For years, Chile has had a curious double standard when it comes to genetically modified organisms. The country is a global powerhouse in the production of GM seeds -- but makes them strictly off-limits to domestic farmers. Throw any in the ground for the local market, and the crop cops may slap you with a fine.
Now the head-spinning policies could be coming under new pressure from the most punishing drought in Chilean history. It has stunted vegetation growth, ruined harvests and unleashed calamitous wildfires, with blazes that started last week engulfing more than 100,000 square miles of forests and grasslands south of Santiago, including in the wine-producing region of Maule.
Plants tweaked to be drought-resistant aren’t, of course, a panacea. But the agriculture industry, which exports about $9 billion in products a year, “could face catastrophe if we don’t do something,” said Simon Ruiz, a Universidad de Talca professor and GM-seed researcher.
The drought, going into its seventh year, gives no signs of abating. “All indications show that Chile will continue on a path of ever-lower rainfalls and higher temperatures,” said Universidad de Chile climatologist Rene Garreaud. “It just makes sense to work to adapt the seeds we sow.”
That’s certainly the view of Monsanto Co., the world’s biggest manufacturer of altered seeds. The company belongs to ChileBio, an industry-funded group that runs campaigns to persuade Chileans edited crops and foods are safe -- even advantageous. It can be unnerving work in a country where GMOs are viewed with suspicion and activists against them are powerful lobbyists.
“I’ve had people personally say they will beat me up,” said Miguel Angel Sanchez, ChileBio’s executive director.
The debate over “Frankenfood” has been going on around the globe for decades. GMOs have been particularly unpopular in much of Europe, including Germany, where Bayer AG has faced a backlash against its planned takeover of Monsanto. While the European Union has approved genetically modified products for sale, member states can refuse to cultivate them.
Still, grocery-stores shelves in most countries are loaded with products containing GMOs, and Chile’s no exception; there’s no law against eating the stuff, just against farmers growing it for domestic consumption.
The government has long sent mixed signals. The agency that oversees farming decided in 2001 to allow the cultivation of transgenic seeds if they’re destined for export. By the end of 2015, there were more than 9,000 hectares (about 22,200 acres) of GM seed-producing plants in Chile, sprouting products for companies including Bayer and Dow Chemical Co. The country is the fifth-largest producer of transgenic seeds in the world and the biggest exporter in the southern hemisphere.
Chile has been a key player in breeding new strains. It’s conducted field trials since 1987 in crops from canola to sugar beets, with funding from an arm of the Agriculture Ministry. Now researchers led by Ruiz at the Universidad de Talca are working on a new drought-resistant variety of corn. The university will no doubt sell the rights to a big multinational, such as Monsanto or Syngenta AG.
And what’s crazy, Ruiz said, is that the company will create a product for farms elsewhere that will grow corn Chile will end up importing. “We’re clearly losing money -- all of the seeds we produce come back to Chile in the form of soy flour or other products that people don’t know they’re eating.”
The country can’t produce enough corn on its own: Imports jumped 79 percent between 2012 and 2015, government data show. The reason is what scientists at the Universidad de Chile have called a mega-drought, which by their reckoning started in 2010. The fires raging in central Chile, the worst in the country’s history, have claimed eight lives.
Carlos Crovetto, a well-known proponent of no-till farming to fight erosion, took a stand in 2O15 when he planted pesticide-defiant soybeans on his small farm in the Bio Bio Region in the south, a valley of forests and wheat and eucalyptus plantations. He rotated the soy with maize and, he said, saw a jump in yields of 10 percent to 15 percent as the soy added nitrogen to the ground.
“Soy is a gift from God,” he said, and genetic rearranging by humans has made the legume even better. He’s a proponent of GM crops to help Chile survive the menace of drought.
A few days after Crovetto told the media what he’d done, the authorities showed up, ordered him to tear out the transgenic plants and fined him. The law sets fines as high as 3.5 million pesos (about $5,300) for any infraction; the loss of the investment in the destroyed crops can exceed that. Crovetto declined to disclose the total amount. “I’ll just say that it was a lot of money.”
A bill that would allow all farmers to sow transgenic seeds for domestic use has been languishing in Congress for 10 years. “Politicians here are afraid of having their names tied to a technology that some groups have been unfairly demonizing,” said Daniel Norero, a Chilean biochemistry fellow at Cornell University and a member of Cornell’s Alliance for Science.
There are dozens of such groups, including Chile Sin Transgenicos, Chile Sustentable and Yo No Quiero Transgenicos en Chile, all active on social media and with high-profile backers such as the actor Daniel Munoz. They contend engineered plants are deleterious to the environment and people who eat them, and want Chile to follow Peru, which in 2012 imposed a 10-year moratorium on GMO foods, or Ecuador, where the constitution prohibits them.
Chances are slim that will happen, because GM-seed exporting is a big and growing business, with $314 million in exports last year. It’s also not likely Chile will see any relief from rising temperatures and diminishing rainfall, said Gabriel Leon, a researcher at Universidad Andres Bello who supports ending the domestic ban.
“We are going to see drastic changes in agricultural conditions in Chile, that’s inevitable,” he said. “Are we going to just get used to it?”