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Honduras Honduras embraces genetically
modified crops by Dan Charles
07-August-2008 Morning Edition, National Public Radio View
As governments search for solutions
to the global food crisis, some are taking a second look at
a controversial technology: genetic engineering.
Many Third World countries have banned genetically modified
crops. But Honduras now is encouraging farmers to plant
Rodolfo Rubio, who grows corn and vegetables on about 50
acres near the city of Comayagua, needs no convincing. He's
an evangelist for the virtues of genetically altered corn.
He pulls the husk from one ear and shows off the gleaming
rows of white kernels. There are no worms in this corn,
which is remarkable, because such worms are everywhere in
this part of Honduras and Rubio hasn't sprayed any insecticides.
"No, the only thing we need here is the seed, the
fertilizer and the herbicide," he says.
The secret is in the corn itself. Years ago, scientists
at the company Monsanto took a gene from a kind of worm-killing
bacteria and inserted it into an ancestor of these corn
plants. So if worms start munching on the corn, they die.
Rubio lifts up a leaf on another corn plant and points
to another kind of insect hiding underneath.
"This is a beneficial insect that eats the worms,"
he explains. "They're safer on this land, because there
aren't any insecticide residues here."
Rubio started growing Monsanto's genetically modified corn
four years ago. He pays about $1,000 extra for enough corn
seed for 30 acres. But this technology saves him so much
time and money, he says, he can't imagine not using it.
"If someone tells me that the government wants to
limit my access to technology, that's like telling me that
I don't have the right to a better life, or more profits,
and that it wants to see me sink into poverty," he
Against The Law
But in the rest of Central America, growing this corn is
against the law.
Corn is more than a crop here; it's history and culture.
Central America is where farmers first grew corn, thousands
of years ago, and in some places you can still find an almost
infinite variety of corn plants.
Jacqueline Chenier, director of a Honduran organization
that promotes small-scale organic agriculture, says bringing
in unnatural genes threatens the integrity of this natural
"When you come with a genetically modified variety,
genes cross with other varieties, and what you have is contamination,"
she says. "You have a strange gene in those varieties.
They are not what was they were before."
Last year, Chenier thought that the Honduran government
was beginning to take these concerns seriously. The country's
new minister of agriculture, Hector Hernandez, announced
that the country might stop growing or importing crops linked
to genetically modified organisms — often called GMOs.
Then came the food crisis. Corn doubled in price. And earlier
this summer, Hernandez said that he now wants farmers to
plant more corn, including genetically modified corn.
Robert Paarlberg, a professor at Wellesley College and
author of Starved for Science: How Biotechnology Is Being
Kept Out of Africa, says concern over food shortages may
be shifting government policies in other countries, too.
"Egypt has gone ahead and approved GMO corn; China
has just announced a large increase in its research budget
for GMO foods," Paarlberg says.
But according to Paarlberg, these are only small, isolated
shifts. Genetic engineering still isn't welcome across much
of Latin America, Asia and especially Africa.
"It's been criminalized," he says.
Paarlberg wants that to change, because he believes genetic
engineering can help even poor farmers in developing countries.
Monsanto agrees, and it has big plans in Honduras. Rita
Perdomo, a marketing manager for the company based in St.
Louis, Mo., says the amount of genetically modified corn
in Honduras increased by 50 percent this year. She admits
that this is still only 15 percent of the country's corn
crop, but she expects that percentage to grow substantially.
By 2012, she predicts, almost half of all the corn planted
in Honduras will be genetically engineered. She believes
Honduras' production of corn, per acre, will double or even
triple — and will allow the country to become self-sufficient
in corn for its tortillas and animal feed.
Others scoff at this prediction. Most farmers in Honduras,
they point out, are too poor to spend much money on expensive
corn seed or anything else that would boost their production,
including fertilizer or irrigation.
Even the skeptics, though, are watching events in Honduras
carefully, looking for evidence that First World biotechnology
can make a difference in the lives of Third World farmers.
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