Sunday, January 24, 2016

Anti-GMO Activists: Venezuela is Not Your Trophy

On January 21st, the Organic Consumer Association posted this on Twitter:
Having grown up in Venezuela, it set off a murderous rage in my soul, and I'm going to take some time to outline how that one tweet represents the epitome of the anti-GMO lobby's head-up-their-ass-ishness.

The Organic Consumer Association (OCA) is an advocacy group that believes in the dangers of vaccines (see here and here) and the benefits of homeopathy, among other things. But their celebration of GMO bans across the world, with no knowledge whatsoever of the country's problems embodies their privileged ignorance. After all, why would you tout the evils of vaccines if you haven't known someone who died of measles? Why would you celebrate the banning of GMOs in a country if you haven't stood in line to buy milk?

That's not an exaggeration. As some of you may know, I was raised in Venezuela but left to pursue my education after graduating from high school. With my parents and siblings still living in the country, I visited nearly every year, but my visits became less and less frequent. As of today, no one in my family lives there. While my parents lived in Venezuela, it was traditional that during their visits to me in Canada, I'd take them to the grocery store. Like kids in Disneyland, they'd stand in the middle of the grocery store staring at the abundance of it all, and then top the grocery cart with all the things they couldn't find. Some of it was due to cultural differences (for example, peanut butter isn't commonly eaten in Venezuela). But sometimes, it was the most basic of items. During a trip to the US, my sister once shared pictures that she took of the milk aisle in a grocery store during a particularly harsh milk shortage.

Venezuela's food shortages are due to many economic and social factors: restrictive regulations on currency, an inflation rate set to surpass 700%, a political climate that has made private investments challenging, and agrarian reform that has transferred lands into the hands of owners with little to no experience, among many others.

File:Escasez en Venezuela, Central Madeirense 8.JPG
Empty Aisles at a Venezuelan Supermarket
From Wikimedia
As such, a ban on GMOs must necessarily be viewed and reported through the lens of how it will impact Venezuela's food supply. The ban is very far reaching: not only does it ban growing GMOs, but also their import, as well as research on transgenic crops. At a time when Venezuela relies heavily on imported food, particularly from Argentina and Brazil who are two of the world's leaders in GM-crop growth, such a ban might have very severe implications.

The OCA wasn't alone in its celebration of this "progressive" seed law. Here are a few other organizations that celebrated the ban:

The Hollywood Food Guild rejoiced:

GMWatch was in a celebratory mood:

Hundreds of people tweeted in celebration of the ban, hoping that their own country would soon follow suit. There were several articles that circulated many times: one article that was co-written by a Venezuelan activist which I can only describe as government propaganda, and a second that was published in EcoWatch. But every piece that I read left me with even more questions.
  • The article claimed that the new seed law banned "transgenic (GMO) seed while protecting local seed from privatization". Why was there no mention of an uncommercialized locally developed, ring-spot resistant variety of GM papaya, particularly when it is one of the country's more popular fruits? Since it was developed by the public sector, isn't this an excellent example of endogenous agronomy that could be resistant to privatization?
  • Many articles claimed that the law was a product of "direct participatory democracy", and the summary from the OCA stated that the law "was hammered out through a deliberative partnership between members of the country’s National Assembly and a broad-based grassroots coalition of eco-socialist, peasant, and agroecological oriented organizations and institutions". Why weren't agronomists part of that equation? Why was there no mention of the fact that scientists were not consulted and in fact, Venezuela's Academy of Physical, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences issued a statement asking the National Assembly to reconsider the law?
  • Venezuela has had a moratorium on growing GMOs for several years. The OCA mentions this by stating that Venezuela has virtually had a ban on GMOs since 2004, and that this is aligned with the country's goal of "endogenous development". But none of the articles outlined how this ban has helped the country and its economy. Is 10 years not enough time to see an impact? How did the ban help endogenous agronomy? Were any new crops developed nationally in the decade since the ban? If not, how will a ban on GMO research help the nation's goals?
  • In 2013, a local research paper published a study demonstrating that a patented corn variety was being grown by the government. If Venezuela had a ban on GMOs since 2004, why were government farms growing GMOs? Why didn't any of the articles report this? Is this the type of "progressive" government-led food transparency that GMWatch is celebrating and would like other nations to adopt?
  • The law does not outline if processed foods derived from GMOs can be imported. Does this mean that the country will now rely more heavily on importing finished goods instead of imported crops that can be developed into goods within the nation?
  • Why didn't any of the pieces say anything on what this law represents in terms of Venezuela's economy and food shortages? Could it possibly be that the Hollywood Food Guild failed to read any of the 20,000 hits that I pulled up when I typed in "Venezuela Food shortages" into Google News?
  • The article that the OCA bases it's piece on states that "national seed legislation is increasingly being co-opted by corporate agribusiness interests", and that this law will put a stop to that. Is the OCA under the impression that corporate agribusinesses only produce GMO seeds? Is EcoWatch unaware of the fact that there are dozens of transgenic crops being developed by public sector and non-profit groups around the world?
I find it so illogical that GMWatch would seek to mimic economic policies from a country whose new minister of economics calls inflation a "bourgeois invention". I find it to be the epitome of stupidity, to hold one of the 10 most corrupt countries in the world as a standard of transparency. I find it ridiculous to hail a law as "progressive" from a nation with one of the vastest natural resources in the world that is about to default on its loans.

But above all else, what set off my rage was the fact that some ass-hat at EcoWatch probably typed up their puff-piece when they had never stood in line to buy any basic food item in their life. In the years leading up to my parents leaving Venezuela, my mom's life schedule was built and defined around the amount of time that she'd have to stand in line at stores to buy goods. When she or one of her friends found a basic supply such as corn flour that had been lacking, they'd alert one another by text message. Has anyone at the OCA had to do that? Has anyone at the Hollywood Food Guild had to buy rice on the black market? Or does their world end when Starbucks doesn't have organic soy milk?

Don't get me wrong: I do not believe in North American exceptionalism. I do not believe that a country is inherently "better" than others. I believe that each nation has strengths and weaknesses, and that we can all learn from one another. So, I invite the tweeters who are celebrating Venezuela's seed law to go visit Venezuela. It is a beautiful nation with rich culture, amazing natural beauty, and fantastic people. Visitors will have a wonderful time, I have no doubt. But Venezuela has its problems. To ignore these and to hail an ill-defined law that can only worsen them is misleading at best. To call Venezuela's law as "progressive", when its President has stated that the solution to the food shortage is to "grow your own" is sheer ignorance. Are people supposed to then grind their own corn flour, too?  

The fact that we, living in North America, have options to buy organic, conventional, non-GMO, gluten-free, or peanut-free is not something that should be taken lightly. Our farmers have the right to grow whatever they'd like, using whatever methods and standards they'd like, as approved by laws and regulations, and that's a freedom and right that should be celebrated. Yet other nations have agricultural sectors that are lagging decades behind, where producing enough food is a serious challenge. The fact that tools and technologies that may help address such challenges are being barred due to philosophical or political ideologies and not science based policies makes progress all the more challenging and defies the notion of an informed democracy. But that's something that all these anti-GMO groups seem to forget in their priviledged positions: the fact that they feel that their developed-nation standards should be applied globally reeks of elitism.

And let me make a suggestion to those tweeters who accept the invitation to visit Venezuela: print out many copies of the articles you shared when you visit. It will come in handy due to the toilet paper shortage.


  1. I live in Trinidad. There is currently an influx of people from Venezuela coming specifically to buy goods that are in short supply especially toilet paper. This article was written a year ago - things have not changed.

  2. Antis are big fans of authoritarian regimes. After the coup in Thailand that curtailed civil rights, they applauded the decision by the junta to ban GMOS

  3. Great post dear Biochica. I have particularly appreciated the sarcastic ending :-(

  4. Transparency International just came out with their 2015 corruption rankings for 167 countries. Venezuela? Ranked 158 just barely ahead of North Korea which was tied with Somalia. Yep you anti-GMO fruitcakes, Venezuela sure is a shining light that we all should emulate.

  5. Two important things must be pointed out:
    1. This law was passed in the final days of the former assembly made up mainly of pro-government (chavista) deputies. (Their term expired Jan 5th). I can assure you without any doubt that 99% of those deputies had no idea of what they were approving. They were told to vote yes and they did.
    2. The practical effects of this law are doubtful. The lack of food is well explained. Consequently, the government imports most food. When they do, they buy whatever is offered by whomever will give them the better cut (corruption was also well explained). Whether the product is or not GMO doesn't come into the equation. I'm sure we will see lots of GMO food being imported.
    Just in case, I live in Venezuela. I am a Venezuelan. I can talk about lines and bare shelves in supermarkets. And yes, if you come and visit, bring a few rolls of toilet paper, some hotels do not provide it, and I will accept any you have left over when you leave.


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