TRANSGENIC CROPS IN ECUADOR
Ecuador is a megadiverse country. Its biological wealth is not limited solely to the diversity of wild species and ecosystems as at least two centers of origins of crops are located here: the Andean center and the Amazon center. This means that in what is now considered our country, peoples planted, domesticated, preserved and reproduced various types of crops and productive systems, many of which are still in existence today.
Elizabeth Bravo studied biology in the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador and holds a doctorate in microorganism ecology by Aberystwyth University. She is a lecturer and researcher of the Universidad Politécnica Salesiana, a member of Accion Ecologica (Ecologic Action) and coordinator for the Red por una America Latina Libre de Transgenicos (Network for a Latin America free of transgenic products), as well as a member of the Union de Cientificos Comprometidos con la Sociedad y Naturaleza de America Latina (Union of scientists committed to the Latinamerican society and Nature).
According to Piperno (2011), the first discovery of a plant grown in America over ten thousand years ago —a type of squash (Cucurbita ecuadorensis)— was made in Las Vegas, Santa Elena province.
Just in terms of corn, which may have been grown in the country for six thousand years according to discoveries made in Las Vegas and Real Alto, Santa Elena province, 29 varieties of corn have been identified.
Corn is at issue here given that there are only four transgenic crops that are massively grown and sold worldwide, i.e. corn, soy, cotton and canola, and because of its importance in this country where it is grown in practically every province.
Corn is grown for self-consumption in the provinces of the North Highlands (Carchi, Imbabura and Pichincha), where the yellow, floury varieties are consumed. In the Central Highland provinces (Chimborazo and particularly Bolivar) white floury maize varieties are grown. And in the Austro (Cañar and Azuay), white corn, known as Zhima, is grown.
A hard yellow corn variety is also produced for agribusiness. Farmers engaging in this activity generally use hybrid seeds, high performance varieties, sold by transnational corporations (such as Monsanto or DuPont) or developed by the INIAP. The provinces with the greatest production of this variety are Manabí, Los Rios, Guayas and Loja.
A problem with transgenic crops, particularly corn, is that genetic pollution may occur, as corn is an open-pollinated plant species. Cases of this type pollution have been reported in Mexico, Peru, Chile, Brazil and Uruguay.
It is thus understandable that since the global advent of transgenic seeds for commercial purposes, a movement of resistance to the entry into the country of these types of seeds was born, which ultimately resulted in the inclusion, in the Ecuadorian Constitution, of an explicit ban on the entry of transgenic seeds and crops (Article 402), although this article does enable the president to allow transgenic products for reasons of national interest, prior approval of the National Assembly.
However, in another section of the Constitution related to environmental rights, entry into the country of transgenic products that infringe upon the health, food sovereignty and ecosystems is forbidden (Article 15), and, in the context of the rights of nature, “the introduction of organisms, and organic and inorganic material that may definitely alter the national genetic heritage” (Article 73) is also forbidden.
Thus, Ecuador became the first country to be declared constitutionally FREE OF TRANSGENIC PRODUCTS.
But what has actually happened in the country since the new Constitution was adopted?
Studies conducted by academic and civil society organizations have shown that transgenic corn has not been found in Ecuador. A first monitoring exercise (Bravo and Leon, 2013) of the 10 biggest corn-producing provinces in Ecuador was conducted with a simple detection kit used by importing and exporting firms unwilling to market transgenic grain in light of pushback by consumers. These findings were confirmed in 2015, through a monitoring exercise carried out in the provinces where hard corn for poultry farming and pork production is grown.
Nonetheless, soy has tested positive, both as grain sold in stores for agricultural products and supermarkets, as well as in the field. A monitoring exercise conducted in the soy-producing areas of Los Rios and Guayas provinces yielded that a variety of soy resistant to glyphosate is being grown and sold (Intriago and Bravo, 2017). In light of this discovery, social organizations filed a lawsuit, which was dismissed.
The new labelling regulations have highlighted that we Ecuadorians are consuming transgenic products. While the Constitution does not forbid transgenic foods, the Law on Food Sovereignty does, forbidding the importing of transgenic supplies that are damaging to health, and there is an ever-increasing number of studies demonstrating the risks of eating these foods.
Lastly, as regards research, the Politécnica del Litoral has been experimenting with transgenic bananas for years. Researchers are working on the development of a banana resistant to the agent causing the black sigatoka disease, whose control requires a large quantity of agro-toxins. A similar banana variety is used in Uganda with no positive results.
Researchers and non-government organizations, and society as a whole have a task ahead: to ensure that Ecuador, as a nation, is free of transgenic products, and to develop sustainable alternatives, such as agro-ecology. This will allow us to safeguard our rich biodiversity and the health of the Ecuadorians.
Bravo E. León X. 2013. Monitoreo participativo del maíz ecuatoriano para detectar la presencia de proteínas transgénicas. La Granja. Vol. 17(1): 16-24.Constitución del Ecuador. 2008.
Intriago R. Bravo E. 2017. Primera detección de Soya Transgénica (Glycinemax) Cultivada en la Costa Ecuatoriana usando Métodos de Monitoreo Participativo. Revista CienciAmérica Vol. 6.
Piperno, D. 2011. The Origins of Plant Cultivation and Domestication in the New World Tropics. Current Anthropology. Volume 52, Number S4.