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BIOTECHNOLOGY IN LATIN AMERICA



From: Information Systems for Biotechnology <isb@gophisb.biochem.vt.edu>
Subject: ISB News Report - May 1999

BIOTECHNOLOGY IN LATIN AMERICA AFTER CARTAGENA

After February’s UN-sponsored biosafety talks in Cartagena,
Colombia failed to produce a consensus among the 134
countries present, it is worth taking the pulse of the region
surrounding this Caribbean city. How do the different Latin
American nations fit into the global biotechnology picture?

First, it should be said that these talks did not neatly divide
along north vs. south lines, despite how some journalists
covered it. The so-called Miami Group (United States,
Canada, Australia, and three Latin nations--Argentina,
Uruguay, and Chile), named after the site of last year’s
meeting, is the principal opponent to an eleventh-hour
version of what would have been the first international
protocol on transboundary movement of genetically
engineered organisms. This illustrates the diversity within this
region when it comes to biotechnology research,
development, trade, and regulations.

Argentina leads the latin nations with 4.3 million hectares
dedicated to herbicide resistant soybean, second only to the
U.S. with more than 20.5 million hectares (1). This sizable
production has been possible primarily owing to Argentina’s
temperate climate, in marked contrast to its neighbor, Brazil.
Argentina’s development in this area creates one of the most
marked splits within the region's 23 nations, as environmental
groups and even some of the other Latin delegations at the
talks vilified Argentina and its neighbors for being associated
with the Miami Group.

"We’ve been accused of treason," said Ricardo Lagorio of
Argentina’s Foreign Affairs Ministry. "But we're acting in an
open, transparent manner, as part of a group with shared
interests. And we consider that the future of the world food is
with biotechnology...while also seeing it important that
environment not be affected."

Although Brazil did not align itself with the Miami Group, the
region’s most populated country has contemplated the role
that genetically engineered crops could play in its agriculture
since the 1990s (2). In fact, Brazil adopted Latin America's
first biosafety law in 1995. "In Cartagena, we didn't want to
sign a protocol that would be less stringent than our national
law, or that would force us to change our regime," said
researcher Genaro de Paiva. He serves on Brazil’s Biosafety
Commission, created by this same law. "We are a center of
megabiodiversity," said Dr. De Paiva. "Brazil is where these
issues are being played out. At the same time, we think that
the use of these organisms can be regulated in a
case-by-case, scientific manner." The scientist added that
Brazil differed with the Miami Group over including
commodities such as corn and soybeans in a proposed
review process prior to the first shipment between countries.

The group of exporting countries adamantly opposed this
measure, and said the process should apply only to
genetically engineered seeds destined to be planted in the
ground. They alleged that seeds should be reviewed for
possible risks to the environment and biological diversity, but
that commodities posed no such risks. In a recent interview,
Dr. De Paiva added, "We are now creating an operating list of
products that could be exempted from review on the second
movement." The scientist also emphasized that commercial
production of transgenic crops in Brazil is still a few years off,
and that "most products being evaluated at this point are still
routine, like Bt maize and Roundup®-ready soy."

The latter is the most extensively planted in field trials, with
around 2,500 hectares in all. Dr. De Paiva emphasized that
wild relatives of soy are not found in Brazil, and so the issue
of possible gene flow and threats to biodiversity are
minimized with this crop. He also mentioned that varieties
being tested are local, and not suitable for temperate
climates (unlike Argentina’s, which are).

Like Brazil, Colombia is a global center of megabiodiversity.
But as host country in Cartagena, it wound up in an unusual
position, saddled with the difficult position of peacemaker.
Delegate Cristian Samper said his country was pushing for a
"wide scope," and that "without a protocol, we’ve temporarily
lost the possibility of having a multilateral, international
instrument of control, which we hoped would place some
responsibility on exporting countries."

At the same time, Colombia is presently testing its new
national biosafety regulations and review committee. The
regulations were adopted in December of last year; the
review committee established to enforce them will be meeting
for the first time next month to review applications for field
trials, which can still be counted on two hands. According to
Carlos Silva, of the Colombian Agricultural Institute (ICA)--the
government entity charged with maintaining the Andean
country’s biosafety regulations--these applications range
from Bt potatoes and maize to blue carnations. There is also
an application pending for a variety of indica rice developed
at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT).
The rice is engineered for resistance to hoja blanca, a
disease-causing virus found only in Latin America, and which
is capable of destroying as much as 80% of commercial
crops.

Dr. Samper, director of the Humboldt Biological Resources
Institute, added that "the Andean Group plans to adopt its
own biosafety protocol this year, taking advantage of our
similarities in biodiversity, culture, and foodstuffs." Silva
echoed this concept, stating, "why wait for an international
protocol--we could create an Andean pact and then make
any necessary changes." The Andean group also includes
Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela, countries with little
development in biotechnology as of yet.

The region’s other major player is Mexico. In fact, Mexico is
the only Latin nation apart from Argentina that figures in a list
of global leaders in commercial cultivation of transgenic
crops, with about 100,000 hectares total (1). According to Dr.
Amanda Galvez, a member of the Mexican delegation in
Cartagena and part of a national commission on biodiversity
(CONABIO), the correct term should be "pre-commercial,"
since the Bt cotton in question here is still being closely
monitored for commercialization by the Ministry of Agriculture.

Being the genetic and evolutionary homeland of maize,
transgenic work with this crop has been of some concern in
Mexico. Apart from the International Maize and Wheat
Improvement Center’s (CIMMYT) limited, enclosed
experiments with apomixis, the Mexican government has now
restricted transgenic maize release. (This despite the lack of
alarm expressed by Damaso Luna, Environmental Director of
Mexico’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cartagena delegation
member. Shortly after Cartagena, he stated that it was "too
early and alarmist to be saying that the apocalypsis is at
hand for maize.")

As for Mexico’s position in Cartagena, Dr. Luna said, "We
were interested in having a protocol with clear rules that
could protect biodiversity without duly interrupting trade.
We’re concerned that the very genetic resources on which
this technology and the future will depend are in balance
here. But we have our own guidelines and will continue to
develop them, with or without a protocol."

In fact, as the ISB News Report goes to press, Mexico
President Ernesto Zedillo is reviewing new recommendations
made by a body of 15 scientists coordinated by CONABIO on
biodiversity conservation and biotechnology research for
meeting national needs. As Dr. Galvez put it, "in Mexico, we’re
still importing this technology, and most of our concerns as a
nation are still not being addressed."

Of course, there is a flip side to the issue of possible gene
flow to wild relatives and land races--as raised with maize in
Mexico, potato in the Andean nations, and in nations with
high biodiversity in general. At this point, neither the public
nor the private sector offer the small farmer incentive for
developing land races; wild relatives are left out of the picture
altogether. Subsistence farmers will tend to look for varieties
that help them feed their families, either by increasing yield or
lowering costs (for inputs such as pesticides and
fertilizers)--whether obtained from traditional breeding or
genetic engineering.

Small-scale farmers in Latin America are either going to be
financially compensated for conserving the native germplasm
that is at the heart of many of the concerns regarding
genetically engineered crops, biosafety, and biodiversity, or
more resources will have to be put into seed banks and
germplasm research. This will be a key issue in the years to
come, from the southern cone up to Mexico, as genes and
agriculture converge to an even greater degree (3).

Sources

1. James C. 1998. Global Review of Transgenic Crops: 1998.
ISAA Briefs No. 8. Ithaca, N.Y: ISAA.

2. Sampaio M. 1999. Perspectives from National Agricultural
Research Systems. In Biotechnology and Biosafety, eds. I
Serageldin and W Collins. Washington, D.C.: The World
Bank.

3. Pers. Comm., Willy De Greef, Head Regulatory &
Government Affairs, Novartis.

Timothy Pratt
Journalist
Cali, Colombia
v.communicaciones@cgiar.org


***********************************************************


The material in this News Report is compiled by NBIAP's
Information Systems for Biotechnology, a joint project of
USDA/CSREES and the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and
State University. It does not necessarily reflect the views of
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     Ruth Irwin, Associate Editor
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