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The regional government of Cusco, Peru has banned genetically modified (GM) products in the region to protect the diversity of thousands of native potato varieties and other Andean food crops.

The order was announced last week (20 July) at a press conference. It forbids GM research and the sale, cultivation, use and transport of GM products in the Cusco region.

Abel Caballero, head of the regional government's natural resources and environment department, said the government made the decision after considering the risk of genetic and environmental contamination from GM products, as well as the threat to people's health and their ancient culture.

Instead of GM, the government will support organic agriculture, Caballero told SciDev.Net. "Small farmers from the highlands cannot be forced into high productivity. It's better to carry on supporting their use of traditional farming practices to produce clean organic products," he said.

Around 4,000 varieties of native potato exist in the Andean region, most of them cultivated organically, without pesticides or agricultural chemicals. Cusco is one of the main centres of potato diversity, with nearly 2,000 varieties identified.  

Andean communities have farmed native potatoes for thousands of years. Genetically, the potatoes have not changed since they were domesticated 8,000 years ago.

The government announced they will promote conservation programmes for native biological crops and programmes to recover ancient knowledge and practices related to biodiversity.

The ban was passed in response to proposals submitted by a network of indigenous potato-farming communities and the Cusco-based Association for Nature and Sustainable Development (ANDES Association), a nongovernmental organisation that defends the rights of indigenous people to conserve biological and cultural resources.

Alejandro Argumedo, head of the ANDES Association, told SciDev.Net that Cusco's decision is likely to convince other regions to follow its example. He said regional governments in the Andean regions of Puno, Apurímac and Ancash, and the Madre de Dios region in the Amazon, are ready to approve similar orders. This could put pressure on the federal government to ban GM in all of Peru, he said.

Developing and using genetically modified organisms is currently not allowed in Peru, as the country has not yet adopted laws governing their safe use.