Genetically modified organisms (GMOs), created through engineering experiments which mix genes from one organism with the genes of another—such as bacteria and corn—continue to be the subject of worldwide controversy.
The biggest international corporation behind GMO crops is Monsanto—a company which continues to be embroiled in legal battles over rights to GMO seeds and crops, for which it holds patent protection which could bolster financial claims against local farmers. Such is the case in Indiana, USA.
According to a Reuters news report published Wednesday, “The St. Louis, Mo.-based company sued Indiana soybean farmer Vernon Bowman in 2007, accusing Bowman of patent infringement for planting and saving seeds that contained Monsanto’s genetically altered Roundup Ready technology even though Bowman said he bought those seeds as part of a mix of commodity seeds.”
Since early this year, there has been a debate raging over whether Belize—currently free of GMO crops although not free of GMO foods on supermarket shelves—should entertain the introduction of GMO technology in Belize’s agro-sector.
A trial run is being pursued for GMO corn, despite Belize’s unpreparedness to properly assess and monitor this technology.
“The seeds are here,” Gabino Canto, Chief Executive Officer in the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries confirmed to Amandala today.
He told us, however, that nothing will happen until Government gets the proper GMO protocol in place and “many things need to be done” before Belize ventures into commercial production—if it ever does.
We understand that it is an established rule that a risk assessment has to be done before importation of even canned products; however, the GMO corn was allowed to be imported without the requisite risk assessment. Canto told us that the seeds are in a vault at CARDI — the Caribbean Agricultural Research and Development Institute.
Whereas the GMO corn is being considered by the Mennonites of Spanish Lookout, who farm commercially; there are fears that the GMO corn, described as invasive, could eventually take over cornfields in places like Toledo, thereby wiping out the livelihoods of Toledo Maya who grow corn for both subsistence and trading purposes.
With patent rights claimed by the foreign corporation Monsanto, there are fears that the economic impacts could be far-reaching on rural communities whose meals are still heavily corn-based.
The controversial GMO corn is labeled Bt corn because it has a gene from the bacteria, Bacillus thuringiensis, which supposedly enables the plant to produce a toxin that keeps certain insect pests, which can devastate cornfields, in check.
While this sounds fabulous to many farmers who are promised higher crop yields, there are simultaneously concerns that such benefits may actually come at substantial and irrevocable costs. Belize’s current export of cornmeal to the Caribbean could also suffer repercussions, one government official suggested to us.
The seeds are already here but it would be a serious breach of government-established protocol for them to be planted without the requisite risk assessment as well as a solid socio-economic evaluation specific to Belize’s circumstances.
The purpose of doing these studies would be to find out beforehand if Belize should venture down the road of commercial GMO corn production—a road which Canto told Amandala has already been opened by neighboring Honduras and Guatemala.
Mexico, on the other hand, is reportedly resisting a GMO takeover, as it has studies to indicate that its local corn is hardy enough to survive climate change.
One government official we spoke with noted that Belize is in a unique position, being GMO-free, to tap into niche markets that don’t want genetically engineered products. There is a group of Belizeans lobbying to keep Belize GMO-free: Belizeans Against GMO (Genetically Modified Organism), an Open Facebook Group ([email protected]).
Mark Miller, who submitted a letter to Amandala on the issue early September, has informed that on the morning of Monday, October 3, a meeting will be held at the Parish Hall in Punta Gorda Town entitled: “How Dis Seed Wah Hambug Unu”.
A very prominent attorney who provides intellectual property registration services told us that in his view, “This [GMO corn production] is an area we should not mess with.”
He said that the Belize Intellectual Property Office (BELIPO) has the jurisdiction to refuse the registration of the patent for GMO corn in Belize, which would mean that Monsanto cannot have protected status in Belize, on the grounds that the refusal is needed to protect public order, morality and human, animal and plant life, as well as to avoid serious prejudice to the environment.
The attorney said that while he is aware that proponents of GMO corn argue for the need for more resistant corn, he is also concerned that tampering with nature—such as creating super mosquitoes or those that would die off easily—would create serious imbalances. Given the public interest issues, where GMO corn is concerned, BELIPO does not have to grant patent protection, even if the application meets the criteria, said the attorney.
Amandala understands from a technical expert in the government service who also wishes to remain unnamed that the GMO seeds have been engineered for resistance to naturally occurring pests, such as the army worm, which has been impacting local corn fields, as well as for resistance to Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide—which kills weeds but won’t kill the Bt corn due to the built-in genetic resistance.
GMO corn and soybeans are already being imported in Belize, but in packaged goods and animal feed. Canto noted that the soy used for animal feed is based on GMO soy, and the imported corn flakes that sit on supermarket shelves are made with GMO corn. Canto added however, that there are valid concerns over the impact GMO produce has on human health.
Whereas we have been told that the jury is still out on this health matter, there are already existing cases where GMO corn has crossed over into non-GMO fields and taken over.
Canto said that the trial run in Belize should not pose that danger, since the 20 pounds of seed would be planted under quarantine and the 6 plots of about 15 by 20 feet, to be surrounded by electric fencing, would be under the watch of a guard to discourage theft of the GMO corn.
He also told us that the Government of Belize has not given any permission for commercial importation of GMO corn seeds—only for the trial plots, which won’t be done until the GMO protocol is in place and the proper studies done.
The reports to our newspaper have indicated that permission has been given to plant trial plots in Spanish Lookout, Cayo, because farmers there have been having major problems with pests and they are reportedly considering GMO corn as a more pest-resistant alternative.
Amandala was directed to Mennonite farmer Henry Wolfe, who told us when we contacted him on his cell phone to call him back after 4:00 this evening, since he would be tied up for hours conducting a tour with farmers. We called Wolfe back several times since and have received no reply to our calls.
Canto said that there is no other GMO crop being considered for planting in Belize at this time, and if GMO corn does come to Belize, commercial production would not begin until 2015 or so.
He said that currently, for commercial production, Belize imports hybrid seeds—which are not of the GMO stock—mostly from the USA.
Whereas the technical sources we consulted agree that GMO corn has the potential to replace local crops, Canto said that he would personally not want to see a replacement by GMO corn in Belize.
He said that there are many benefits promoted by GMO proponents. “We plant the trial plots to see if they are true,” he said.
He told us that the trial plots, which would grow over a 3-month period during the corn offseason to avoid crosspollination issues, would “remain under strict control” and the crops would be incinerated after the data are gathered. The trials, said Canto, would have to be done multiple times, in order to do a valid study.
As for concerns that local farmers could face suits from the patent-holder, Monsanto, if the GM corn ends up in their fields, Canto said, he does not want to see such a situation arise in Belize.
Belize’s biosafety policy stipulates that “Belize shall ensure that…. Risk assessment and management of GMO and GMOs used…shall be carried out according to national biosafety regulations. Decisions shall be based on evaluation of the risks that may result from a biotechnology product, application or procedure.”
Government’s technical sources would not go on record, although they are concerned over the manner in which the GMO corn has been introduced in Belize—and the lack of proper studies prior to the importation of the genetically modified seeds.
One concerned citizen notes that, “The action of the [Department of Agriculture] and BioSafety Council in authorizing trial genetically modified (GM) crops is simply unacceptable — and contravenes the Belize National BioSafety Policy of 2009.”
According to the Government’s own policy document, which our newspaper has perused, “This policy provides the framework to protect the natural resources of Belize and the health of the people living in the country from the adverse effects that may arise from the development and application of GMOs and its derived products including pharmaceuticals.”
It furthermore notes that, “The use of genetic modification therefore must be weighed against all known and unknown risks, and overall, must be judicious.”
Amandala had been made to understand that the intent was to plant the seeds as early as next month, October 2011, but when we spoke to Canto today, he said that they won’t likely be planted before 2012.
We understand that among those who had expressed objections to the manner in which the Ministry of Agriculture has moved with permitting the importation of the GMO seeds is the Department of the Environment. Other technical experts, including Dr. Michael Deshield, director of food safety of the Belize Agricultural Health Authority (BAHA), have documented their concerns to Government that Belize is simply not ready to even consider venturing down the road to GMO technology given that it does not have the right framework in place.
Canto agreed that over the coming months, there has to be more consultations on this matter. He told us that a consultation had been held at the George Price Center in March.