GM maize finds its way to Cuba's fields

HAVANA, (Tierramérica) - With little fanfare, genetically modified maize produced by Cuba's genetic and biotechnology engineering centre, CIGB, is being grown on test plots as part of a new project involving five of the Caribbean island nation's provinces.

The CIGB, Cuba's leading institution in scientific development, has been researching transgenic crops for several years, in programmes that its directors say are kept under strict regulations to ensure biological and environmental security.

But the experimental cultivation of genetically modified (GM) maize has sounded the alarm among academic experts with ties to agriculture.

The debate tends to be limited to scientific meetings and university classrooms, and not everyone in the farm industry seems to be aware of the issue.

Nor is the heated international controversy over the risks that GM crops could pose for human health and biological diversity very well known here.

'I don't know about all that, but we have very good varieties here, like this one that I'm growing, which is called 'canilla'. I have little land (one-eighth of a hectare), but I can also grow lettuce, cabbage and some root vegetables, which is enough for me to eat and sell to my neighbours,' Leonida Sames, who lives on the outskirts of Havana, told Tierramérica.

Another Havana urban farmer noted that 'there is little information' about GM crops and admitted that he had not read an article in the Cuban government-run press that announced the beginning of 'field trials' this year with a new grain that is resistant to the fall armyworm (Spodoptera frugiperda), the leading maize pest.

Genetic modification also aims for making a crop tolerant of an herbicide in order to achieve greater yields, according to statements to the press by Raúl Armas, an expert in plant biotechnology and the project coordinator at the CIGB bureau in Sancti Spiritus province.

The ultimate goal is to obtain seeds that allow expanded production for human and animal consumption, with approval by the authorities. In this first phase, a total of 60 hectares of the GM variety will be planted in Cuba, reported the state-run newspaper Juventud Rebelde. Without ignoring the fact that Cuba needs to increase and adapt its deficient food production to adverse climate conditions, the application of this technology is being refuted particularly by sectors that support organic farming and the recuperation and improvement of native variety through ecological techniques.

CIGB scientists say their research does not seek to profit the institution, but rather that they want the technology to be used in a rational way, as a complement to conventional genetics and other important techniques that are being developed here with good results.

'I see the release of transgenic crops as a great threat to the focus on agro-ecological farming that had been strategically adopted as a policy in Cuba,' Eduardo Freyre, a professor at the Agrarian University of Havana, told Tierramérica.

However, he clarified that his objections 'are not intended to discredit' what his country is doing in this field, and said the CIGB researchers' work and their efforts to provide 'exceptional guarantees of biosafety' are 'highly valuable.'

But with regard to the potential threats to health, he fears that, perhaps not in the short term, but in the mid to long term, GM foods could cause allergies, toxicity, immunological problems, cancer, infertility and even endocrine alterations.

'Not to mention the possibility of transgenic contamination, which endangers wild species and non-GM crops,' added Freyre, author of a prize-winning essay on the question to be published in an upcoming edition of the Cuban journal 'Temas'.

In his opinion, this technology 'is geared towards the interests of the multinational corporations and the market.' And taking into account its potential risks, it would be better for Cuba to concentrate on agro-ecological alternatives that have already begun to be adopted, he argued.

Havana has taken a discreet stance on the matter even in negotiations on international standards of responsibility and compensation for potential harm to biodiversity caused by transborder movement of GM crops, covered by the 2000 Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, ratified by Cuba in 2002.

Acknowledging that he is unaware of Cuba's position in those talks, Freyre noted that the negotiations have yet to produce results, and that resistance has come from countries like the United States and Argentina. 'If they reach an agreement, it would be very good for Cuba and the region,' he said. For example, it would clear up doubts about maize imported from the United States.

The talks have been going on for five years. Cuba was one of the countries in the Latin American and Caribbean Group (GRULAC) that attended as 'friends of the co-chairs' of the meeting held in February in Mexico to agree on the text of the standards.

Silvia Ribeiro, spokesperson in Latin America for the non-governmental ETC Action Group (Erosion, Technology and Concentration), based in Canada, attended the meeting as an observer. She lamented that GRULAC is the bloc that most clearly is trying to delay or undermine a binding policy on responsibility for harm caused by GM species.

'Cuba didn't speak up much at the meeting, but by omission, it remains on the side of the positions taken by the bloc, which is serious,' the activist told Tierramérica. It is 'lamentable' that after many years of 'taking a quite strict position on the issue of biosafety, now (Cuba) proposes to cultivate GM maize in open fields and to produce seeds.'

'I'm sure that in Cuba there is strong debate on this, and that organic farmers and many others, including academics, believe that this is a misstep, which places Cuba and its natural diversity and its seeds under unnecessary threat,' Ribeiro said in an e-mail interview from Mexico.

GM crops began to be planted in 1996, and currently cover 125 million hectares worldwide. The leaders are the United States, Argentina, Brazil, Canada and China. In early March, the Mexican government gave the green light to experimental cultivation of GM maize in that country.

(*This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Environment Programme and the World Bank.) (END/2009)