Peru's Ancient Inca Capital Bans Transgenic Potatoes

LIMA, Peru, July 19, 2007 (ENS) - A region of Peru that is a center of potato diversity has banned genetically modified varieties of the tuber. The Cusco regional government's Order 010 - approved by majority vote on June 21 and made public today - is intended to protect the genetic diversity of thousands of native potato varieties.

The order forbids the sale, cultivation, use and transport of genetically modified potatoes as well as other native food crops.

Potatoes have been cultivated in the Cusco region for thousands of years and helped to feed the ancient Inca empire.

The regional capital Cusco is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the Americas. Along with nearby Machu Picchu, the Lost City of the Incas just named one of the new seven wonders of the world, Cusco is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The potato originated in the highlands of South America. Peru and its Andean neighbor countries are the crop's center of diversity - with more than 4,000 distinct varieties that farmers have developed over generations.

Today, more than 1.2 million people live in the Cusco region. Many are small-scale farmers for whom the potato is their most important crop.

Local farmers' organizations fear that genes from genetically modified, GM, potatoes could transfer into local varieties and alter their unique properties.

Some of the many varieties of potato. (Photo by Scott Bauer courtesty USDA)
The head of the regional government's environmental office, Abel Caballero, proposed the ban "in recognition of the historical, cultural, social and economic importance of the potato and other native crops to the Cusco Region."

Order 010 was passed in response to proposals submitted by a network of local potato farming communities and Asociacion ANDES, an indigenous nongovernmental organization based in Cusco.

They collaborated on the proposals with the International Institute for Environment and Development, IIED, an independent, non-profit research institute based in London

"This is unprecedented for Peru and a great victory for the communities of Cusco," says Alejandro Argumedo, director of Asociacion ANDES.

"It will protect the region from contamination with GM varieties that can threaten the diversity of the potatoes and other important native food crops that are critical for food security and the economy," said Argumedo.

ANDES, the Association for Nature and Sustainable Development, is a non-profit Peruvian indigenous organization that aims to improve the quality of life of Andean indigenous communities. It works by promoting the conservation and sustainable use of indigenous bio-cultural heritage through rights-based conservation development approaches.

The importance of the potato is dramatized on Peru's National Day of the Potato 2007. (Photo courtesty International Potato Center)
The potato is so important in Peru, that in 2005 the Peruvian government declared that May 30 every year would be celebrated as the National Day of the Potato.

The law establishing the National Day states, "The potato crop is crucial in the history, development, culture and cuisine of Peru, especially for Andean people; its genetic wealth has contributed to global food security."

"It is necessary to promote and revalue cultural diversity and the ancient technologies related to the crop, and to enhance its consumption," the law states.

ANDES marks that day with a biocultural festival each year with local food products, local medicinal plants and handicrafts and a soccer tournament. Community members compete in singing, dance, poetry and music, and winners receive prizes donated by the Association ANDES.

"With this decision to keep GM crops out of one of the world's most diverse centers of potato and other Andean crops, the regional government of Cusco has acted wisely and with courage," said Dr. Michel Pimbert, director of the sustainable agriculture, biodiversity and livelihoods program at IIED.

"Responding to citizens' concerns," says Pimbert, the regional government "has put issues of food security, human well-being and the environment first and foremost at a time when most national governments persist in their failure to implement international agreements to protect the environment and human rights."

At the same time, genetically modified potatoes are being developed in Peru. Scientists at the International Potato Center in Lima announced July 5 that they have developed the first GM crop variety in Peru - a GM potato that can resist attack by weevils, a major insect pest.

On the left is the CIP's genetically modified potato and on the right is a natural variety that shows insect damage. (Photo courtesy CIP)
Named Revolucion, the GM potato produces no pollen - it is naturally sterile. The scientists transferred a gene that confers total resistance to the potato tuber moth, Phthorimaea operculella, into the Revolution potato variety. To date the new transgenic potato has been tested only in the laboratory.

Similar potato varieties are undergoing field trials in Egypt, Indonesia, South Africa, and the United States.

To counteract the threat caused by the moth, potato farmers use large amounts of pesticides, particularly toxic phosphorates and carbamates. A study made by CIP in 2006 for the World Bank showed that such pesticide use was particularly damaging to the health of the farmers and harmful to the environment.

"Unfortunately, there are not many alternatives to control this pest," said Marc Ghislain, who heads the Biotechnology Laboratory at CIP. "Conventional improvement has not developed very resistant varieties and integrated pest management is not being adopted to control the insects that attack the potato crops."

One of the most important concerns in genetically engineering crops is the possibility of the genes being transferred into native varieties, a sensitive issue in Peru because it is the center of origin of the potato.

Because of this concern, said Ghislain, the Bt gene has been transferred into a naturally sterile variety to remove any chance of transfer of the gene. In addition, the resistant variety will not be released into the Peruvian market because the government does not yet have regulations governing products obtained from genetic engineering.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2007. All rights reserved.