Change to Ecuador’s GM laws ‘could allow suicide seeds’

Ecuador imports GM soybeans for food processing but bans the cultivation of crops Copyright: USDA/Scott Bauer

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[QUITO] Moves by Ecuador’s president to veto legislation covering genetically modified organisms could let controversial ‘terminator’ seeds into the country, campaigning groups claim.

Ecuador bans the cultivation of genetically modified (GM) crops but for more than a decade it has allowed imports of transgenic materials — particularly soybean and corn. There are no clear regulations about planting GM crops for research.

The interim Transitional Assembly approved a new law on food sovereignty earlier in the year (17 February). Article 26 of the law states that "raw materials containing transgenic inputs may only be imported and processed, provided they meet the requirements of health and safety, and their reproductive capacity is disabled by the breaking of grains".

Imported grains are ‘broken’ to avoid them germinating and mingling their genes with ordinary crops.

But on 19 March the president, Rafael Correa, proposed modifying the legislation, including deleting the term "by breaking of grains" so that the law no longer defines how the seeds’ reproductive capacity is disabled. Whether this ‘partial veto’ is passed will depend on the National Assembly, which is due to be formed on 1 August following the recent general election.

Correa says that breaking the grains is expensive. But the ETC Group — a Canadian organisation that researches the socioeconomic impacts of new technologies — says that allowing alternative disabling of reproductive capacity could lead to accepting terminator seeds.

Terminator or ‘suicide’ seeds are modified so they can’t reproduce in the second generation. The Convention on Biological Diversity has had a moratorium on them since 2000. Supporters say they stop farmers using seeds they haven’t paid for and that their genes cannot spread to conventional crops, unlike other GM seeds. But critics say that terminator seeds will make poor farmers dependent on big companies for seeds.

The ETC group says that biotechnology companies have re-branded terminator technology as a ‘biosafety’ tool and that this is the interpretation the president’s amended text reflects.

"We’re worried that this kind of language is showing up in several countries in the global South and we see it as a new push by the biotech industry to overturn the moratorium on terminator [seeds] at the Convention on Biological Diversity’s meeting next year in Japan," said Silvia Ribeiro of the ETC Group in a press release.

Elizabeth Bravo of Acción Ecológica, an environmental nongovernmental organisation in Ecuador, said in a press release: "Unfortunately, the president’s changes to the legislation reflect the influence of his biotech industry-friendly advisors … We could face a worst case scenario: Ecuador enabling both GM contamination and suicide seeds. That is a direct threat to agricultural biodiversity, an essential basis for food sovereignty in Ecuador."

She added that this change to the law contradicts Ecuador’s constitution, adopted in 2008 (see Ecuador: new constitution bans GMO and biotechnology), which declares Ecuador "free of GM crops and seeds", unless the president and National Assembly deem introducing GM crops and seeds is in the national interest.

Pro-GM advocacy group CropGen says assumptions that changing the wording will lead to terminator technology are unfounded. "Terminator in the sense implied has never been commercially developed and, indeed, some major seed producers have promised never to do so. It is unwarranted to jump to the conclusion that, because it is suggested that the breaking of grains is not necessary, a terminator mechanism must be implied," says Vivian Moses, CropGen’s chairman.

Eduardo Murillo, director of biotechnology at Ecuador’s National Institute of Agricultural Research, says that Ecuador is more exposed to dangers such as terminator seeds because of the lack of clear regulations governing GM material.

He says that risk analysis on a case-by-case basis should be carried out. Otherwise people could use GM crops illegally and with worse environmental consequences. "A country that knows is a country that can make decisions," he says.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Environment has convened academics, industrialists and consumers to prepare a National Biosafety Plan. Lourdes Torres, molecular biologist and member of the National Biosafety Committee, says this comes under the Cartagena Protocol that requires countries to establish legislation for transgenic control.

"I don’t think anyone is sowing transgenic seeds in Ecuador. That’s what the constitution prohibits literally but it doesn’t explicitly preclude investigations and imports," she told SciDev.Net.