Debate on Genetically Modified Organisms Resurfaces as Fao Holds Biotechnology Conference in Mexico

Article excerpt

The debate on the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) resurfaced in Mexico in late February and early March, as critics and supporters gathered in Guadalajara to promote or protest the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) conference examining and promoting the use of biotechnologies. Supporters, mostly government officials and a handful of scientists and agronomists, lauded GMOs and other forms of biotechnology as the answer to potential global food shortages. Critics, including environmental advocates, indigenous-rights activists, academics, and other scientists, said the benefits are exaggerated and warned about health problems associated with GMOs. Opponents also reiterated their concern that genetically altered corn could cause the disappearance of Mexico's native varieties.

Proponents say biotechnology is more than just GMOs

The theme of the conference, which took place March 1-4, was that biotechnology, including GMOs, could increase food supplies around the world, thus guaranteeing food security and allowing countries to meet Goal 1 of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which is to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger by 2015. Experts from 60 countries attended the conference.

"In the past few decades, the field of biotechnologies has advanced at a formidable speed and generated numerous innovations, particularly in the field of pharmaceuticals and some in the field of agriculture," Modibo Traore, the FAO's assistant director-general, told conference participants.

Traore emphasized that the FAO's major challenges are to double food production by 2050 and to address the uncertainties of climate change effects on agriculture.

The FAO went to great pains to explain that its gathering in Guadalajara was not exclusively about GMOs but involved many types of biotechnologies. By focusing entirely on GMOs, the UN agency said, other agriculture biotechnologies that are not controversial are ignored. "Agricultural biotechnologies encompass a wide range of tools and methodologies that are being applied to some extent in crops, livestock, forestry, fisheries and aquaculture, and agroindustries to help alleviate hunger and poverty, assist in adaptation to climate change, and maintain the natural-resource base in developing countries," the FAO said in a press release.

Mexico moving forward with genetically altered crops

Still, GMOs were very much on the minds of supporters and detractors in Guadalajara. The FAO presented data from the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), which noted that the amount of land devoted to genetically modified crops worldwide reached 134 million hectares in 2009, compared with 2 million ha in 1996. Genetically altered seeds are used primarily for soybeans, but the technology is also used in crops like canola, cotton, rice, and corn.

In Mexico, the government has begun using genetically modified seeds to grow corn, cotton, and alfalfa, and expects to use this technology for soybeans in the near future. "According to President Felipe Calderon's strategy for the agriculture sector, we are working on four areas: efficient use of water, better management of diseases and pests, enhancement and maintenance of subsoil fertility, and genetic improvement of crop varieties," said deputy agriculture secretary Mariano Ruizfunes Macedo.

And some academics like Jose Luis Herrera Estrella of the Instituto Politecnico Nacional (IPN), Irapuato campus, see strong potential for Mexico to expand usage of GMO crops because there are a number of agronomists who are well-trained in this area. Herrera says that scientists are experimenting with a genetically modified agave plant, which is resistant to disease.

The Mexican government has approved 77 products grown from genetically altered seeds, including eight varieties of corn. In 2009, permits were awarded for farmers to grow GMO corn in the northern states of Sonora, Sinaloa, Tamaulipas, Coahuila, and Chihuahua (see SourceMex, 2006-10-25 and 2009-03-05). …