07/colombia-campesino-farmers-popular-strike-a-challenge-to-free-trade-agreements-ftas/; “National Farmers and Social Strike Gets Seeds Control Law 970 Suspended,” last modified September 15, 2013, http://therealnews.com/t2/index.php?Itemid=74&id=31&jumival=10722&option=com_content&task=view.
 See Marie-Monique Robin (2008). The world according to Monsanto: pollution, corruption, and the control of our food supply, an investigation into the world’s most controversial company. New York: The New Press.
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