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Transgenic free and loving it
Andrés Gaudin
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Three small rural towns kick off fight against genetically modified products.

In less than two years, three municipalities in Argentina declared themselves areas free of transgenics in defense of their ecosystems, prohibiting the entrance, planting or cultivation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Authorities in San Marcos Sierras, 863 kilometers (536 miles) north of Buenos Aires in the central province of Cordoba, as well as in El Bolson, 1,716 kilometers (1,066 miles) southwest of the capital in the province of Rio Negro and Merlo, 890 kilometers (553 miles) northwest of the capital in the central west province of San Luis, were warned by ecologists about the risks of genetic contamination in areas where organic production is the only economic solution for small-scale farmers.

The designation of the Merlo Valley as a "transgenic-free area" was voted upon by Merlo’s deliberating committee, a part of its city council on Sept. 28. However, San Marcos Sierras was the pioneering town in the fight against GMOs; they were banned in November 2003. El Bolson took the same measure in December 2004.

The three cities, which represent an area of 7,000 square kilometers (2,700 square miles), have valleys that enjoy a microclimate favorable for some of the most agriculturally demanding crops.

Transgenics: nothing new

Transgenics have been present in Argentina for a decade starting with genetically modified soy, which is resistant to harsh conditions and offers a high yield that can reach 2.7 metric tons per hectare. Soy is replacing wheat and corn, two crops that until the 20th century gave the country the nickname "the world’s breadbasket."

This year, with 15.6 million sewn hectares (38.5 million acres) — 1 million hectares (2.5 million acres) more than in the 2004 campaign — Argentina has become the world’s third largest producer of soy, surpassed only by the United States and Brazil.

Argentina and Brazil have converted the Southern Common Market (MERCOSUR) — which also includes Paraguay and Uruguay — into the area with the highest production of transgenic soy in the world, with more than 100 million metric tons each year.

"GMOs, known vulgarly as transgenics, are organisms that flourish as a result of genetic manipulation, from the introduction of genes from another species, or by modifying how these genes are expressed," explained Adolfo Boy, an agronomist at the environmentalist Rural Reflection Group (GRR).

The current focus of genetic engineering is geared toward agriculture, and research aims to create crops resistant to environmental threats such as hail, droughts, saline soil and insect infestations, among others, and having a better visual presentation, in order to make marketing easier, Boy says.

The ordinances of these three cities are similar as they all invite their regional neighbors to adopt the same measures. Also included in each of the five-point ordinances is a common phrase: "The production of GMOs is prohibited, particularly vegetables or livestock whose DNA includes foreign genes, creating species never before seen in nature."

GRR biologist Jorge Rulli says that "these three ordinances put in the forefront the issue of the GMOs penetration of the farming industry — soy specifically — that in other areas of the country have generated poverty and exclusion, in addition to having caused irreversible damage on ecosystems of which humans are a part."

According to Rulli, the initiative in the GMO-free areas came to fill the legal void that megacorporations — especially soy producers — took advantage of in order to install their profitable businesses at the cost of "breaking regional economies that are sustainable and are identified with the people’s culture."

Although the three municipalities make up a small percentage of the vast Argentine territory, corporations have protested the measure, claiming that the cities are not entitled to legislate on these matters.

According to the constitutionalist Antonio Hernández, the corporations "are right factually, because the government defends the use of transgenics, but legally, they aren’t."

Hernández defends the ordinances, and said that they "are constitutional because the deliberating committees have the power to pass legal norms as well as to use the municipal police force," which is to say that they can use the police in order to enforce their legal rulings.

For the small-scale farmers in these three areas, it is a question of life or death, because the GMOs are enemies of organic production. Because of their climate and geography, San Marcos Sierras, El Bolson and Merlo have great potential to develop an efficient organic production system, especially because the valleys are populated by owners of small plots suitable for the cultivation of gourmet products that the foreign market demands.

An untapped market

Nevertheless, the three municipalities barely total 12 percent of the organic crop production in Argentina. In 2004, the international market of organic producers brought in nearly US$23 billion, but Argentine exports totals reached only $39 million, 0.17 percent of the total.

"If we could just get to 1 percent ($230 million), this would strengthen the country in a sector that is completely neglected by the national authorities and we, the producers of three GMO free areas, could survive with dignity," said Marcelo Pais, president of the Ecological Valley Association of Organic Producers of San Marcos Sierras.

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