GM Foods in Perspective: Part Three

By Pires-O'Brien, Joaquina | Contemporary Review, March 2000 | Go to article overview
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GM Foods in Perspective: Part Three


Pires-O'Brien, Joaquina, Contemporary Review


Latin America (LA) seems to have adopted a global perspective to GM foods. This could be due to the fact that LA countries still have large poverty pockets where populations are underfed. On 12 October 1999 the world's population reached the 6 billion mark, the biggest growth rates coinciding with the poorest areas of the world. Projections regarding population growth indicate that in each year there is an addition of 80 million people on our planet. If such a trend continues, in 2020 there will be 9 billion people, but of these, 7 billion will be concentrated in the developing countries. Even if population growth is lower than this projection, there is a world-wide tendency to increase food consumption to the levels of the developed countries. In LA the increase in food production to accompany the increase in population has been obtained by expanding agriculture and husbandry at the cost of the rainforests and other important natural habitats such as the pantanal wetlands and the cerrado savannas. The applic ation of biotechnology to improve crops and animal production is the most environmental friendly alternative to the increasing food demand.

Having most of its territory in equatorial and the tropical regions, LA also has many environmental peculiarities that hinder crop productivity. The weeds are more numerous and more aggressive, there is a huge biodiversity of crop-hungry insects and nematodes, disease-causing fungi, and soils that are either nutrient deficient or have high amounts of aluminium that hinder plant nutrient uptake. When added to the current 3 per cent rate of population growth, to obtain an increase in food productivity of the same order, more agricultural area will be required, with the equivalent increase in the application of nitrogen fertilisers and pesticides. In the traditional agricultural practices the demand for nitrogen by the start of the next century will be around 200 million tonnes per year, an expense far too hefty for the struggling economies of LA.

Despite the economic slump of LA during the 1980s it was then that most countries decided to invest heavily in biotechnology research. Laboratories with sophisticated equipment and highly trained staff were set up in Mexico, Cuba, Argentina, Peru and Brazil. Biotechnology laboratories there vary according to their main lines of research. The majority of the research is in the areas of medicine and public health rather than agriculture. Some of the resulting technologies are the development of kits to diagnose diseases such as AIDS and toxiplasmosis, the production of vaccines, antibiotics and insulin.

The research with plants is being developed at a slower pace due to the lack of funding and the time required to gain expertise in various intermediate technologies such as microbiology and biochemistry. In Brazil, one of the largest laboratories of plant biotechnology is CEBTEC or Center for Agricultural Research, located in Piracicaba, State of Sao Paulo, created in 1981, and linked with ESALQ, the Agricultural School of the University of Sao Paulo. At CEBTEC the new facilities where the Plant Biotechnology is at present, was completed on 28 October 1988. In Mexico, there are the Institute of Biotechnology of the University of Mexico and the Center for Biotechnology, in Monterey and in Colombia, the CIAT or International Center for Tropical Agriculture. Most LA countries are engaged in plant biotechnology research and have active laboratories both associated with government institutions and the private sector.

In LA, the. economic benefits of GM crops are already accepted. There the discussion, as explained in a recent article by Decio Zylbersztajn, Sergio G. Lazzarini and Claudio A. P. Pinheiro, is focused in three areas: (1) the social, that is, related to the need to feed the growing population; (2) the economic, that is the possibility of rejection by importers; and (3) the ethical, or the possibility that the only ones to profit will be the corporates that own the technology.

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