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Argentine organic farmers wait for GM ruling

23-Nov-2001

Argentine organic farmers expect a ruling soon on whether a legal challenge against the state's support of genetically modified (GM) corn crops will go to trial, the group's president said.


The Argentine Movement for Organic Production (MAPO) filed a complaint last week against the Agriculture Department demanding that it stop approving the use of and suspend all past authorizations of BT corn, modified to resist insects.


MAPO, which represents 300 organic farmers, also wants to bring a stop to the use and sale of GM corn seeds.


"We are asking that approvals of transgenic corn be stopped forever," MAPO President Rodolfo Tarraubella told Reuters late Tuesday. "I expect a response from the judge within 30 days."


Argentina, a major producer of grains and oilseeds, is second only to the United States in the use of GM products. An estimated 15 to 20 per cent of Argentine corn is genetically modified, while 90 per cent of the soy crop is transgenic.


The country has been criticised by some consumer groups and farmers for its strong support for GM products, such as a decision earlier this year to set up a government-sponsored biotechnology commission to research and promote GM products.


While many producers applaud the cost savings GM seeds make possible, critics have shown concern over their potential long-term health effects.


The presentation of the complaint is just the first step in the legal process. A judge must now determine whether the group of farmers will be allowed to bring their case against the government to trial.


The judge handling the complaint said this was "just the beginning" and that he was not certain how long it would take to reach a decision.


The MAPO case highlights the controversy GM products have stirred up around the world. So far, resistance has been strongest in Europe where the European Commission plans compulsory labels for foods containing GM products.


In Argentina, where organic production has grown steadily in recent years, this is the first legal challenge against GM corn, said Tarraubella.


There are an estimated 1,500 to 1,700 organic farmers in Argentina, compared with just 220 six years ago and the number of hectares certified for organic production has sky-rocketed to about 3 million from 5,000 in 1993.


Even so, organic growers make up only about 0.5 percent of Argentine farmers.


Argentina exports about 90 per cent of its organic production, mostly to the European Union and the United States. with grains and oilseeds, especially soybeans and corn, making up the bulk of organic exports, according to official data.


Organic production is more expensive than conventional farming because of lower productivity and certification and labour costs. However, producers can pass on the higher costs of organic foods to consumers, who are willing to pay more for these products.


Tarraubella estimated organic corn sold for about three times as much as conventional corn and said contamination of an organic crop by a traditional crop, through cross-pollination, meant producers would lose the benefit of that price differential.


"There is clear economic harm being done here, far beyond the philosophical discussions," he said.


Tarraubella said that if strong measures weren't taken to control the use of GM seeds, Argentina ran the risk of becoming known as "an open air laboratory for GM experiments."


The Argentine Agriculture Department said it had not yet been officially notified about the case

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