Highlights — 21 June 2013 — by Adele Ramos
Smuggling of GMO seeds is bio-piracy: BAGMO

There have been unconfirmed reports that genetically modified seeds sourced from the multimillion-dollar corporation, Monsanto, are being sown in Belize. The Belize Agricultural Health Authority (BAHA) has heard of those reports as well; however, Director of Plant Health, Francisco Gutierrez, M.Sc., told our newspaper that while they have never confirmed the presence of GMO corn in Belize, they have found GMO soybeans, and indications are that the seeds were being sown in Belize for years without BAHA’s knowledge.

The Belize Grain Growers Association (BGGA) said in a statement issued on May 29, 2013, that it is cautioning farmers to know the origin of their seeds and avoid planting GMO seeds until Belize establishes the legislative framework. It noted that the importation of GMO seeds is strictly prohibited by BAHA.

On Friday, June 7, BAHA issued a release confirming that GMO soybeans had been discovered in Northern Belize; however, to date, the Government of Belize has refused to disclose which Mennonite farmer was responsible.

Tests confirmed locally and abroad, at Eurofins Genescan Laboratory in the U.S., confirmed that the soybeans were genetically modified.

Under law, smuggling GMO seeds into Belize could lead to a $10,000 fine and/or jail time, according to Gutierrez.

However, despite the confirmation that the GMO soybeans were illegally smuggled, planted and harvested in Belize, the Mennonite who was responsible for sowing the seeds here will not be prosecuted.

Guttierrez said that the seeds were probably being grown in Belize for two to three years before they were detected.

Unlike the burning of the Monsanto GMO corn back in October 2011, the Ministry of Agriculture decided this time to mill the GMO soybeans to be used for animal feed. BAHA’s press release said that, “Belize currently imports animal feeds which contains genetically modified soybeans.”

Today, Belizeans Against Genetically Modified Organisms (BAGMO), issued a statement on the illegally smuggling of GMO soy into Belize, calling it “an act of biopiracy.”

The organization is urging that “…a strong and swift message be sent to all those farmers who undermine the regulation of food safety and protection by smuggling contraband genetically modified seed, which has never undergone a thorough and scientifically rigorous risk assessment, the established policy of the Belize Government.”

Gutierrez told Amandala that a moratorium on the importation of GMO seeds in Belize has been in effect since 2008. He said that BAHA conducts regular testing on exports to check whether they are GMO, and to date, they have found nothing.

He stresses that Belize has biosafety protocols which need to be followed. He also noted that before Belize decides whether to grow any GMO crops, thorough assessments should be carried out which would look at the environmental, economic and health dimensions of the equation.

Gutierrez also told us that this year, BAHA, under a Caribbean biosafety project being funded by the United Nations Development Program and executed by the University of the West Indies, will undertake a public education campaign on GMO crops.

He indicated that growing GMO crops in Belize could have negative trade impacts on Belize, which exports corn and beans to other Caribbean nations, such as Jamaica and Guyana, if these nations don’t want GMO produce.

Gutierrez said that some farmers in Belize want to bypass the procedures, as they believe that sowing GMO crops is a panacea for the challenges faced by the agriculture industry.

He expressed the hope that the Government will be spurred by the latest development, with the discovery of the GMO soybeans, to pass the biosafety legislation which has been in draft for the last five to six years. Gutierrez said that the new legislation would give BAHA more teeth in addressing the GMO issue.

Meanwhile, BAGMO calls on the Government of Belize to provide BAHA with the authority and necessary materials to conduct random and thorough testing throughout Belize for the presence of GMO crops and to immediately eradicate all GMO plant material that is found.

“BAHA must be allowed to create a precedent of zero tolerance for any illegal agricultural practices that would undermine the safety of Belizean food and the environment,” BAGMO said.

The organization explained, furthermore, that, “GM seeds can, by their very nature, contaminate the surrounding environment (including water systems, numerous non-targeted animals, insects and organisms, and the soil) with a man-made protein whose characteristics and actions are barely understood. Vertical transfer and resistance are already being noted in scientific studies indicating that these proteins are indeed having impacts well beyond those desired by the biotech industry.”

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