Dr Susana Carro-Ripalda is a lead researcher on the multidisciplinary project GMFuturos which is investigating the debates, perceptions and practices surrounding GM (Genetically Modified) crops in Mexico, Brazil, and India. The project has conducted case studies in each country, engaging with groups that are normally marginalised in GM debates, such as small-scale farmers, indigenous and religious groups, women’s associations and many others.
The project seeks to develop a holistic understanding of the conflict surrounding the development, implementation and governance of GM.
In your research for GMFuturos you have focused on three rising economic powers: India, Brazil and Mexico. In these three countries how did stakeholders in GM, such as farmers, scientists and consumers, respond to the way it was introduced?
From Mexico and Brazil the big message is that GM crops and foods are not what people are asking for or desiring. It’s not what people are choosing for themselves, their future, their children’s future or for agriculture. In our research we found that even GM scientists often complain that their voices are not being listened to.
But the opposition appears to be most vocal in Mexico. Our research found that Mexican people, when asked, expressed profound concerns with GM agriculture and foods, for biosafety and political economy reasons. The express unease with the idea of seeds created in laboratories, because they do not know what they are and because they do not trust the seed companies who are creating them.
In addition, they feel that the Mexican government is trying to impose GM crops on the Mexican population with the message that they are safe and good – which people reject. Whilst in Mexico GM appears to be a controversy with no end in sight, in Brazil GM crops have been widely approved since 2005.
How does Mexico compare to Brazil?
Brazil probably has the soundest GM regulation of all three countries. It was implemented the same year as Mexico’s. Whilst in Mexico it was a controversy that now cannot be resolved, in Brazil it was done very quietly.
Of the three countries studied, Brazil is the one with the most GM crops implemented. It is the country with the second most GM crops in the world after the US. In Brazil the impression is that it was all done in a rushed manner without consultation. This is true for all three countries.
How do they view farming in Brazil and how did they first get introduced to GM seeds?
In Brazil they have an entrepreneurial concept of farming. Farming is more of a business than a craft or an activity that feeds you. Some farmers feel that they were rushed into using GM seeds while others were demanding them. Other farmers said they got into GM because they were contaminated by their neighbour.
Particularly small to medium farmers are not seeing the benefits of cultivating GM. A lot of farmers in Brazil are thinking of reverting back to non-GM seeds. Not necessarily organic or native, but non-GM. The whole non-GM market is growing really big in Brazil. Economically farmers weren’t cutting it with GM because they had to use more herbicides and pesticides due to weed and insect resistance to agrochemicals.
In India 80 per cent of farmers are small scale, but they are completely excluded from the discussion. In fact, small farmers are excluded from the discussion in all three countries. The debate over GM in India is a very science-dominated one.
So the people in the government who are dealing with this are scientists, or scientists who have been commissioned, and the people who are opposing it are scientists as well. The discussions hinge upon science.
Does India have the scientific capacity to actually test the biosafety of GM technologies? When it comes to the biosafety of GM rice or the impact on rice biodiversity they don’t feel 100 per cent certain.
The biggest debate in India is probably about aubergine because India is its centre of origin. There was discussion about preserving ‘Indian genes’ in aubergine. There is a big issue about nationalism.
There is a whole postcolonial discussion based on ‘our genes’, ‘our products’ and ‘our science’ in India regarding GM technology. The impression is that GM regulation in India was done behind closed doors, without consultation, or participation. The truth is that there is a moratorium in place but scientific research continues.
The discussion in India is not so much about whether biotechnology is good or bad, but rather can India produce its own biotechnology and regulate it properly?
In Mexico people have a special relationship with maize, how does the prospect of genetically modifying maize seeds challenge this relationship?
The case of maize in Mexico is unique among all the other case studies that we’ve done. There is a particular relationship people have with maize in Mexico and I’m talking here about not only farmers, but the consumers, scientists and politicians.
To be a person in Mexico is to eat maize. And if you don’t eat your maize products then you’re not Mexican. The maize for the rural people is the cultivation that makes them and for urban dwellers it’s the food that makes them. Maize is the plant that sustains the life and wellbeing of Mexicans. So that’s why for the people of Mexico it is unthinkable for maize to be genetically modified or for indigenous maize varieties to disappear.
What is the main risk that people in Mexico are concerned about regarding GM maize?
One of the big arguments gaining momentum in Mexico is that if they introduce GM maize they run into the risk of losing their own native varieties, and they will be lost forever. There will not be a way of recovering them and seed banks are not enough. They see the end of the life of small farmers and the end of rural communities whose livelihoods are based on traditional cultivation.
What other risks are communities in all three countries concerned about?
The risk of being left behind in the technological race, which is associated with losing sovereignty and independence. Ministries of environment worry about risk to biodiversity, ministries of agriculture tend not to. Those tend to be the most influential organisations in terms of policymaking in all three countries.
Consumers don’t think about risk. They think about danger. It’s not a balancing of pros and cons here. This is about what’s going to happen and for them what’s going to happen is certainly bad.
So there’s fear associated with the implementation of GM. The sense is one of danger rather than risk. In all three countries there is definitely a feeling that if science is to happen it needs to be a national science. An argument by pro-GM scientists is ‘look guys we have to get into this. If we don’t do it then others will do it for us. If it’s going to happen it better be our own rather than something big GM companies sell to us’.
How are effects on biodiversity being considered in any of the three countries?
It’s at the centre of the discussions. In Mexico it’s the whole idea of introducing GM maize and losing the maize biodiversity, which is not only about maize, but the whole ecosystem, the role of traditional agriculture and the conservation of those ecosystems, which preserves the biodiversity of the country.
In India it’s about the same, instead it’s a little bit more upstream. It’s about if we are developing GM in our labs but we don’t know what it’s going to do to our biodiversity. If we’re not sure about our scientific capacity to actually prove that it will not destroy biodiversity then we cannot unleash it.
Dr Susana Carro-Ripalda is Project Manager of the interdisciplinary research project GMFuturos (https://www.dur.ac.uk/ihrr/gmfuturos/). Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Findings from the GMFuturos project were presented at the Royal Society in London June 2014. The working paper from this event describing findings from the project and a policy brief are available online: