Misinformation, lack of governmental control and good propaganda – these are the elements that have favored transnational producers of genetically modified seeds in Venezuela. The producers claim that experiments with transgenic corn are already underway. The Venezuelan countryside is still under threat from the interests of genetically modified seed producing firms.
Last April, upon being warned by one of the leaders of Vía Campesina (The Peasants’ Path, a peasant movement), president Hugo Chávez banned the use of transgenics in agricultural production. The president’s announcement was praised by the social and peasant movements that struggle against domination by transnational agricultural companies throughout the continent. Nevertheless, nothing happened beyond the president’s declaration. No law or decree forbidding or regulating the use of transgenics in the country was passed. Something similar happened in Brazil during Cardozo’s government, when illegal sowing started in the fields of Rio Grande Sul. The Venezuelan Ministry of Lands and Agriculture (MAT) regulates neither the production nor the entry of seeds from the U.S.A. and Argentina (the world’s leading transgenics producers).
The president of the national institute of agricultural investigation (INIA), Prudencio Chacón affirms that 70% of Venezuelan seeds are imported, and admits that there is no customs regulation control for the importation of seeds. “It is very likely that, just as in other nations, the seeds are smuggled into the country, but we have no control over it,” he asserted. The lack of adequate equipment to detect transgenics is one of the factors that make it impossible to establish controls. “We don’t have the equipment. In order to carry out inspections we would have to hire a private company at high costs”, affirms Jesús Ramos Oropeza, general director of the Ministry of Environment’s National Bureau of Biological Diversity.
Ramos Oropeza, who is also a member of the commission that is discussing the project of the Biotechnology Law, says that several forums and debates have been held, in order to evaluate the consequences of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO’s) in agriculture, before the legal framework is decided on. While awaiting the elaboration of the bill, the State abides by the Principle of Precaution stipulated in the Cartagena Protocol, subscribed by Venezuela. “We still don’t know whether it’s good or bad. The truth is that transgenics are against the government’s philosophy, since they generate dependence”, he assures.
While the legal framework is in discussion, Cargill, Monsanto, and Pioneer, three of the five transnational companies that control the world seed market—and that control the Venezuelan market through the sale of hybrid (sterile) seeds—are each time more firmly established in the country. Dakalb, one of Monsanto’s representatives, is the sponsor of the renowned Criollitos children’s baseball club.
In Argentina, Dekalb is the producer of Rondup Redy transgenic corn. According to the president of the Association of Rural Producers of Portuguesa (Asoportuguesa), Juan Palacios, transnational companies are already planting genetically modified seeds. “There are already transgenics and they are carrying out experiments with much discretion,” says Juan Palacios. “The farmers, as well as the wholesalers, comment that Monsanto is already experimenting with transgenic corn”, reassures Orlando Villegas, agronomist and member of the association.
Neither government representatives nor the producers discard the possibility of the existence of illegal cultivation within the country. “The only guarantee that we have that the seeds are not transgenic is the word of the company. Certification of the seeds makes importation even more costly” affirms Jorge Alvarado, general manager of the National Federation of Agriculture (Fedeagro).
According to the Seed Act, every petition for experiments with transgenics must be submitted before the Ministry of Environment, in order for it to determine whether the research is biologically innocuous. Ramos Oropeza asserts that that no such request for approval has been presented before the ministry. “No one has requested authorization, but since we don’t have enough supervision, nobody can assure that it [the research] doesn’t exist”, he says. During the elaboration of this report we tried to consult Monsanto on his opinion about these assertions, but were told by company advisors that its spokesman was out of town.
This is not the first claim of suspicion of illegal cultivation of transgenics in the country. Investigators of the Network of Action and Alternatives to the Use of Agricultural Toxins in Venezuela (Rapalve) suspect that the “Proyecto Algodón” (Cotton Project), recently created by the Ministry of Lands and Agriculture, intends to use transgenic seeds from Monsanto, which has allegedly begun field experiments in this country.
Campaign in the countryside
The strategy used in countries like Argentina, Brazil and Colombia to convince farmers to adopt transgenics has also been successful in Venezuela. In Portuguesa state, one of the countries largest corn producers (a basic product in the diet of the population), a great portion of the farmers are convinced of the alleged benefits of the genetically modified organism (GMO) producers in the country. "We are not biologists, but the information that we have from other countries is that we can lower production costs. We are willing to experiment", affirms the president of Asoportuguesa, who claims to have been closely following the discussions over transgenics in the country, and who supports the free planting of genetically modified seeds. "The foreign companies have a more advanced technology and dominate the world’s corn production. We can not stop this technology", he says.
For the CEO of Fedeagro, another attractive factor is the reduction of production costs. "We support it because the environment has been much degraded by the use of agro-toxines. With transgenics, we will be able to reduce the use of herbicides and increase production", says Alvarado.
Unlike what the Venezuelan producers affirm, the story of neighboring Argentina, which served as a laboratory for GMO’s in Latin America, reveals that productivity and economy are not part of the equation of cultivation with transgenics. The production capacity of the nation diminishes with each harvest.
The same thing happens with the use of herbicides. The harmful weeds become resistant to herbicides, which leads to the use of greater amounts of herbicide than at the beginning of the cultivation process with transgenic soy or corn. These two factors have implied more expenses and greater pollution of the water-through the phreatic (underground water) savannas, and of the soil, which loses fertility.
Specialists compare glyphosates, the base of the herbicide applied in the use of transgenics, with Agent Orange - a powerful herbicide used by the U.S. during the Vietnam war, which caused the death and deformation of thousands of people. In Colombia, the version of Agent Orange commercialized by Monsanto, is Roundup Ultra, used in the fumigation of coca plantations, with which thousands of farmers are being contaminated.
Although Chávez’ government has a firm position against the monopolies of the transnational companies in several sectors of the economy, especially in food production, the actions taken by the Ministry of Agriculture and Land go in the opposite direction to that of the logic of the Bolivarian revolution. According to Asoportuguesa, 985 of the seeds imported into the country are hybrid, 70% of which are produced by foreign companies. This means that most producers already have access to seeds controlled by the transnational companies.
This is one of the reasons that could lead Orlando Nardini, an agricultural producer, to plant transgenics. Nardini says that he was convinced of the advantages of transgenics on a trip to Brazil to purchase agricultural machinery. "They took me to a Monsanto farm in No Me Toque [Rio Grande do Sul] and I liked it"
What they did not tell Nardini is that besides the purchase of the seed, farmers must pay royalties for the use of technology developed by this company. Such is the case of Brazilian producers that planted transgenic soy illegally in Rio Grande do Sul. Monsanto, which acquired through the WTO (World Trade Organization) the world patent for transgenic soy, will charge the Brazilian farmers U$ 0.40 a sack.
The president of INIA, Prudencio Chacón, who considers the economic factor one of the most worrying in the adoption of transgenics, admits the government’s flaws on this matter and deems it impossible to demand that farmers produce varieties of seeds, if the state does not give them alternatives. “We will not be able to struggle against the transnational companies if we do not guarantee the producers access to seeds", he affirms.
Food Sovereignty for Agricultural business
Control by the transnational companies over world seed production goes parallel with the agricultural-industrial model of production. They are not interested in companies that produce seeds for small farms. A vast production of a single crop (monoculture) is necessary in order for it to be profitable for those industries that sell seeds and herbicides resistant to harmful weeds.
This model, defended by the agricultural transgenics industry as one of the alternatives to wipe out starvation throughout the world, has compelled thousands of farmers to abandon the countryside, due to either imminent conflicts over land possession (with the violent expansion of monoculture latifundia) or to a lack of adequate production conditions. In Argentina, at least 300,000 small producers were forced out of their lands and are today part of the misery contingents throughout the country.
The threat to biodiversity is yet another consequence of the adoption of genetically modified seeds. The production of transgenic corn in Mexican fields caused half of the autochthonous seeds to disappear. The risk of corn pollution is very high, since it is 100% prone to pollination, that is, that their pollen is carried long distances by the wind, thus contaminating traditional corn crops.
“The reduction of genetic diversity in Venezuela means limiting the possibilities of a rich, balanced diet. It threatens food production, the increase of the incomes, the solution of environmental difficulties and the order of ecosystems" affirms the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in its last report on Food Safety.
Even though president Chávez defends food sovereignty and the development of small scale farming in Venezuela, the course of events tells a different story. The general director of the Ministry of Environment’s National Bureau of Biological Diversity, Jesús Ramos Oropeza, affirms that the lack of a sustainable agricultural model has contributed to the reduction of biodiversity in the country. "Even without the use of transgenics, we have reduced seed diversity because of agricultural practices that are only economically focused" says Ramos Oropeza.
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Agriculture and Land (MAT) has not shown signs that it intends to change the logic of production. While the recovery of 8,646,217 hectares of state owned land for agricultural reform and the development of agricultural cooperatives is expected, it is the "economically biased" model that tends to be implemented. In the opinion of Franco Manrique, a member of an Urban Land Committee and of the coordination of Rapalve, the "Cultivation Plan" announced by the MAT still privileges the big producers.
According to the National Institute of Agricultural Investigation (INIA), the project for the creation of a National Production Program for seeds must reduce imports by 25%.This means that a great part of the varieties used for Venezuelan agricultural program are not produced in the country.“There are several contradictions in this process. The solution is to produce our own seeds and to develop agriculture of small farming, in order to guarantee our food sovereignty”, affirms Manrique, who has reproduced vegetable seeds in small cooperatives in the western region of the country, by using the techniques learned from the farmers of the Brazilian Landless Peasants Movement (MST). “I think that we will be able to carry out the revolution in agriculture too” affirms Manrique.