Among Chile’s many exports, one that doesn’t get much attention is GM (genetically modified) seeds, mainly corn, soy, and rapeseed. For several decades, Chile has maintained an unusual position on the cultivation and use of GM products: while farmers are allowed to grow genetically modified crops, they can only be for export. Starting in 1987 as the first producer of GM crops in the Southern Hemisphere, Chile has been steadily increasing its production of genetically modified crops, becoming the fifth-largest seed producer worldwide, with 40% of those seeds being GM in 2014.
Not surprisingly, there has been opposition from individuals and organizations such as Yo No Quiero Transgénicos en Chile (I Don’t Want Transgenetics in Chile). Opponents of GM crops point to what would happen if the new varieties became authorized for domestic use, such as loss of food sovereignty and connection to local food traditions, the extinction of rare or heirloom plant varieties, illegal covert destruction of competing non-GMO crops (which are often the livelihoods of small farmers and indigenous populations), and denatured soil from mono-crop agriculture. All of these things have been documented in countries where GM crops are widespread, and many people fear that this could happen in Chile as well. Farmers are starting to speak out about the dangers of using these seeds and the pesticides that go along with the process—one farmer, José Pizarro Montoya, reported seeing mice die after eating the corn, and said that he was instructed by the company who had contracted his services to kill his neighbor’s non-GM crops with Roundup to prevent cross-pollination with the GM corn. After a few years of working for Monsanto, he ended up losing his entire livelihood thanks to a fraudulent interpretation of how he fulfilled his contract. He later became the first Chilean farmer to win a court case against Monsanto, but even then he was unable to win enough from the lawsuit to compensate for damages and losses. Many other farmers have found themselves in his position, but they weren’t able to fund a lawsuit, or didn’t know how to go about defending themselves. (Read more about José’s story here.) In 2006, legislation was introduced that would allow for the domestic use of genetically modified food crops, but grassroots opposition has been strong enough to make politicians hesitant to back something that is so unpopular. Even now, the bill has still not been passed, despite several subsequent attempts.
Proponents of GM agriculture for domestic use point to the success rates of initial trials of drought-resistant corn in lab settings, or of fungus-resistant grape varieties. There are currently more than 32 different development projects in Chile’s public sector for genetically modified crops, focusing on major crops such as corn, rapeseed, grapes, apples, and eucalyptus. About half of these are conducted by a branch of the Chilean government, and these projects have received a total of over 16.2 million USD in government funding, about half a million each. While it cannot be disputed that there is both interest and talent among Chile’s scientific community in GM crops, it should be noted that companies such as Monsanto, Bayer, Dow AgroSciences, Syngenta, and Pioneer, which together make up the biotechnology industry association BioChile, are able to invest far beyond that amount. This would effectively ensure that foreign companies, not Chilean ones, would dominate Chilean agricultural innovation, techniques, and consumption.
When it comes to the domestic use of GM crops, Chileans are making their voices heard. Currently, Chilean laws allow GM corn and soy to be used as food for animals, and other GM imports are judged on a case-by-case basis, which in general means that most Chilean foods are non-GMO. There are arguments that should be listened to on both sides of the issue, but it seems that for now at least, the majority of Chileans want to ensure that they have the choice to preserve their own ways of agriculture.