[LIMA] After nine years of discussions, Peru's government has passed an agricultural biosafety regulation intended to promote biotechnological research and help the country's researchers catch up with other Latin American nations.
The Biosafety Rules for the Agriculture or Forestry Sectors will regulate the research, production and trade of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), activities that were not previously allowed apart from the import of GMOs for food and limited permission to study GM potatoes.
But the regulation, signed into legislation by the president, Alan Garcia, last month (15 April), has had a cool reception from both public and private sectors, including some scientists. Critics fear the law will open the floodgates to GMOs, jeopardising the country's biodiversity — Peru is home to many unique wild relatives of staple crops such as potatoes and maize.
The Peruvian Society of Environmental Rights has said farmers do not need GM crops to be productive and has called for the country to heed the precautionary principle of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which Peru signed in 2004.
But Jorge Alcantara, head of genetic resources and biotechnology at the National Institute of Agrarian Research (INIA), has denied that the regulation opens the door to indiscriminate GM crop production. "On the contrary, it will regulate all activities related to the use of GMOs under strict scientific control measures," he told SciDev.Net.
Under the law, INIA will be responsible for the security of biotechnological activities in the agricultural sector and for developing GM research. Critics have said that this makes INIA "judge and the jury" for any decisions regarding GMOs.
To ease concerns, INIA has started mapping areas containing wild varieties of maize, cotton and potatoes to minimise the risks of cross-fertilisation between GM and non-GM crops in any future field trials.
If there is an application for planting GM crops close to these native varieties, "it would be very difficult to approve a release," Alcantara said.
He added that the Cayetano Heredia and San Martín de Porres universities, the International Potato Center and INIA will be the first to benefit from the law as it will allow them to conduct research.
Phytogeneticist Maria Scurrah, an international consultant and a specialist on plant breeders' rights, based in Lima, told SciDev.Net the benefit of the regulation is that it will allow research with real GM cultivars, not just computer simulations.
She added there should be more investigation into both the potential benefits and the risks of GM technology for Peru, and "regulation is a good way to start doing that".
Marcel Gutierrez-Correa, director of the Laboratory of Mycology and Biotechnology at the National Agrarian University La Molina, said the regulation makes it easier to obtain research funding for crops and areas that big corporations are not interested in, such as developing GM papaya resistant to ringspot virus.
But there are moves to restrict the new law. Next week Peru's Congress is scheduled to discuss another bill that would set a 15-year moratorium on the entry of any GMOs into the country, apart from those for research purposes and drugs containing GMOs that are not available in other forms.
The environment minister, Antonio Brack Egg, who heads the movement, told SciDev.Net that a moratorium is needed "to scientifically analyse the potential impacts, and to have infrastructure and institutional capacity to face an eventual presence of GMOs in the country".
But the agriculture minister, Rafael Quevedo, said that, if the moratorium is approved, Peru will suffer trading reprisals and jeopardise free-trade treaties, without any scientific evidence of risk for either human health or the environment.
Link to new biosafety law (in Spanish)