HAVANA TIMES, July 19 (IPS) — In the midst of heated debate with agribusiness, the Bolivian government has launched an agricultural production model aimed at boosting food sovereignty by supporting small farmers, in order to generate surpluses to cushion the swings in international food prices.
A new “law on a productive community-based agricultural revolution” combines modern scientific farming standards and techniques with ancestral indigenous traditions aimed at producing and storing food during periods of climate adversity.
The law is focused on bolstering food production in rural indigenous communities in South America’s poorest country, where native people make up 60 percent of the population.
The law, signed this month by leftwing President Evo Morales, has unleashed fears in the export-oriented agribusiness sector. But it has also drawn sharp criticism from environmentalists and indigenous leaders because it allows the use of genetically modified organisms (GMO) in parts of the food production chain.
The head of Agriculture and Livestock Production and Food Sovereignty, German Gallardo, one of the sponsors of the law, told IPS it embodies an “inclusive policy that recognizes private, mixed, individual and collective farm producers.”
Early this year, persistent drought, repeated frosts, contraband and government policies restricting exports discouraged investment by large companies, and food production went down and the government was forced to import food in order to avoid shortages.
Gallardo said there was no deficit in food production in Bolivia. However, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) classifies Bolivia among those countries with “serious” nutrition problems and assigned it 10.9 points on its scale of 0 (no hunger) to 100 (most hunger) on the Global Hunger Index (scores between 10 and 19.9 indicate a “serious” problem).
A report by the Technical Committee of the National Council for Food and Nutrition (CONAN), presented in 2010 at the First National Food Sovereignty Forum, says that 26.8 percent of Bolivians suffer from chronic malnutrition, the highest level in the region, followed by Ecuador (26.4 percent), Peru (25.4), Colombia (15.5) and Paraguay (14).
According to the report, people affected by malnutrition in the country face problems like anemia, deficiencies of micronutrients such as vitamin A, zinc and iodine, obesity, and chronic non-communicable diseases.
The full results of the new food policy will be seen in five years’ time, said Gallardo, who emphasized the role that will be played by communities, a sector which deserves recognition as the producers of 80 percent of domestically consumed food, he said.
“We are not harming agribusiness; we are strengthening small farmers, but not to the detriment of large producers,” Gallardo said, adding that equal opportunities for access to bank credits, technology and seeds will transform Bolivia into a country with reserves of surplus food.
One popular type of bread in Bolivia is made with imported flour. In 2010, national production of wheat was only 271,330 tons, while consumption was 631,000 tons, according to the Rural Development Ministry.
“The revolutionary law was drawn up by farmers and intellectuals working for the state,” said Gallardo, stressing that the proposed model of food production does not follow formulas imposed from abroad.
“The international agencies were pointing us in the direction of food policies that would not be under our control,” he complained, while highlighting the law’s national identity and break with external dependence, quipping that while it was being drafted, “we paid for everyone’s lunches ourselves.”
But the strategy for ensuring food security for Bolivia’s population of 10.4 million must be translated into a system of bank loans for farmers, who are no longer allowed by law to use their small plots of land as collateral.
Once these barriers have been overcome, the Morales administration has announced plans to introduce technology into small-scale farming, and then build a food storage network, based on the traditional indigenous “pirwa”, food storage structures made from the local materials in each region that are capable of preserving food in its natural state for long periods of time.
Morales, Bolivia’s first-ever indigenous president, is very popular among the country’s peasant communities.
But one aspect of the new law has drawn the wrath of the influential National Council of Ayllus and Markas of Qullasuyu (CONAMAQ), a confederation of traditional governing bodies of highland indigenous communities in Bolivia, which has called for the elimination of the use of GMOs in food production.
“Transgenics will have a social impact on health, because they cause health problems like cancer,” said CONAMAQ leader Rafael Quispe, an outspoken opponent of importing GM seeds.
The scientific community has not yet reached a consensus on the potential health effects of transgenic crops.
Quispe argues that using transgenic seeds generates dependency on the transnational companies that produce them.
Edwin Alvarado, a spokesman for the Environmental Defense League (LIDEMA), told IPS that article 15 of the law is aimed at protecting the genetic heritage of native Bolivian crops like potatoes and quinoa, a grain-like food crop that was also first domesticated in the Andes. But it is being interpreted as allowing other species, like sugarcane and cotton, to enter the country.
Alvarado, who explained that LIDEMA is opposed to GMOs, called for specific legislation to protect local varieties of food crops that can adapt to climate change and could make Bolivia a model of agricultural biodiversity.
Pointing out that 85 percent of soy produced in Bolivia is genetically modified, he acknowledged that this is an irreversible trend, but insisted the rest of the country’s food crops must be preserved in their natural state.
Gallardo agreed with Alvarado that specific legislation must be adopted, and declared that eradicating transgenic soy is impossible, because of a “multi-ministerial” resolution approved during the administration of former president Carlos Mesa (2003-2005).