December 16, 2010

An Independent Study In Peru: Examining The Controversy Concerning Genetically Engineered Corn

December 16, 2010 - James McKenna discusses commodities in South America.

December 16, 2010

Here is a quick little story about my independent research project during my semester aboard. Last spring, I lived and studied in Peru for three and half months. The majority of my time was spent in Cusco, the city that was once the center of the Incan Empire. I also had the opportunity to travel beyond the Andes, down into the Amazon rainforest, and to the coast as well. In each of these three regions I found myself astounded by the different agricultural practices. I was fascinated by the traditional technologies, the diversity of varieties and species, and the abundance that these systems were capable of yielding. Despite my interest in the more traditional agrarian structures I found myself studying Peru’s most industrialized and commodified models of agricultural production. As a part of the study abroad program, students construct an independent research project that is situated in the area where their topic is taking place. I chose to study corn; more specifically the current legal, political, and ecological concerns surrounding the cultivation of genetically engineered (GE) hard yellow corn. In turn I found myself in one of South America’s largest cities, Lima. I stayed in Lima for three weeks and spent most of my time hopping buses and running all around the sprawling city to conduct interviews and speak with individuals involved in the current debate regarding the use and illegal presence of agricultural biotechnology.

Currently it is illegal to cultivate biotechnology in Peru; however, in 2009 a biologist by the name of Dr. Gutiérrez-Rosati discovered the presence of genetically engineered alleles in hard yellow corn growing in the Northern coastal region. This means that Peruvian varieties of conventional hard yellow corn cross-pollinated and exchanged genetic information with a GE variety of hard yellow corn. Yellow corn is grown primarily to feed pigs and chickens, while it is also used to make oils and flours. One thing I noticed quickly upon arriving to Peru is that Peruvians love to eat chicken. This food protein preference creates a large demand for yellow corn to fatten the chickens. The current levels of production cannot meet the high need and therefore Peru imports corn from two countries: Argentina and the United States. These two countries are the world’s leaders in corn production as well as the leaders in the use of agricultural biotechnology. The presence of transgenes in Peru’s hard yellow corn has been attributed to the importation of GE varieties. The most likely scenario is that farmers are sowing the imported corn instead of using it as feed. When I arrived in Lima I was curious to understand what greater implications would ensue as a result of these GE corn varieties in the coastal region.

My goal was to listen to the differing opinions and perspectives regarding the presence of GE corn in the northern coastal region, and to contextualize this in the greater debate regarding the future use of agricultural biotechnology in Peru’s food system. I spoke with many individuals who are involved in the subject matter in varying ways; biologists, environmental lawyers, the owner of a Peruvian biotechnology firm, government employees of agricultural organizations (equivalent to the USDA), and with activists and agricultural commodity traders. Each conversation offered a new lens from which to view genetically engineered yellow corn and biotechnology in general. I was able to see how this crop has a long and complicated series of relationships and particularly its economic significance. I left Lima with a much greater understanding of the GE corn feud however this was only a minute component of the biotechnology debate. Furthermore, the discussion around GE corn in Peru has changed dramatically since I left Peru.

Upon returning to Lewis & Clark College, I discovered that Dr. Gutiérrez’s claim that transgenes are present in Peru’s corn has been negated. The Peruvian governmental organization INIA, the institution in charge of agricultural investigation and experimentation, declared Peru to be free of transgenic crops. They claimed to have found no evidence of genetically engineered DNA in the corn samples, which they allegedly took from the same region where Dr. Gutiérrez collected her samples. INIA requested for Dr. Gutiérrez that she provide them with her samples with the transgenes and the locations in which she found them. Interestingly, Dr. Gutiérrez refused to provide INIA with the samples and the locations.

This new development leaves us without an ending and provokes a whole new series of questions. My biggest question is simply why Dr. Gutiérrez is withholding the information and evidence needed to resolve the situation. My guess would be that she is attempting to protect the farmers whose fields produced the transgenic corn, in order to prevent legal issues that may include patent violations as well as infringement of national law. Though it is rather curious that she has refused to provide the desired information to INIA, from the conversations I have had with her I would like to believe she is a genuine and honest person, invested in the well being and health of her national food system as well as its biodiversity. If I am correct and these are her objectives then she must come forward and provide the necessary information to INIA. If Gutiérrez fails to provide the samples and the locations where she found them, Peru and it’s corn diversity may be a risk.