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Bolivia Diaries: Day 2, Part 3 - GMOs and Local Food in Bolivia

by: Jill Richardson

Fri Aug 26, 2011 at 19:23:38 PM PDT

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This diary is part of a series describing my trip to Bolivia to study food sovereignty, agroecology, and climate change. On our second day, we saw a presentation from the Bolivian Forum on the Environment and Development (FOBOMADE) and then took a tour of the La Paz foodshed. This diary covers the first section of the FOBOMADE presentation, which covered their work food sovereignty in Bolivia.

Previous diaries can be seen here:

You can also find diaries from my 2010 trip to Bolivia here.

Jill Richardson :: Bolivia Diaries: Day 2, Part 3 - GMOs and Local Food in Bolivia
FOBOMADE stands for Bolivian Forum on the Environment and Development. When we met with them, they began with a presentation on food sovereignty that largely emphasized the issue of GMOs. The end of the presentation went beyond GMOs to other issues of local food in Bolivia.

FOBOMADE opposes agrochemicals, large scale monoculture, and the concentration of land in the hands of a few, especially in the hands of Brazilians, who are eager to get in on GE soy production in the eastern lowlands of Bolivia. But another major issue with GMOs in Bolivia is the incredible biodiversity that would be impacted by them. Wiping out the genetic wealth of Bolivia's native crops (and non-native crops like corn for which they are also a center of biodiversity), either via GMOs of those same crops or simply by the expansion of large-scale monoculture wiping out the previous biodiversity of campesino agriculture, would harm not just Bolivian indigenous and campesinos but truly the entire world.

The campaign for food sovereignty at FOBOMADE comes from their campaign resisting GMOs. This began in 1994, when there was an effort to introduce GMO potatoes. This was long before Evo Morales was in power, during the neoliberal period of Bolivia's government.

Especially in 2005, when the Argentine government and Monsanto positioned themselves to legalize GM soy, that's when civil society and indigenous and campesino groups truly got organized against GMOs. There was an executive degree passed in 2005 to legalize production and commercialize GM soy in Santa Cruz.

(Bolivia has some 1 million hectares - 2.47 million acres - of soy monoculture in Santa Cruz, much of which is now genetically engineered. Argentina was the first country in South America, I believe, to legalize GE soy, and now some 97% of Argentina's soy is GE. Paraguay, a smaller country than Bolivia, has four times as much land in soy - much of which is GE - and it's disastrous. This is what FOBOMADE is fighting against.)

Even then-Senator Evo Morales, who was elected later that same year, was part of the opposition to this. That year, the social movements were successful in stopping the legalization of GE corn because Bolivia's a center of genetic diversity of corn. They did this through a resolution through the ministry of environment. But they lost on GE soy and continued to fight on it.

When the Morales government initiated the writing of a new constitution, FOBOMADE and others organized around that process, advocating an article (Article 405) that banned GMOs in Bolivia. This was included in draft versions of the constitution. However, it was ultimately softened into language in Article 409 saying that GMOs will be regulated by the law.

FOBOMADE and others also got Article 275 into the constitution, which is about Free Trade Agreements. There, they got stronger language against importation, production, and commercialization of GMOs. This actually made it into the final version of the constitution.

Now there's an apparent contradiction in the constitution between Article 409, which is vague and weak, and Article 275, which has stronger language. So now they are involved in processes attempting to get the constitution interpreted so that the stronger language has the priority over the weaker, vaguer language. There's a lot of negotiation still going on over interpretation of these various clauses.

They had a lot of hope with Evo Morales, who initially said that Bolivia should be a country free of GMOs, and yet what has happened is the opposite. There's been a 300% increase in imports of agrochemicals since 2005, and there's been an expansion of GE soy as well. Over 80% of Bolivia's soy is genetically engineered.

In the lowlands of Santa Cruz, that is dominated by industrial farmers, but there are also smallholders, largely colonizers from the highlands. Unfortunately, they've come under the influence of agribusiness, including a government agency for support of food production (Empresa de Apoyo a la Producción de Alimentos, EMAPA) which has been distributing GE soy seed to smallholders in Santa Cruz. FOBOMADE is also seeing a lot of problems with land grabs, particularly by Brazilian companies.

Beyond GMOs
Thus, the initial anti-GMO alliance has turned into the Alliance for Responsible Consumption and Solidarity. It includes a broad civil society alliance of indigenous organizations, campesino organizations, NGOs, chefs, and consumer organizations.

Throughout the entire country, because Bolivia's the center of genetic diversity for many crops, they are working with producers, farmers, and consumers to educate them about the big picture on what's happening at the global level of GMOs and agrochemicals and how to revalue local food consumption.

They are carrying out informational campaigns with print materials and their website. Also, they are working with grassroots groups in each region of Bolivia. One thing they are doing is working with chefs with experience with native campesino crops to go to each region and work with local people. For example, in the Pantanal, which is a region right on the border with Brazil that has an ecosystem similar to the Everglades, trying to help them solidify their own local food identity.

One of the organizations they are working with is the Federation of Domestic Employees so that they can bring education to their employers and to their families. In Potosi and Oruro, they are working in the area that grows quinoa that is almost 100% for export. This is an area that experiences high malnutrition because they sell the nutritious quinoa and then buy less nutritious food (like white bread and noodles) with their profits. The bulk of FOBOMADE's work is political, but they also want to bring producers and consumers closer together, similar to the local food movement in the U.S.

As FOBOMADE was working with the producers, they came to realize that one of the biggest problems was markets. So they decided to take advantage of another article in the constitution which prioritizes state purchasing of smallholder products. They realized that the medium and large producers had the advantage and they want to help smallholders access state purchasing benefits.

In parts of the Amazon, a major product is Brazil nuts, which are almost entirely for export. So one of the projects they are working on is with a Bolivian program similar to WIC. Bolivian employers are required by law to provide a "lactation subsidy" every month for a year after an employee has a child. The employer gives the employee a ticket to redeem for food.

So FOBOMADE got Brazil nuts (70% of which actually come from Bolivia - 20% are from Brazil, and 10% from Peru) included in these packets of food for 2 years. After that, there were problems after that because the price of Brazil nuts went from $2.50/lb to $4/lb. Then, a state entity was created that took over purchasing the Brazil nut and keeping it included in the lactation subsidy packets. Since then, they've been able to include other products as well, like local honey and amaranth. Before these efforts, FOBOMADE told us, the lactation subsidies were nearly all milk products, which can't even really be produced in the same regions that produce Brazil nuts.

Another program they work with is the school breakfast program, which began before the Evo Morales presidency. They found that most of the food provided came from large companies and the food was transported from far away. The food was either packed with preservatives or it even arrived rotten. Now they are working to encourage purchasing from local producers.

For example, they are now working in Yungas, the mountainous area between the highlands and valleys. For Yungas, one of the only markets is for coca. Now they are encouraging amaranth production and opening up a market through the school breakfast program to buy it and serve it to the children. This is just one example of how they work with local producers to create markets for state purchasing and for local consumption.

They are also trying to take advantage of the fact that there is an indigenous government, to see if they can have them replace junk food with healthy native foods. They go around the country having fairs to showcase native foods and to have tastings. They are also working at the municipal level to prioritize local production for local consumption there.

Through all of these projects, they are working to create a real alternative based in campesino agriculture while also educating producers on what is happening at the global level. For this, they are working with a group called the Unity Pact that is made up of a number of groups working alongside the government.

The Most Recent Fight
The different organizations were working to promote and pass a law of "The Productive Decade," which had to do with strengthening community food production from agrarian reform to credit to more. Unfortunately, as the law moved up to the government and arrived to the executive level, there were many changes made to the original law proposed by the social movements.

FOBOMADE's role was to act as a liaison and to alert the social movements to what was happening, such as the inclusion of GMOs in the law, which had been absent from the original proposed version. When the law got to the executive, they formed working groups that inserted language about importation, production, commercialization of GMOs. FOBOMADE brought that information back to the campesino groups. The Minister of Regional Autonomy, a role created in response to the Media Luna departments' effort to become autonomous, who represents the interests of agribusiness in Santa Cruz, was pushing hard for more permissiveness on GMOs.

The social movements claimed that this was a law originating from social movements and thus it was important to take out the language on GMOs. They succeeded to some extent. The many organizations launched a massive public awareness campaign, even at the international level, with a letter for people to sign in opposition to GMOs, and the letter was given to Evo Morales. With this massive mobilization, people were protesting in the streets against the law including the language on GMOs.

FOBOMADE was highly critical of the law as a whole because it did not represent the law that was proposed by the campesinos and social movements. The law has already been passed. After it was passed, they brought together social movements on how to move forward. One idea is to propose new legislation to remove some of the articles of the legislation. Also, there's a legal path to denounce the law as unconstitutional because it goes against the articles mentioned previously in the constitution as well as the Law of Mother Earth.

This law, if you want more information on it, is called the Law of Productive, Communal and Agricultural Revolution. Here are some articles on it:

As one of the closing comments, FOBOMADE said that they have been quite successful in many ways, considering that the effort to legalize GM soy began in 1997 and they held it off until 2005. They have also kept GMOs out for any crops for which Bolivia is a center of biodiversity.

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problems? (4.00 / 1)
As FOBOMADE was working with the producers, they came to realize that one of the biggest products was markets. So they decided to take advantage of another article in the constitution which prioritizes state purchasing of smallholder products. They realized that the medium and large producers had the advantage and they want to help smallholders access state purchasing benefits.

Should that bolded products be replaced by another word? Isn't the meaning of the sentence murky as is?

The market is kind of like a product (4.00 / 1)
it's a way that businesses see things. More of a technical defenition of the word rather than the common useage. At least that's how I interpret the use. I've run across this useage of the word product like that in other business writings I've read.

Industry or trades use words differently, sometimes, than the general public. You may have seen this useage shift in your line of work?

The one that's my big pet peeve is how the general public uses the word theory when what they're actually talking about is an hypothesis. Then when someone in science speaks of a theory, the general public takes that to be an hypothesis. How  that got started I don't know. But it's kind of like calling a fetlock a hock. Harold used to do that all the time. Eventually I told him I was going to start calling his ankle his knee and his wrist his elbow.

Normal people scare me.... But not as much as I scare them.

[ Parent ]
uh oh... (0.00 / 0)
As in, "Michelle Bachman doesn't know her fetlock from her elbow!"

[ Parent ]
you're right (4.00 / 1)
it was a typo. I fixed it.

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
quinoa (4.00 / 1)
Perhaps Bolivia needs a regulation to include quinoa in a school food program.

they addressed that in the end in a Q&A (4.00 / 1)
they are trying to do something like that but the problem is that the price of quinoa for export is so high that the govt has a hard time affording it to give to their own people.

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
That's dispiriting, (0.00 / 0)
when trade distorts prices to where a government is helpless in the face of starvation.

President Barack Obama's all for more free trade agreement's, of course. It's the cry of every tinhorn leader whose own economy is failing - exports will save us. Or maybe not. Just ask starving Bolivians.

[ Parent ]
As I was saying... (0.00 / 0)
before I was so rudely interrupted by a hurricane...

Brazil (0.00 / 0)
Expansion of Brazilian big ag outside Brazil is very aggressive. Here's a take-your-breath-away recent example:

Mato Grosso in Mozambique?

AUGUST 14, 2011

The government of Mozambique has offered a 50 year concession for Brazilian farmers to plant soy, corn and cotton in the northern part of the impoverished African nation, according to Sunday's Folha de Sao Paulo.

{Mato Grosso is} the home base of the country's powerful agricultural lobby. And, in the early months of 2011, it was home to the biggest spike in deforestation the country has witnessed in years. It's no wonder that in Mato Grosso there is a deep mistrust of anyone that might sound like an environmentalist.

Which is why I was so struck by the quote in this Folha story (republished here in Portuguese) from Carlos Ernesto Augustin, President of the Mato Grosso Cotton Producers' Association:

"Mozambique is a Mato Grosso in the middle of Africa, with free land, without environmental impediments, and with much cheaper freight to China. Today, in addition to land being exceedingly expensive in Mato Grosso, it's impossible to get a license to deforest and clean and area."

Same ol' same ol', African land and resources will be used to grow food and fiber, but not food and fiber for Africans. I sincerely hope that when politicians, bureaucrats, lobbyists, and philanthropists talk about feeding the world, they aren't talking about feeding poor people or indigenous people. "The world" doesn't mean all the world, only the part that can afford to pay.

northern Mozambique (0.00 / 0)
Semi-connection between Brazil and Mozambique: Mozambique used to be Portuguese East Africa.

One of the northern provinces is Niassa, home to an important elephant migration corridor. Niassa is big and sparsely populated and the corridor is in a protected area, so I hope the Brazilian farmers leave it alone. Any bets?

[ Parent ]
Try again... (0.00 / 0)
I sincerely hope that when politicians, bureaucrats, lobbyists, and philanthropists talk about feeding the world, everybody understands that they aren't talking about feeding poor people or indigenous people.

[ Parent ]
GMO imports (0.00 / 0)
Does anyone know -

What are the regs and laws about importation of GMO food species into the U.S.? Is it regulated at all? Are there permissions and prohibitions on a species-by-species basis?

My list says 8 food products are legally grown in the U.S.

Sugar beets
Yellow crookneck squash
Cotton (cottonseed oil)

(Is that list complete?)

Note that chickpeas are not on the list, but what if GE chickpeas were grown in Bolivia or India or some other country? Could it be imported into the U.S.? If I buy besan, product of Canada, might I be buying a GMO product?

What list do you refer to? (4.00 / 1)
Are these GMO crops grown elsewhere and imported into the USA?

I knew that there was a GMO tomato (my understanding is that it was poor enough tasting that it either never really made it to market or it didn't last long). And by GMO are you refering to transgenic plants or plant that they're using that marker technique? I think the marker technique is relatively new? But anyhoo, if I understand it right, they use genetic markers identify plants they want to breed I think? Either that or they identify the gene they want to pass on and then take that and insert it into more of the same plants. In that case, while the plant, say a squash plant, wasn't transgenic, it or its parent stock, would have been produced using recombinant DNA technology, and so, would be a GMO, just not a transgenic GMO.

Normal people scare me.... But not as much as I scare them.

[ Parent ]
My understanding (0.00 / 0)
That list is my understanding of which transgenic crops are legally grown in the U.S., not elsewhere. I'm open to correction. I suppose other transgenic crops might be grown elsewhere. For example, Bt eggplant was approved by Indian regulators in 2009, although in that particular case an indefinite hold went into effect shortly thereafter.

My question is, could transgenic crops grown elsewhere be legally imported into the U.S.

[ Parent ]
Ah, OK (4.00 / 1)
I would think that it would depend on whether the product is to be used as seed or food/feed.

If it is to be used as seed, then obviously it would have to be deregulated in this country or be planted under what ever regulations USDA has in place for it.

If it's to be used for feed or food, then it would have to be approved by USDA or FDA as animal feed or human food. Remember Starlink corn? That was approved for animal feed but it found its way into the human food chain. I don't know what ever happened to Starlink. If FDA finally approved it for human consumption or if people just stopped planting it.

One of the problems I see with transgenics and patented plants is off label use of seed. For instance, I bought a bag of whole feed corn a while back. It's still sitting in my shed. I bought it to grow microgreens from, and found out that you should use popcorn for that. Anyway, I'm planning on growing that feed corn in trays as fodder for the rabbits and horses. I'll grow a little at a time. Technically, if any of that is patented, which I'm sure it is, technically that would be illegal.

So too for the popcorn. Now I've been told that there's no such thing as GMO popcorn, but if there was, then growing microgreens from the popcorn (you just go out and buy it at the store), would be illegal. However, you'd never know if it was patented seed or not. That's why when ever I buy seed that I'll be using off label, I try to buy heirloom varieties and/or organic. I just bought a bag of organic heirloom popcorn that I'm going to use as seed to grow a crop next year. Then I'll start saving seed (most popcorn varieties won't cross with other corn varieties).

Normal people scare me.... But not as much as I scare them.

[ Parent ]
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