By Carmelo Ruiz Marrero
By January 2005 Puerto Rico had had 1,330 field releases for experimental transgenic crops on the island, which had resulted in 3,483 transgenic field tests. According to the documentation, these experimental crops were being authorized in Puerto Rico as early as 1987, almost a decade before the United States authorities allowed the human consumption of GM foods.
In the fiery global debate around genetically modified, or transgenic foods and organisms, the little-known role of the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico has largely gone unnoticed and has thus far evaded critical scrutiny. Agricultural biotechnology activity in this tropical colony in the United States is massive.
"Puerto Rico attracts agricultural biotechnology companies due to its tropical climate that allows up to four annual harvests and the availability of the government to accelerate (fast-track) permits," according to doctors Margarita Irizarry and José Rodríguez Orengo, professors at the Science Campus Doctors from the University of Puerto Rico (UPR). “Furthermore, opposition to GM foods is almost non-existent on the island and no particular environmental group is protesting the presence of (agricultural biotech and seed companies) Dow, Syngenta Seeds, Pioneer HiBred, Mycogen Seeds, Rice Tech, AgReliant Genetics, Bayer Cropscience, and Monsanto. "
Since 2004, we at the Puerto Rico Biosafety Project have been trying to find out what is happening in our country in terms of transgenic crops. We have obtained very little information so far, but what little we have been able to learn is quite concerning.
We were able to obtain some information from Biotechnology Regulatory Services (BRS), an office within the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), which is part of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). BRS data show that as of January 2005 Puerto Rico had had 1,330 field releases for experimental transgenic crops on the island, which had resulted in 3,483 transgenic field tests. According to the documentation, these experimental crops were being authorized in Puerto Rico as early as 1987, almost a decade before the United States authorities allowed the human consumption of GM foods.
Where exactly are these crops? What traits are they testing? We do not know. The USDA says that all of this is confidential company information.
With the sole exception of Hawai'i, no state in the US has had so many experimental GMO crops per square mile. The only ones to have had more field tests were Hawai’i (5,413), Illinois (5,092) and Iowa (4,659). Keep in mind that Puerto Rico is less than 4,000 square miles, while Illinois and Iowa each have over 50,000 square miles. Our island far exceeded the state of California, which had 1,964 "field tests", although it is 40 times greater than Puerto Rico.
These data, of course, must be updated. We have been walking with these under our arms and showing them to everyone for four years now. But we see no reason to think that the situation has changed significantly since 2005.
It should be clarified that when we say experimental crops, it is not that the surrounding populations are guinea pigs in a sinister experiment with involuntary human subjects with possible military applications, as some people who like conspiracy theories believe. The information available from BRS does not support such a conjecture. Biotech companies and the USDA don't give a damn what GMOs can do to human health or the environment. Everything seems to indicate that this experimental activity is to measure yields and to make sure that the transgenic traits have been properly introduced to the crop.
It is also important to note that not all agricultural biotechnology activity in Puerto Rico is experimental. We also have a considerable commercial production of GMOs, of which we know even less. This production is exported to the United States - and who knows where else - for use as seed.
The colonial reality
Foreign colleagues have asked me what is the position of the government of Puerto Rico on this matter in international forums, such as the UN Convention on Biodiversity and the Cartagena Protocol, an international agreement that aims to regulate the transboundary movement of transgenics. The answer to that question is: none. Given that we lack sovereignty, Puerto Rico does not participate in any international forum and is not a member of the UN, the Organization of American States, or any other international political organization.
At the international level, Puerto Ricans are always represented by the United States government. And within that government we have no voice or vote. Although we are subject to the laws of the United States, the residents of Puerto Rico cannot vote in the presidential elections of that country - even though the president in Washington is our de facto head of state - nor do we have any representation in the legislative branch. from the USA. Therefore, to address the GMO problem - and any other issue - Puerto Ricans do not have the options that a sovereign and independent country has at their disposal, nor those that one of the 50 states of the United States has at their disposal. We are really nowhere.
Where are they?
Almost all of these transgenic crops - whether experimental or commercial - are planted in the southern and southeastern plains of the island, in a strip of land that extends from Juana Díaz to Guayama, and are especially concentrated between the municipalities of Santa Isabel and Salinas, south of Express 52 and north of Highway 1.
Several witnesses have told us that security on these agricultural lands is extreme. One cannot stop the car next to one of those fields without police appearing to ask what one is doing there- and taking photos or filming is not allowed. They say it is to combat theft. It is true that the theft - of crops and even machinery - is one of the most serious problems in Puerto Rican agriculture, but we also note that farms that do not grow GMOs do not enjoy such diligent police protection.
One can also find transgenic crops in the town of Isabela, in the northwest of the island, where Monsanto Caribe has an experimental station on the south side of Highway 2. And we would not be surprised to find transgenic crops also in the fertile valley of Lajas, in the southwest, surely the best agricultural terroir in all of Puerto Rico.
GMO tropical paradise
Successive governments of the country's largest political parties, the Popular Democratic Party (PPD) and the New Progressive Party (PNP) have put biotechnology at the center of their strategies to attract investment. From manufacturing, with its slogan "Get to Work", we have moved to biotechnology - pharmaceutical and agricultural - with bombastic advertising slogans like "Minds to Work" and "The Knowledge Economy". The Industrial Development Company (PRIDCO) advertises Puerto Rico as the “Bio-Island” and aggressively advertises to foreign investors the advantages and desirability of establishing biotechnology operations in the country.
It is not surprising that the UPR leads the way in promoting biotechnology in the country. Its Mayagüez (RUM), Medical Sciences, Humacao, Río Piedras and Bayamón campuses all have biotechnology programs. The RUM has an Industrial Biotechnology Learning Center and the Rio Piedras campus is developing a baccalaureate in this specialty.
Private universities are also looking to fish in troubled rivers. The Interamericana offers biotechnology curricula in its Bayamón and Barranquitas campuses, the Pontificia de Ponce has just announced that it offers a master's degree in biotechnology with an emphasis on agricultural applications, and the Metropolitan University has a bachelor's degree in biology with an emphasis on molecular biology, a discipline in the one on which genetic engineering is based.
The industry is very grateful and appreciates the good environment that Puerto Rico offers. In 2006, the then governor Aníbal Acevedo Vilá (of the PPD) was awarded the title of “governor of the year” by the Biotechnology Industry Organization, a group that represents over a thousand companies, academic institutions and research centers in the United States and 31 other countries.
In January 2009, Senator Berdiel Rivera (of the PNP) filed Bill 202, which promotes agricultural biotechnology on the island. As if biotech corporations need more support than they have already received from the government of Puerto Rico in the last two decades!
Doubts about GMOs are growing
Senator Rivera and those young university students who are being indoctrinated by biotechnology curricula should know what is happening in the rest of the world with respect to transgenics. Last May, the American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) declared that transgenic foods pose a serious health risk and called for a moratorium on these foods. Citing the results of several studies done with laboratory animals, the AAEM concludes that "there is a more than casual association between transgenic foods and adverse health effects" and that "transgenic foods pose a serious health risk in areas of toxicology, allergy, immune function, reproductive health, and metabolic, physiological and genetic health. "
And in 2008 a very important document was published: the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), the product of the most thorough, authoritative, extensive and detailed study ever done on the state of world agriculture. It was written by over 400 international experts, submitted to two independent peer reviews, and was the product of an inclusive and participatory process in which industry, governments, and civil society participated as equal partners, with the support of government agencies. the UN and the World Bank.
In short, the report concludes that the model of industrial, corporate and globalized agriculture cannot continue, given that it is unsustainable and is literally devouring the planet's heritage. As an alternative, it favors small-scale agroecological production, precisely what environmentalists and organic farmers have been proposing for decades.
Regarding biotechnology and GM crops, the IAASTD report is cautious and lacking enthusiasm. Rather than the marketing and propaganda discourse masquerading as science and education that we hear from governments, universities, and the news media seemingly incapable of critical questioning, the report advised caution and called for more studies on the safety of GMOs.
Wake up boricua
And while around the world the safety and necessity of GMOs is increasingly being questioned, here in Puerto Rico our government is selling us agricultural biotechnology as if it were the last thing on the street.
Some people have argued with good intentions that Bill 202 will regulate the activity of transgenic crops in Puerto Rico, and that this is preferable to having them freely without any control or regulation. But this technology cannot be controlled. Once sown outdoors, GMOs cannot be controlled or removed. They proliferate and multiply, as does every living being. No country that has allowed the entry of transgenic crops has been able to control them. Therefore, Bill 202 will only give additional legitimacy to dangerous and unnecessary technology.
Carmelo Ruiz Marrero He is a journalist and environmental educator, directs the Puerto Rico Biosafety Project (http://bioseguridad.blogspot.com/). He is also the creator of the bilingual blog Making Point in another Blog (http://carmeloruiz.blogspot.com/). His articles have been published by Interpress Service, CIP Americas Policy Program, Counterpunch, La Jornada, Ecoportal, Rebelión, Alternet, Corporate Watch and The Ecologist.
Other articles by Carmelo Ruiz Marrero on GMOs:
"Are GMOs Safe?" September 9, 2008
"Biotechnology and Biosafety" Claridad Newspaper. November 5, 2008.
American Academy of Environmental Medicine. "Position paper on genetically modified foods", May 2009.
Biotechnology Industry Organization. "BIO names Puerto Rico governor‘ Governor of the Year ’", April 10, 2006.
IAASTD Report, 2008. http://www.agassessment.org/
M. Irizarry and J. Rodríguez-Orengo. "Biotechnology in Puerto Rico: Educational and Ethical Implications", 2009.
TexPIRG Education Fund. "Raising Risk: Field Testing of Genetically Engineered Crops in the United States", 2005.