Peru, despite the threats, says No to GMOsIt was an extraordinary achievement. In late 2011, while Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Colombia and Bolivia were welcoming in the biotechnology companies, particularly Monsanto, Peru imposed a ten-year moratorium on genetically modified organisms (GMOs). In fact, the battle had been won before the presidential election in June 2011.  By then, the strength of anti-GM sentiment in the population was so strong that both the candidates in the second round of the election decided to support the moratorium. The outcome had become a fait accompli.

In the end, Ollanta Humala won the election and his government duly implemented the moratorium. First, on 3 November 2011, Congress approved the moratorium (with no votes against and only two abstentions) and then, on 9 December 2011, President Humala promulgated the law, banning the entry and production of GMOs for ten years.

How did the anti-GMO activists achieve such a coup? In a lengthy interview with LAB, two of the main activists – Silvia Wú Guin, President of the Committee of Ecological Consumers and Fernando Alvarado de La Fuente, Vice-President of the Centro IDEAS – explain how. The full interview, in Spanish, can be accessed here.

Silvia and Fernando say that GMOs are particularly inappropriate for Peru, because much of its territory is located in the Andes. “Peru has few areas that can be used for intensive farming, with only three of its 188 million hectares suitable for agriculture. From what we’ve seen in other countries, GM crops are only profitable when they are sown over millions of hectares, something that we can’t do (unless we destroy our 70 million hectares of tropical forest, as they are doing in Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay).”

They go on: “Peru cannot produce commodities but must take advantage of its biodiversity and its unique products – its 4,200 varieties of native potatoes, its 150 varieties of chilli, its extraordinary Andean grains (quinoa, kiwicha, cañihua) and so on and so on … A country with such a cultural tradition has much more to gain from its native products and its gastronomy than from cultivating GM crops. At the same time, our two million small farmers will get far more opportunities and collective benefits from carrying on producing their healthy foods than from planting GM seeds whose ownership is concentrated in just a few hands.”

Even so, it was a long battle to get GMOs banned. They say that the movement goes back to 1980s when the environmental organisation, Centro IDEAS, became aware of the damage that the so-called Green Revolution was doing to peasant farming and proposed an agro-ecological alternative. Other NGOs joined in and the Peruvian Network of Ecological Agriculture (RAE Perú) was formed. Then in 2007 the Peru Platform – A Country Free from GMOs (Plataforma Perú País Libre de Transgénicos-PPLT) was formed, after a member of Congress had tried to push through a bill authorising GMOs.

The PPLT was able to bring in a wide range of new stakeholders into the movement – medical associations, consumer organisations, trade bodies, food institutes and youth movements, along with a large number of enthusiastic individuals. Together, they organised marches, public meetings and debates, and got their message out on television, radio and the press. And they won the battle for public opinion: today opinion polls show that 97% of the population are opposed to GMOs.

However, it was not easy to get the authorities to approve the moratorium. As elsewhere, there are strong links between the GM lobby and the economic and political elites in Peru. Indeed, Alan Garcia, who was president twice (1985-1990 and 2006-2011), was renowned for his hostility towards environmental causes, because he considered them an obstacle to economic development. In May 2011 the newspaper, El Comercio, discovered that the main pro-GM lobbyists in his last government – including advisers to the Minister of the Economy and even the then Minister of Agriculture, Rafael Quevedo, himself – had economic interests in either the seed industry or the poultry sector, both of which were pressing for GM crops to be legalised, arguing that GM crops would reduce production costs and make maize less vulnerable to disease.  Not surprisingly, the Garcia government had repeatedly postponed the vote on a moratorium and had ceded more political space to the pro-GM lobby.

Given the opposition at a top political level, the PPLT adopted an indirect approach. The first step was to persuade, one by one, 16 of the country’s the 25 regional governments to declare themselves free of GMOs. As a result, it was not such a large step for the whole country to follow suit in 2011.

Yet the pro-GM lobby has not given up. In November 2012, the right-wing newspaper, Expreso, published an article with the headline “GM moratorium only benefits foreign farmers” in which it claimed that the ban was harming Peruvian farmers as it was depriving them of modern technology that produced crops with higher yields and ones that were less vulnerable to climate change. It is an argument that the pro-GM lobby makes all over the world yet there is little evidence to support it. For instance, biotechnology companies have long promised to make crops that are more resistant to drought and to salinity yet these new super-GM crops have never materialised.

A month later, the US ambassador to Peru, Rose M. Likins, sent a letter to the Minister of Agriculture, Molton von Hesse, in which she also claimed that the moratorium would have a “negative impact on Peruvian consumers and producers”. She said that the moratorium infringed the Free Trade Agreement between Peru and the USA and then, in a somewhat convoluted argument, she warned that the area under maize cultivation would decline by 60,000 hectares, threatening the country’s food security. This, she said, was because seed importers would reduce their imports of maize for fear of being fined if the imported maize proved to have been accidentally contaminated by GM maize. So far, there was been no indication that this somewhat alarmist prediction has been vindicated.

Fernando and Silvia are confident that the moratorium will remain in place until the end of the current government in 2015.  However, they fear that more battles lie ahead, partly because the GM lobby is powerful and does not take no for an answer. Even so, what has been achieved in Peru is remarkable. What lessons can learnt?  Fernando and Silvia believe that the real long-term alternative to GMOs is not conventional farming, which is not different in its approach to GM farming, but to build up truly ecological farming, in the hands of small farmers and linked to the country’s biodiversity, culture and gastronomy. In this way, they say, they are building a “powerful instrument for struggle and for winning the support of the population”.