By: Tania Orbe
The country has prohibited the cultivation of transgenic crops in its constitution since 2008. However, a transgenic banana is being developed in an Ecuadorian university while certain GMO soybean crops were denounced on the coast.
Green or ripe, guineo or orito, sweet or salty, the banana is an essential food in the diet of Ecuadorians and of the world. In Ecuador, this transgenic plant is being developed in a university laboratory at the Escuela Superior Politécnica del Litoral (ESPOL) but it cannot leave the laboratory and be produced the field.
In 2008, when the country declared itself free of transgenic crops and seeds in its constitution, Efrén Santos, Ph.D. in molecular biology, returned to Ecuador to start genetic research on bananas. He obtained permits from the government and has been working for 12 years on transforming the banana genome for pest resistance. However, his work cannot leave the laboratory due to legal prohibitions.
Transgenics do not have a positive image in popular culture. "They are part of an extractivist model. I do not demonize them, they are not going to kill me, but they are one more instrument to leave rural families without a livelihood,” says Germán Jácome, farmer and president of the Agricultural Center of Quevedo, on the Ecuadorian coast.
Quevedo is one of the capitals of banana and oil palm cultivation in Ecuador. It is the most populated city in the province of Los Ríos (150,000 inhabitants). Due to agricultural growth, native forests no longer exist in this tropical zone.
At 58 years of age, Jácome has become a rural leader and university professor. This has been his permanent struggle: to be the only one of his 14 siblings to leave the countryside to study and to return to lead the agribusiness parallel to other economically powerful groups -- "because here we live a narco-agriculture,” he says with vehemence but also with fear.
The modified banana developed at ESPOL is resistant to black sigatoka, one of the main tropical diseases in this crop. Currently, the team at the university's Center for Biotechnological Research of Ecuador (CIBE) has 20 genetically modified plants.
Due to the prohibition of cultivation of the modified banana, researcher Santos is adapting a greenhouse as an extension of the laboratory on the ESPOL campus. He plans to plant in large pots, like 500-liter water reservoirs, so that the soil is contained.
Jácome has his small banana crops in Quevedo as part of his family orchard because the export market is controlled by the Association of Banana Exporters of Ecuador (AEBE), which is a 43-company conglomerate. Ecuador is the largest banana exporter in the world (33% of the international market), competing with Costa Rica and Colombia in the region. According to AEBE, bananas account for 3.84% of total GDP and 50% of agricultural GDP. It is the nation's main source of non-oil exports, according to the Central Bank of Ecuador.
Jácome’s colleague from the agricultural center, Mario Macías, says that as a farmers' union "we cannot say whether we are against transgenics or not.” His main concern is the indiscriminate use of glyphosate, a chemical used to control weeds in crops. In Quevedo, they have also found transgenic soybean crops that were denounced by the NGO Ecological Action to the Ombudsman's Office. No one knows for sure who is distributing these seeds.
The Constitution of Ecuador (2008) declares the country "free of transgenic crops and seeds"...
The Constitution of Ecuador (2008) declares the country "free of transgenic crops and seeds" in article 401. For Andrés Factos, biosafety coordinator of Ecuador's Ministry of Environment (MAE), "this ambiguity complicates everything because if experimental biotechnology is prohibited, we cannot test.”
Factos says the standardization of biosafety terms was just achieved in 2020 after the approval of the Environmental Code in 2018. "The Code establishes the National Biosafety System and promotes that, through a technical-scientific analysis, decisions are made regarding transgenics."
But, for María de Lourdes Torre, Ph.D. in molecular biology, transgenics are a lost issue in Ecuador. "They should not be in the constitution but in the regulations." The Organic Law of Agrobiodiversity, Seeds and Promotion of Sustainable Agriculture, in effect since 2017, did not represent an advance, the researcher believes, although it promotes laboratory study.
Since 2013, Ecuador has had in effect the Sanitary Regulations for the Labeling of Processed Foods for Human Consumption. This regulation requires that the product label must state whether or not it contains transgenics. Sausages, cookies and snacks are some examples. These products are made in Ecuador but their manufacturers import transgenic corn and soy flours, in some cases, to make them.
Paradoxically, the importation of transgenic raw materials is not prohibited. "GM soy and corn are cheaper because they are produced on a large scale on the international market and are used to feed chickens, pigs and cattle," explains Elizabeth Bravo, coordinator of the Network for a Transgenic-Free Latin America and member of Ecological Action.
Researcher Santos believes that blaming transgenics for biodiversity problems is wrong: "The problem starts with monocultures. Resistance to insecticides resembles their own use."
Darwin Matute, leader of the National Federation of Free Agroindustrial, Rural and Indigenous Workers of Ecuador (Fenacle), is convinced that GMOs are a poison that is killing human beings in the long term. "Production must be more agroecological to protect health." Fenacle represents 30,000 agroindustrial workers in Ecuador.
Amid this agroecological trend, the Seed Guardians Network of Ecuador has been working since 2002. "We propose integral models of clean and toxic-free production. We educate the population in the cultivation and production of healthy food," explains Javier Carrera, its founder and social coordinator.
His collective opposes transgenics because, according to Carrera, they are a form of concentration of power, are linked to the agrochemical industry and have no real objective of helping the population.
In Ecuador, the National Institute of Agricultural Research (INIAP) aims to promote technology transfer to farmers. Its principal researcher, Eduardo Morillo, admits that the laws have not favored research due to a lack of political will.
In spite of this, INIAP works in the traditional scheme of genetic improvement with fruit trees, Andean crops, cereals and pastures. Among the most important crops researched are potatoes, fine aroma cocoa, beans, naranjilla and tree tomatoes. Morillo maintains that farmers are not interested in how the improved plant was obtained, but rather that the plant is more resistant. "The country has the raw material: biodiversity. Biotechnology allows us to take advantage of it and its value is immense.”
But farmer Jácome is skeptical about the promises of scientific research. As an agricultural leader, he was able to travel to Japan to learn about the capture of microorganisms and sustainable agriculture, concepts that he shares with his community from the agricultural center. He combines forestry farming with agricultural activism and is convinced that GMOs take land, freedom, culture and food from farmers.
In Ecuador, perceptions are polarized. Today people talk more about gene editing than about transgenics, that is, not about the introduction of genes from other elements, but about the modification of our own genes.
"If the technology changes to gene editing, the discussion on transgenics becomes obsolete. But, with any new technology, we have to promote the care of ecosystems," says Mauricio Proaño, former member of the Commission for Food Sovereignty and Development of the Agricultural and Fishing Sector of the National Assembly of Ecuador.
Proaño is more concerned about poverty in the rural sector, which reaches 40%, and rural youth unemployment, since 35% of Ecuador's farming families depend on other non-agricultural activities such as tourism, transportation, mining and other services.
Even without the legalization of transgenic crops, monoculture is devastating the soil and the environmental balance. In Quevedo, palm and banana cover almost all of its territory. Its geographical position on the Manta-Manaus axis is strategic to promote extractivism. That is what Germán Jácome believes. With his gray hair and beard, he is incredulous about the investigation and disappointed with the inequity because Covid-19 also took its toll on his family and today he mourns his mother.
They are part of an extractivist model. I do not demonize them, they are not going to kill me, but they are one more instrument to leave rural families without a livelihood.”
GM soy and corn are cheaper because they are produced on a large scale on the international market and are used to feed chickens, pigs and cattle."
If the technology changes to gene editing, the discussion on transgenics becomes obsolete. But, with any new technology, we have to promote the care of ecosystems."
The country has the raw material: biodiversity. Biotechnology allows us to take advantage of it and its value is immense.”
Source: Acción Ecológica