In Colombia, the perception of genetically engineered seeds is represented by two clearly defined sides: those who approve of their use and those who do not. On each side there are politicians, researchers, farmers, public officials and decision-makers who cannot reach an agreement.
A good Colombian breakfast includes the typical corn arepas, wrapped corn cakes and other pastries. What many diners do not know is that these typical preparations are mostly made with genetically modified corn, the result of agricultural biotechnology -- the laboratory process that modifies the seed to make it more resistant to pests or increase its productivity.
Breakfast is very important for Colombians, especially on weekends. "Here in the village, every eight days there is an indigenous market and we make sweet and strong chicha to drink, many things made with corn. Every day we eat little arepas and mute (soup) prepared with the same corn we plant, the transgenic one, and nothing has ever happened. As long as there is corn there is no hunger," says Arnulfo Cupitra Ortiz, an indigenous Pijao farmer.
The Pijao community is formed by 44 reservations and more than 100 councils that live on the banks of one of Colombia's most important rivers, the Magdalena. In this territory, located in the municipality of Natagaima, department of Tolima, there is an indigenous population of close to 90%, many of them, like Arnulfo, cultivators of transgenic cotton or corn seeds.
Arnulfo is 47 years old and knows only one way to support himself: agriculture. "I have been working in the fields since I was seven years old. When I was 12, I did my first planting, I worked with my father...a farmer like me," he says. "It was very sad to see my father work and never even have a tin roof.” There were six children and they all had to sleep in one room. Arnulfo’s father mainly planted native corn seed and the production was not enough to improve living conditions for the family.
As in many parts of the world, attitudes about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) vacillate between hate and love. While politicians, scientists and industrialists argue, farmers are caught in the middle of a debate to which they have not been invited and which directly affects them.
The stakes of the debate are high. In Colombia, life could change for many farmers who have been cultivating GMOs since the 2000s. A legislative bill will be presented in July to the nation’s Congress that would amend the constitution “to prohibit the entry into the country, as well as the production, commercialization, export and release of genetically modified seeds, in order to protect the environment and guarantee the right of farmers and agricultural workers to seeds free” of genetic modification.
Arnulfo, who as a child watched people in his community lose entire crops and end up in debt, takes a deep breath and explains. "We poured and poured poison to control the pests and we could not control them. We had to manually take all the buds from the corn, uncover each one, remove the worms and kill them so that the corn could continue on its course.”
Transgenic seeds seemed like a savior that would rescue them from poverty. When Arnulfo and at least 150 families in his community started planting the seeds, "it changed our lives. It was a huge leap. We no longer had to weed. We could rest.”
Arnulfo’s hands, worn out by the work, bear witness to those times "when it rained and we had to hoe the land with that heavy soil. We were very tired. It was terrifying and frightening because we saw crops full of weeds. With the transgenics we can rest from that hard work.”
Colombia could not cultivate transgenic seeds, but Colombians could consume genetically modified products that enter the country legally...
Colombia could not cultivate transgenic seeds, but Colombians could consume genetically modified products that enter the country legally. The law would impose a constitutional prohibition on the entry, production, commercialization, export and release of genetically modified seeds in Colombia.
If approved, it would be a 'lame' law because Colombia is not self-sufficient in food production and would be unable to replace some of the transgenic products that supply the national pantry. Researchers would also have their hands tied. "The prohibition is total, there would be no exceptions, much less being a constitutional reform. It would not be possible to produce genetically modified material in Colombia,” explains Lozada, who argues that "unfortunately science is prey to productivity" and therefore Colombian scientists would not be able to carry out research on GMOs.
But not everyone in the Congress shares that position. Congressman Gabriel Vallejo Chujfi, member of the First Commission of the House of Representatives, argues that these are national security issues because they are related to food sovereignty. He says that "this issue has unfortunately ceased being a scientific discussion, as it should be, and has become a purely political discussion, with a high level of populism.”
And why make it constitutional? For Vallejo, this issue could be regulated by the health authority. "It is very serious that they want to prohibit the importation of transgenic seeds and national production. We currently have more than 14 research centers genetically improving the seeds that our farmers grow. What for? So that the countryside can generate wealth…The prohibition would generate seed smuggling and that would have very serious consequences for the agribusiness,” he says.
For centuries, the farming population in Colombia has been made up of farmers, indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities who, amidst songs and tears, bring to their land their traditions and beliefs, the same ones that today divide them between the use of genetically manipulated seeds or the use of native seeds – their inheritance of ancestral knowledge.
In the Palma Alta reservation, where Arnulfo lives with his wife and four children, there are indigenous people who are convinced about of the benefits of agricultural biotechnology. But others, such as the former governor of the reservation, Orlando Pamo, think transgenic seeds are the product of "a deceitful and corrupting market technology.” This is what he said hundreds of miles away in Bogotá during a Congressional hearing, where he affirmed: "The native communities of the Pijao people fully support the Legislative Act that is being discussed.”
But what do non-indigenous farmers think? Jairo Palma, representative of the Colombian Cotton Confederation (Conalgodón), is a defender of the technology and touts the results of transgenic seed with pest management. "We used to be pest controllers and now that we have transgenic technology we are doing other things. Before we had to make about 20 applications and today we have a maximum of five. As a family farmer and agronomist by training, I manage 1,200 acres of transgenic crops better than 120 conventional acres. And I am calmer,” he says.
Palma is convinced that if the world were to be deprived of GMOs there would be more hunger because farmers' inventories would be depleted. He also thinks that 'playing God' can have consequences, but maintains that "the multinationals are not so foolish as to go and do something bad and then be crucified.” He calms down when he recalls the number of scientists working on transgenic research and explains that there are controls and there are science-based agencies, such as the FDA, that follow up.
If small and medium farmers defend the technology and some legislators seek to ban it on the grounds of protecting them and safeguarding food sovereignty, who is right? Science would have to unravel the arguments that validate the decisions but, apparently, science does not agree, either.
In this struggle of arguments and counterarguments, the debate on the prohibition of GMOs in Colombia mobilized the scientific community and revealed the polarization through letters addressed to congressional representatives and senators in which more than 200 scientists, academics, experts and associations expressed their reasons and made their positions clear.
The letters rejecting the bill were signed by renowned scientists and academics, including some members of the International Mission of Wise Men, rectors and vice-rectors of universities, who among their reasons indicate that, "The project does not measure the impact that such a prohibition may have for the scientific, productive and sustainable development of the country, as well as for the generation of methods to protect the environment.” The communication of this group alludes to the position of the Nobel Prize winners regarding transgenics.
On the other side of the coin is the letter supporting the legislative act signed by more than 100 scientists, associations and people from other professional fields, who question the arguments of the multinationals on GMOs. It is particularly noteworthy that 50% of the signatories are scientists from other countries and present a "broad analysis of studies and scientific evidence on the adverse environmental, socioeconomic and health effects associated with transgenic crops in several regions of the world and in Colombia," the letter states.
Who is to be believed when the letters pro and con involve members of the scientific community? If researchers disagree on a position, what will happen to farmers like Arnulfo who have lived all their lives from agriculture? And if the importation of genetically modified corn is banned, how will the demand in Colombia be met?
“The institute is neither against nor in favor of GMOs, but it ensures that farmers have alternative planting options.”...
To discuss GMOs and the role of science in this debate, Stories without Borders contacted Paul Chavarriaga,, a renowned Colombian researcher who is leader of the Genetic Transformation Platform project of the Alliance of Bioversity International and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT). When asked what will happen if the ban is approved, Chavarriaga does not hesitate to answer that "it is throwing overboard years of research and resources. It is giving way to illegality in terms of transgenics, as it is happening in Bolivia, Peru and Brazil.”
Chavarriaga indicated that "transgenics are not the only solution to food security. Food security is a multidisciplinary strategy -- it has more to do with regulatory decisions, distribution and production balance. Growing more corn, soybeans or rice is not always enough. It will be enough for some regions where it is needed.”
In a more dynamic approach to the future of the food system, the scientist illustrates the feasibility of combining genome editing with transgenesis as an option to maximize opportunities. "Genome editing is playing an important role in the development of new crops without them being transgenic, but in crops such as cocoa, cassava and banana a combination is required because you need to make a transgene to be able to introduce the editing machinery into the plant and do the editing you want. Here the transgene stays in the first generation, but in rice, corn and beans the transgene can be taken out in the second generation," he explains.
In an interview with Stories without Borders, Alfonso Alberto Rocero, an agricultural engineer with a Ph.D. in plant genetic maintenance and technical director of Seeds of the Colombian Agricultural Institute (ICA), says that "Colombia has a robust regulatory framework.” He says many people are opposed to these crops "out of ignorance.” The ICA is neutral, he says. “The institute is neither against nor in favor of GMOs, but it ensures that farmers have alternative planting options.”
Regarding the proposal in Congress to ban transgenic crops, the ICA official thinks that "it would be like going back in time,” because Colombia has already made significant advances with GMOs and there have been no reports that the crops have adverse effects on human health, animal health or biodiversity.
María Andrea Uscátegui Clavijo, executive director of the Association of Agricultural Plant Biotechnology (Agro-Bio), agrees with the ICA director that approval of the legislative act “would be a 20-year setback.” Agro-Bio brings together four multinational companies operating in the transgenic seed market in Colombia -- Bayer, Syngenta, BASF and Corteva.
“All the experience would be lost,” Uscátegui says. “Farmers would be limited to obsolete technologies that cannot provide them with the benefits that genetically modified crops provide nowadays, and they would miss out on having much more resistant seeds that can be planted in soils that were not suitable for agriculture before.”
In Colombia "there are scientists with a lot of capacity that are an example for others in the world," says Uscátegui, who says that if a new law is approved, even "consumers would suffer the consequences because there would be no stable production of food.
“We can have accessible prices for consumers or foods with nutritional benefits that we do not have in Colombia currently,” she says. “We are sure that they will come."
It is clear that Colombian decision-makers will have to focus less on politics and more on science to achieve the best and most informed decision. Whatever the verdict, the implications for Colombian farmers are enormous.
Arnulfo, wearing the yellow jersey of the Colombian National Soccer Team that reflects his national pride, is worried as the interview ends. He wasn’t aware that he might not be able to plant genetically modified crops again and asks, "If they pass this law, what will we do to be competitive and help our families get ahead?”
We are not prohibiting, in any way, the improvement of Colombian products. What we are preventing is the use of genetically modified material to grow crops, and those are two different things.”
Today the Colombian scientific community has scientific research projects to improve plant varieties through genetic modification...Finally, this has been the evolution of mankind. So, this type of measures is absolutely regressive".
Before being approved, transgenic crops are the most studied crops to demonstrate that they are as safe as conventional crops and that the only difference is the trait that has been introduced.”
We are reducing the use of pesticides, we are reducing the use of tractors and sprayers,and this helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Nowadays agriculture wants to reduce this.”
One goes to the fields now and finds them much healthier and the products we apply are more environmentally friendly and this has been achieved with the multinationals. I have been reviewing the subject and I think that as biotechnology has come in, it has greatly improved food production around the world.”
Colombia is a country that currently does not have a strong dependence on transgenic products for its food security. Basically all the rest of the area is with traditional crops."
Instead of opposing so acidly the development and implementation of technology, you have to learn to see the other side of the coin, which is what effect it has on the nation, on the development of the industry in Colombia.”
Native seed is planted, but as a quarter that you can defend from pests or weeds...what happens is that the other seed is expensive and there are people who have nothing but to buy the traditional one, so when transgenic seed is planted, one tells the other to sell him the second harvest seed that does not have the same yield, but it has more than the native one.”