HAVANA TIMES, April 22 (IPS*) – In these times of debate and controversy over genetically engineered foods, a competition held by the Cuban magazine Temas, awarded an original work that approaches the issue from a critical yet profound and incisive perspective.
“Speaking of Transgenics” was the title of the winning article, written by Dr. Eduardo Francisco Freyre Roach, a tenured professor at the Havana Agricultural University (UNAH).
The prize coincided with an announcement made by scientists at the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (CIGB) concerning the beginning of “field tests” with a corn transgenic.
From the central Cuban province of Sancti Spíritus, Raúl Armas, a specialist with CIGB in that region, reported that they had modified a Cuban variety of the crop to make it resistant to the corn moth, the principal pest that affects the plant on the island.
As was reported in the Juventud Rebelde newspaper on February 26, “The research, carried out under the rigorous biological and environmental security controls established in Cuba, is in the introductory phase. It has the objective of obtaining seeds that will subsequently allow for the production of the crop for human and animal consumption, provided the modified plant is approved by the authorized agencies.”
In an interview on such a controversial issue, Freyre approached different facets of the matter as they concern society.
What disadvantages and risks to human health and the environment are posed by transgenic foods?
EDUARDO FREYRE: As we know, these “foods” are products derived from genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in which the genome is manipulated. The question is what will happen, in the long term, to the behavior of the organism in the ecosystem, given that systems constant changing.
On this and other matters there is a great deal of uncertainty, as is recognized by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the World Health Organization (WHO), independent researchers (those not associated with transnational corporations) and in reports on experiments.
With good reason it’s feared-perhaps not in the short run, but in the medium or long term- that these foods will cause allergies, toxicity, immunologic difficulties, cancer, infertility and even endocrinal dysfunctions. That’s not to mention the possibility of transgenic contamination, which puts wild and cultivated plant species in danger. We have to ask whether we’ll be able to control the natural and social gene flow.
Then too, if genetic engineering is compatible only with large-scale industrialized agriculture, what will this mean to extensive mono-cultivation, the intensive use of plant vaccines and chemical fertilizers, and on the saving or reduction human labor power?
EDUARDO FREYRE: Not even those who advocate genetic engineering dismiss those risks, though they usually assume these to be minimal and technically controllable. In my view, with this technology-developed in the interests of the transnationals and the market-the priority must be to take a precautionary approach from the very beginning, as stipulated in the Río Declaration, the Biodiversity Convention and the Cartagena Protocol.
Is there any benefit from the production of transgenic foods?
EDUARDO FREYRE: Yes, I believe that it might possibly be advantageous, in cases where it is demonstrated that a transgenic is medicinal or indispensable from a pharmaceutical point of view; that is to say, if there is no other way to solve a certain problem. Cuba has had made important inroads in this, but we know that crops produced this way are created under conditions of isolation.
We do not accept these risks lightly, but rather they are tolerated because there is no other option. Still, it’s always necessary to ask if there exists another more effective and, at the same time, less risky solution.
Likewise, I see another advantage: to advance our fundamental or basic knowledge of genetic processes. The island is increasingly promoting intellectual property and the development of our human resources. We must not become stragglers in this, and the dedicated effort that is being made by our nation’s researchers at the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology is truly immense.
Do you believe then that, despite the warnings of academics such as yourself, the country is prepared for the large-scale production of that type of corn. In light of such news, what is the reaction from the academic sector adverse to transgenic production?
EDUARDO FREYRE: Personally I was not surprised by the news. Since the end of the 1990s they have spoken openly and with great emphasis about this matter. Many of my colleagues in the organic agriculture movement must feel as concerned as I am about this announcement.
Speaking for myself, and not for others, I see the deregulation of transgenics in Cuba as being a great threat to the strategic agro-ecological principles of our agricultural policy.
However, I give high praise to the devoted and determined work that our research colleagues at the Biotech Center are doing to offer better seeds to farmers. I’m delighted with the type of corn they have created, and with the fact that for more than 20 years they have worked arduously and responsibly so that “our transgenics” have exceptional bio-security guarantees.
I’m saying that my objections against transgenic deregulation in Cuba are not aimed at taking credit away from what the country is doing in this field, because, after all, we clearly need to improve agricultural production and to increase import substitution.
Simply, for me, keeping in mind the discussions that are taking place around the world concerning this technology and the potential risks it involves, I think it is better to do without transgenics and to concentrate on alternatives approaches.
These other techniques include those offered by agro-ecology, the farming of idle lands, the reallocation of land holdings and changes to the agricultural market; this means offering various incentives to live and work in the country, and the revitalization of towns and the cooperative farm sector.
The contribution that has been made by agro-ecological production in the rural and cooperative sectors has still not been fully valued; nor is the potential appreciated for offering increased land and incentives for this type of production.
Cuba needs to produce food to increase its availability and to reduce imports. Don’t you believe that these are powerful reasons for the scientists at the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology to hope that the outcomes of their research can contribute to resolving these problems?
EDUARDO FREYRE: Yes, it’s a powerful reason, but not a sufficient one. It’s not enough to have good intentions. It’s necessary to have a realistic sense of the situation and to understand that a remedy can be worse than the disease.
What does it mean to say that transgenics can contribute to solving these problems? Well, for me it doesn’t make sense that we take a risk on something that we know is not even a fourth of the solution we’re seeking. Import substitution is not something easily solved, because its cause is not completely present-day, but historical, and it depends on multiple factors.
It’s a good thing that it’s no longer claimed that genetic engineering yields more. I remember that one time a senior official at the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology asserted that the corn transgenic they produced would yield four times more than the seed currently available in the country.
What solutions do you propose to improve agricultural yields and solve the food deficit in Cuba?
EDUARDO FREYRE: I think that first it’s necessary to think of about optimization and the strength of our agro-ecosystems. I agree with my colleagues at the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology that it’s very important to pay attention to the costs, but in such way that the desire to achieve greater yields doesn’t become a pyrrhic victory.
However, there is no panacea-type technological solution to such a complex process as agricultural production. Interwoven are multiple factors that range from technological-productive elements to those of an organizational nature. To the extent that we promote local agriculture and stimulate local initiative, there will be greater possibilities.
In all these years of crisis [since the collapse of the Socialist Bloc], Cuba has demonstrated the wide potential of its economic, political, social and alternative system of organic agriculture that it has developed to face-tactically and strategically-the circumstances of this difficult stage. I am convinced that we cannot look at the problems in isolation; we must see the matters as an integrated system.
For example, we cannot hope for the productivity and yields that the country needs without solving the difficulties of incentives, the supply of inputs to farmers, the exodus of the rural labor force and professionals from agriculture, nor the question of marketing. Without detracting from the blessings of the so-called “green revolution” [in the years of abundant Soviet fuel and cheap chemical fertilizers and pesticides] that the country undertook, we must learn from the problems we created.
In short, it has been demonstrated across the island-and even the authorities at the World Bank have praised us for this-that with large-scale organic or agro-ecological agriculture it is possible to solve the dilemmas we’ve produced.
*Excerpt from the article titled: “Transgenicos: no basta la buena fe” from the IPS Economic Press Service 0709 Report.