A few days ago, the national press published the news of the approval in Cuba of the regulations to carry out the work associated with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and their use in the production of food in agriculture. Undoubtedly, having standards to regulate the investigation and use of these organisms is healthy for the present and the future of our country.
According to the World Health Organization “genetically modified (GM) foods are foods derived from organisms whose genetic material (DNA) has been modified in a way that doesn’t occur naturally, e.g. through the introduction of a gene from a different organism. The technology is often called ‘modern biotechnology’ or ‘gene technology,’ sometimes also ‘recombinant DNA technology’ or ‘genetic engineering.’” It allows the outcrossing of selected individual genes from one organism to another, also between unrelated species. Foods produced based on GM organisms or used are often called GM foods.
Cuban scientists Fernando R. Funes-Monzote and Eduardo Freyre Roach in their book “Transgénicos, ¿qué se pierde? ¿qué se gana?” define it like this:
A GMO is an organism whose genetic information has been manipulated in laboratories, in a deliberate way, in order to confer one or more specific characteristics that make it behave differently to organisms of the same family, genus or species. They can be considered as “new organisms” that become part of the living beings who cohabit the planet. This fact has generated not a few ethical concerns regarding its biotic behavior and regulation.
Much has been written about the application of these GMOs in agriculture, their advantages and, above all, their dangers.1 In Cuba, opinions are divided, as in much of the world, among those who are for or against.
I summarize below a part of the history of GMOs in Cuba published in the aforementioned book:
- In the late 1980s, the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (CIGB) planned research on transgenic crops of cane, potato, papaya, maize, sweet potato, rice, tomato, banana, coffee, pineapple, and citrus that are tolerant to pesticides and resistant to pests (viruses, bacteria, insects, nematodes, fungi).
- In 2002 there were advances in transgenic experiments, and in 2006 the CIGB announced it had obtained the first plant capable of producing monoclonal antibodies for pharmaceutical purposes. These organisms would not be used in food production, but their genetic modifications would help obtain bioreactors and molecules with pharmaceutical uses for cancer. Their release to the environment was not contemplated, but they would be cultivated inside the CIGB facilities, in crop houses protected with meshes that prevent their communication with the outside.
- In 2008, it was announced that the first open field test of genetically modified maize FR-Bt1 would be carried out in four of the country’s provinces.
- In 2009, the cultivation of this transgenic variety continued to expand in order to mitigate the effects on food security caused by the hurricanes that hit the island the previous year. It was announced that the experimental areas under this crop would be multiplied to reach 6,000 hectares.
* When the text cited above was published, no public report was available on its results.
From 2009 to the present it’s almost certain that much more has been done in this area, but I don’t have that other part of the story.
A revolution in yields?
Successive reports confirm that the yields of the most important varieties of genetically modified crops are lower or, at best, equal to the yields of traditional varieties. Several studies carried out between 1999 and 2007 undoubtedly reveal that soybean yields decreased between 4 and 12% compared to non-GMO soybeans, while Bt maize yields were up to 12% lower than those of conventional lines.
Up to 100% failures in Bt.21 cotton crops have been reported in India. Recent research from the University of Kansas shows just 10% average yield for Roundup Ready.22 soybeans, which also demands soil fertilization with manganese. Scientists from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) discovered at the University of Georgia that growing genetically modified corn in that country can lead to a drop in income of up to 40% .23.2
However, it’s true that in today’s world, a decisive part of the raw materials used for the production of feed for pigs, poultry and cattle is produced from raw materials (genetically modified corn and soybeans) and, therefore, it’s also true that, in some way, Cubans and almost the entire world population today have become a great testing laboratory for those two great food producing? monsters Monsanto and Bayer,3 which have shifted their production systems to many third world countries due to the restrictions in developed countries to use GMOs and their accompanying technological package with its star product: glyphosate,4 a sad memory for the Vietnamese.5
Glyphosate is a 50 percent mixture of two herbicides with phenoxy groups: 2.4-D (2.4-dichlorodiphenoxyacetic acid) and 2.4.5-T (2.4.5-trichlorophenoxyacetic acid). These chemicals were widely used in the U.S. agricultural sector. Although the two herbicides break down fairly quickly, dioxin is a highly persistent compound that can remain in the environment for decades and cause cancer and other health problems.
For Monsanto6 and Bayer, the main objective is not to produce food, in the end GM corn and soybeans are only a means to increase their profits, an essential purpose of the company whose concern with world nutrition is very doubtful.
It’s also true that Cubans have been eating chicken fed with GMOs for at least a decade and we are still here, alive and walking on this earth, without apparently something terrible happening to us, beyond the disappearance of GM chicken itself or not. I am not aware of any documented research examining the relationship between the increase in some diseases and the increase in consumption of GM foods in Cuba.
When presenting the decree law, Deputy Minister Armando Rodríguez Batista said: “The essential thing is to incorporate the orderly and controlled use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in agricultural development programs as an alternative to develop productivity, consistent with sustainable agriculture and food sovereignty, based on local research.”
The new decree law establishes:
- The creation of the National Commission for the Use of Genetically Modified Organisms, chaired by the Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment (CITMA).
- This commission will regulate the adoption of decisions related to the research, development, production, use, import and export of GMOs.
- It will ensure that all activity with GMOs on the island “has an adequate risk assessment, following the principles of precaution, transparency in management, communication of information and ethical-scientific responsibility.”
- It will strengthen the role of national regulatory authorities–with consistent management from the Agriculture and Health sectors and CITMA–and the capacities in national institutions for the detection and identification of GMOs, as well as the system for the surveillance and monitoring of these organisms.
- It will establish a unique and differentiated system of traceability and labeling of GMOs before their marketing, as well as the labeling of products that contain them, are composed of GMOs or have been produced from these organisms.
According to the CITMA deputy minister: “Cuba seeks to use this technology for sustainable development and not practices that in other contexts have had an environmental impact. Cuba can take advantage of the production and technological capacity it has, but doing so with an environmentally sustainable approach.”
Achieving a positive synergy between the use of GMOs in agriculture and agricultural and environmental sustainability is in fact a very high goal which, if achieved, will be a relevant innovation on a global scale. Is it possible in Cuba to change the technological paradigm that accompanies GM crops on a world scale? Will we achieve seeds that don’t require the massive use of glyphosate or amino glufosinate? So how is it possible to think that the use of GMOs in Cuban agriculture can be compatible with food sovereignty, environmental sustainability, nutritional quality, and local food production systems?
Cuban agriculture, that which must provide us with fresh and healthy agricultural products for our consumption and produce raw materials so that the national food industry provides us with other products, good and healthy, has several “characteristics”:
- There is still a lot of idle land and a great deal of the non-idle is poorly cultivated. Every day the reality of food shortages reminds us of this.
- There is a possibility of raising yields using what we could call “traditional” methods that are still far from their performance, productivity and production7 border for almost all the products that must be produced, from cassava, the one that the Tainos converted into casabe (which in its time was used as a currency by the colonizers) and which we are discovering again, this time as animal feed, to potato, a crop in which we are much closer to the world average using the original technological package8 with all its charge of agrochemicals.
- The Cuban “agricultural production system” is subject to distortions that affect these same yields;
- administratively determined prices and divorced from costs, restrictions on producers’ direct import of inputs;
- inefficient and parasitic intermediation of state companies, from those dedicated to export and import, to those dedicated to the domestic marketing of agro-products;
- incentives distorted by excessive administrative intervention; absence of promotion institutions9;
- direct producers’ lack of knowledge about the behavior of international markets;
- resistance to the introduction of national science and technology achievements.
The reforms that the Cuban government has recently announced should, within a reasonable period of time, promote the change of these characteristics with the consequent benefits in terms of yield, productivity and production. Is it necessary, then, to use GMOs in Cuban agriculture?
The yields of Cuban varieties of maize and hybrids (non-GM) obtained by scientific institutions during the last 40 years have shown that they can be achieved in production conditions between 4 and 6 t/ha.10
Recently, in a meeting with scientists who are experts in issues related to food sovereignty, the importance of bioproducts was highlighted, something far removed from GMOs.
That Cuban science should investigate this topic, follow trends and document decision-makers as much as possible, is unquestionable, but I believe there is a distance that must be kept between the above and promoting the use of GMO technologies as a way to raise yields and agricultural production in Cuba, when there are other ways that generate much less uncertainty about human health and biodiversity in our country and that are far from having exhausted their technological borders.
1 “Cultivos transgénicos: ¿a qué riesgos nos exponemos?” Fryre E. and Chang M.
“Transgénicos. ¿qué se gana? ¿qué se pierde?” Texts for a debate in Cuba, Fernando R. Funes- Monzote and Eduardo Freyre Roach, Publicaciones Acuario, 2009.
2 Mae-Wan Ho. Confirmed: genetic modification is dangerous and useless / 228-229. In “Transgénicos. ¿qué se gana? ¿qué se pierde?” Texts for a debate in Cuba, Fernando R. Funes- Monzote and Eduardo Freyre Roach, Publicaciones Acuario, 2009.
3 The German government, for example, prohibited Bayer from producing GMOs on German territory.
4 In March 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) of the World Health Organization (WHO) classified glyphosate as “Probable human carcinogen” based on numerous scientific studies linking glyphosate with a variety of cancers, including non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, kidney cancers, skin and pancreatic cancers. IARC initially published its conclusion in the Lancet Oncology Journal, the leading scientific journal in cancer studies worldwide. https://consumidoresorganicos.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/FICHA-TE%CC%81CNICA-DEL-GLIFOSATO.pdf
5 Main component of the orange agent used by the United States to defoliate Vietnamese forests and causing the birth of thousands of children with different types of deformations.
6 Monsanto was one of the main suppliers of the 76 million liters of herbicide with which Vietnam was sprayed from 1961 to 1972. Under the military project whose secret code was Operation Ranch Hand, the U.S. Air Force sprayed around 2.5 million hectares of the forests of southern Vietnam and cultivated fields to destroy crops. When not applied to crops, the herbicide was used to open large corridors in the jungle, preventing any concealment by Vietcong forces, especially along the roads, and making ambushes difficult.
7 This means that using the resources at hand, greater results could be obtained if done well.
8 That same potato by agroecological methods manages to produce up to 22 tons per hectare, with zero chemicals.
9 Something that will begin to be resolved when the already announced Banco de Fomento Agropecuario is created
10 “Divergencia de enfoques entre agroecología y transgénicos,” Fernando R. Funes-Monzote.