Row Erupts in Colombia Over Use of GM Crops Amid Need to Boost Food Production

The country currently imports around 12 million tons of food, equivalent to 30% of its total consumption, according to Greenpeace

Genetically-modified seedlings
August 10, 2022 | 06:36 PM

Read this story in

Spanish

Bogotá — While Colombia’s new President Gustavo Petro has been critical of the use of genetically modified (GM) crops, the country’s Association of Agricultural Plant Biotechnology (Agro-Bio) considers it has more points in common with the new government than differences of agreement, and says it is open to debate the scientific basis of the issue.

At the same time, a bill was proposed in Congress in July that aims to restrict the use of GM crops in the country.

“We have many points in common with this government’s plan,” Agro-Bio’s executive director María Andrea Uscátegui said in an interview with Bloomberg Línea, referring to policy aspects such as food security and climate change.

PUBLICIDAD

She highlighted that while Colombia has the land to produce a diversity of crops, there must also be a good level of production.

“Technology can reach any farmer, and if they have good seeds and pursue good management practices, they can have food for themselves,” she added.

“Biotechnology is one more tool to continue producing food for a growing population (...) we need to have good production and distribution of food, as hunger is not only about production,” she said.

There are very good opportunities to grow, to reduce imports, to increase domestic production and to supply the demand that is really required in the country, both in corn and soybeans.

María Andrea Uscátegui, Agro-Bio’s executive director

During his investiture speech, President Gustavo Petro stated on Sunday that “Colombia is a country that must and can enjoy food sovereignty to achieve zero hunger”, and that the state, together with the private sector that wants to get involved, must “guarantee full healthy food for the whole of Colombian society and achieve export surpluses”.

PUBLICIDAD

Increasing food production was highlighted as a priority for the new government by the country’s Finance Minister José Antonio Ocampo, prior to taking office.

“The state will have to provide irrigation, credits, techniques, improved seeds, protection, and farmers and private enterprise can provide the work and daily commitment to ensure that our fields return to produce the food that our people need,” Petro said during his investiture speech.

However, in 2017 Petro had cast doubt on the use of GM crops in the country, saying “genetically modified crops have unforeseeable consequences on human health”, in response to a tweet by Pablo Felipe Robledo, who was at that time the head of the Superintendency for Industry and Commerce.

Petro also referred to Robledo as being an official who was subordinate to private interests.

Agro-Bio’s Uscátegui pointed out that GM crops could contribute to reducing imports of crops such as corn and cotton, while highlighting that there are other opportunities in transgenic soybeans, which although not yet marketed, have already been approved.

“We can reduce imports, produce locally, we have the technology, so let’s get to work,” she said.

PUBLICIDAD

Currently, Colombia imports some 12 million tons of food, the equivalent of 30% of what the country consumes, according to a report by Greenpeace entitled New Food Culture Manifesto.

For Uscátegui, there is the possibility of planting more crops in the country with the efficiency generated by new practices applied to seeds with technology.

“We can plant in the country, it will not happen overnight, but we believe in the possibility that we can compete (...). Traditional corn can reach maximum yields of two tons per hectare, a hybrid corn without biotechnology can reach averages of between four and five tons per hectare, and a hybrid corn with biotechnology can have yields of six tons and even regions such as Valle del Cauca have achieved yields of 12 tons per hectare,” she added.

Disinformation and ‘demonization’

Figures from the Colombian Agricultural Institute (ICA), cited by Agro-Bio, indicate that Colombia planted a total of 150,451 hectares (371,772 acres) of transgenic crops in 2021, of which 142,975 hectares corresponded to corn and 7,464 to genetically modified cotton.

PUBLICIDAD

A total of 22 departments in the country are estimated to plant GM crops, with Meta (with 52,134 hectares); Tolima (with 38,913); Córdoba (with 19,228); Valle del Cauca (with 13,800) and Cesar (with 7,325) making the largest contribution last year.

PUBLICIDAD

Questioned about the stigma that is attached to the use of GM crops, Uscátegui said this is due to the “disinformation and misinformation that has been disseminated on the subject. Unfortunately, scientists were not very used to communicating, and I think that has been lacking”.

It is necessary, she said, “that those who develop the technology tell of the impact and the benefits that GM crops can have for humanity”, since she considers that some sectors “have taken advantage of the silence to spread propaganda that has not benefited the technology, and has demonized it”.

Greenpeace has another opinion, however, and has stated that both pesticides and transgenic seeds “can affect the biodiversity associated with crops, including pollinators and microorganisms in the soil”.

PUBLICIDAD

A controversial bill

Last year, 142,975 hectares of GM corn was planted, a year-on-year increase of 31%.dfd

In late July, Colombian Congress member Juan Carlos Losada presented a bill that seeks to restrict the use of transgenic seeds, Losada argues, to defend farmers, native seeds, soil and ancestral practices.

Although the bill seeks to impose several restrictions on the use of GM seeds, it also contemplates certain exceptions in cases “in which their use is required to guarantee food security”.

Uscátegui described the proposed bill as “unfortunate” and said it would “set back 20 years” the use of such technology in the country, limiting farmers’ access to such crops and affecting the economy of the families that live off growing them.

PUBLICIDAD

“In Colombia there are many scientists who have sent letters to the representative or to commission, which is where it has to be discussed, because they believe that his arguments have no scientific support, they have been based on myths, and some even have no reference to [the reality] and some of the studies he cites have been discredited by the scientific community and even retracted by peer review journals,” she said.

Agro-Bio considers that restricting the use of GM seeds would represent the closing of the possibility “to solve many of the problems that challenge agriculture”, such as large-scale food production, climate change or the fight against pests, for which it considers it important to have more resistant crops.

Logistics crisis not affecting Colombia’s GM food production

The current international logistics crisis has also generated pressures on the agricultural sector due to the lack of availability of certain commodities, such as fertilizers supplied by Russia and Ukraine, due to the ongoing war.

PUBLICIDAD

But despite such challenges, Uscátegui assures that the supply of transgenic seeds is guaranteed for production for the rest of the year, and that there are good prospects for cotton and corn.

“There are possibilities for cotton planting, that production will continue to grow, and corn remains stable, or we will produce a little more from transgenic seeds” this year, she said.

Last year alone, 142,975 hectares (353,298 acres) of genetically modified corn were planted, which represented an increase of 31%, while 99% of the cotton planted in Colombia is transgenic, totaling 7,464 hectares (18,443 acres) in 2021, a 55% increase compared to 2020.

Translated from the Spanish by Adam Critchley