By Gustavo Torres
The speed with which the government of President Federico Franco — appointed by Congress following a parliamentary coup that ousted President Fernando Lugo (2008-2012) on June 22 — approved the commercial release of five varieties of transgenic corn and two of cotton is causing mixed reactions in the country.
In early July, Paraguay’s National Service for Plants and Seeds Quality and Health, or SENAVE, which regulates the use of pesticides on crops, okayed transgenic cotton. One month later, the Minister of Health and Social Welfare authorized the genetically modified corn crop VT Triple Pro, a product of US multinational Monsanto, for human consumption, after deeming it not detrimental to health. The Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock was the final domino to fall, allowing on Oct. 24 the commercial use of four more transgenic corn varietals, in response to a September decree signed by Franco that loosened the regulations on environmental studies before the commercial use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
On one side, the government’s actions are supported by agribusiness — primarily soy growers — as well as mainstream media and multinational seed producers. On the other, campesino and indigenous groups, some political and social groups, syndicates, non-governmental organizations, and environmental organizations, reject transgenic crops, considering them harmful to the culture and practice of small-scale family farming as well as to health and the environment until their safety is proven.
The commercial release of transgenic cotton seeds by the government coincides with the current agricultural campaign, making them available to farmers and defending their free use in all areas as a breakthrough in modern agriculture, couched in propaganda that they do not harm the health of people or the environment, and saying that the difference between transgenic and traditional seeds is the economic benefit to low-income producers.
“On behalf of the government, I will say that we support technology. GMOs do not harm health, GMOs do not harm the environment,” reiterated Franco to campesino producers, defending time and again the use of transgenic seeds.
Transgenic advocacy even in the pulpit
Franco’s staunch defense of GMOs led him even to interrupt the homily of Bishop Mario Melanio Medina during a mass on Sept. 6 in the church of Villa Florida, in the southwestern department of Misiones.
As the head of the archbishoprics of the departments of Misiones and Ñe’embucu, and a prelate known as an advocate of Liberation Theology, the bishop was speaking about the harmfulness of transgenics, and a lack of exhaustive scientific research, consultations and discussions with citizens. Franco broke liturgical protocol, interrupting the sermon to defend the use of transgenic seeds. It was an abnormal act for a society accustomed to Catholic rituals, a faith shared by most of the Paraguayan population.
Franco went so far as to ask the bishop for a scientific explanation affirming the harmfulness of transgenic seeds: “If you present even one official document that shows GMOs will endanger life or health, we will change our attitude,” he said, adding that transgenics “are seeds that God and science allowed to be modified to benefit producers.”
“With transgenics, farmers will use less insecticide and increase crop yield,” Franco argued.
The varietals of GMO cotton the government approved are Bt (resistant to caterpillars) y Bt RR (resistant to caterpillars and the herbicide glyphosate). The transgenic corn now allowed is MON810 and VT3PRO, both from Monsanto; TC1507 from Dow AgroSciences; TC1507 from Pionner and Agrotec; and Bt11, from Syngenta.
The ban on the transgenic soy crop RR (Roundup Ready, resistant to glyphosate) was lifted in 2004 and there are now nearly 3 million hectares (7.4 million acres), or 7 percent of the country’s area, that are planted with this varietal. The cotton crop Bolgard I was permitted last year, and the National Commission on Biosecurity is looking to okay by the end of the year Monsanto’s RR2 soy, an improved version of RR that offers greater yield and broader defense against pests.
Monsanto’s NK 603 corn crop — also glyphosate-resistant — is next on the list to be allowed into the local market. Research from France’s University of Caen, however, revealed in September that NK 603 is highly toxic and generated tumors and multiple organ damage in rodents fed with it.
With this information, the government is not fulfilling its obligations. It exposes the rural and indigenous populations to the loss of their ability to produce food, their sovereignty and food security, and the violation of their human right to food, both established in the Constitution and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of the United Nations, ratified by the Paraguayan State in 1992, by which it committed to ensure a decent life for every person and their family, including food, clothing and adequate shelter.
“Transgenic seeds worsen the rural situation, exacerbate the climate crisis and seriously endanger life and biodiversity,” campesino leader Luis Aguayo, of the National Coordinating Committee of Campesino Organizations, told Latinamerica Press.
Teodolina Villalba of the National Campesino Federation said the organization always took a stand against GMOs because of the uncertainty about the consequences of these varietals of corn that were authorized.
Meanwhile, native cotton growers unionized within the Paraguayan Chamber of Organic Production and Agroecology, or CPROA, also took a firm stance against the dissemination of transgenic seeds.
In a statement issued Sept. 21, the producers said that “the controversy about the effects on health and the environment from the release of genetically modified organisms is a reality and divides the international scientific community.” It added that “physical and genetic pollution is taking place in the (crops) already established in the country (soybean, cotton), and if corn is also freed, by the type of pollination (fertilization) of this crop, local varieties will be affected by unwanted genes.”
Increasingly GM foods abound in the market, without any control regulations on labeling of products containing GMOs. Large agribusiness crops are sprayed with millions of liters of pesticides without any state control. Meanwhile, transnational companies — owners of the technology — continue to claim these products are safe and pose no health hazard. However, an alarming indicator revealed in the report “Hematological diseases and GMOs,” conducted in September by physician José Luis Insfrán of the National University of Asunción (UNA) and published by the environmental group Alter Vida, reports that in the UNA’s Hospital de Clínicas, in the Paraguayan capital, the monthly increase of leukemia and lymphoma cases is notorious.
The report said that “through medical records it can be verified and concluded that 90 percent of hematologic diseases come from areas where soybeans are grown and agrochemicals are used.”
Dr. Joel Filártiga, a Paraguayan allergist, told Latinamerica Press that “the use of or exposure to GMOs is a health risk associated with allergies, (and the) transfer of antibiotic resistance by eating GMO that contain antibiotic resistance marker genes.”
What is concrete about GM seeds is that in addition to posing a health hazard, they create dependency on the multinationals that produce them and the subsequent loss of food sovereignty in the natural production of seeds.
While some social organizations and environmental groups organize fairs and promote healthy foods and native seeds, Monsanto — with support from the current government — organizes courses on the importance of GM seeds in rural Paraguay.
Minister of Agriculture and Livestock Enzo Cardoso reported Oct. 4 that his ministry plans the production of transgenic cotton seeds through an agreement between the Paraguayan Institute of Agricultural Technology and Monsanto.