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Peter H. Chase, U.S. Special Negotiator for Agricultural Biotechnology, visits Uruguay on January 22-24, 2004

 



During his visit to Uruguay, Mr. Peter Chase met with Uruguayan governmental officials, representatives from biotech industry, farmers associations, seed producers and companies, biotech researchers and academicians, and representatives from non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The purpose the visit was to discuss issues related to agricultural biotechnology, biosafety, and global markets. Chase stressed that the US goal is to reduce world poverty and hunger by half by 2015. He stressed the importance of biotechnology as a tool for achieving this goal. He also emphasized the importance of promoting science-based regulatory policies in biotechnology, and sought to build a coalition to supporting science-based regulations.

Uruguayan governmental officials agreed that agricultural development is a key part of economic growth, particularly in Uruguay. They mentioned that Uruguayan policy is based on precaution. A risk analysis is required before allowing the use of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). Criteria are based on biosafety: if a GMO is safe for the farmers and the society, the GOU will authorize its introduction and use. Once approved, the individual farmer decides whether or not to use GMOs. GOU officials noted that in 2003-04 land use for soybean cultivation tripled and that all the varieties used are GMOs. Everyone agreed that public perception is significant, and that more information must be provided to the general public to promote the utilization of GMOs.

Uruguayan researchers agreed that scientific information is difficult for non-scientists to understand and that people take positions based on their trust in the individual presenting the information. In Uruguay, the Clemente Estable Institute for Biological Research has a Program of Education in Schools, and, Mr. Chase noted, that in the US there are models available for children’s training and education. All agreed that the public will be more receptive to biotechnology if local research is done to demonstrate its safety. The Uruguayans also stressed the importance of higher education, and indicated that training opportunities (such as the US Cochran Fellowship Program) are very helpful for Uruguayan scientists. They suggested increasing this type of training.

In discussing traceability and labeling issues, Mr. Chase stressed that the US is concerned about informing the public, and has a mandatory system for labeling all ingredients and nutritional information. The US argues that the current system promoted by the European Union to enforce the labeling of any product that might have been exposed to any biotech event in the past, is unacceptable and misleading. The labeling of a product as containing GMOs implies that consumers should be concerned, when all of these products have received rigorous testing before being approved for the market. In the US system products labeled “organic” are free of GMOs. Chase argues that labeling should only be based on the ingredients and nutritional content of the product, not on the process of manufacturing the product unless that process materially affects the properties of the product. During the upcoming First Conference of the Parties of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to be held in February in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, the US will unveil and demonstrate a clearinghouse system containing all regulations and testing of transgenic events. This new web-based database will be available for general consultation.

During the meetings with NGOs, Mr. Chase emphasized that biotechnology helped countries like Kenya and Argentina recover from economic problems. NGOs indicated that the main problem is the lack of adequate information for the general public. Their concerns are related to the preservation of local biodiversity and the need for a public debate on the impact of GMOs on public health and the environment. They said that the perception of risk that the society has is different than the actual scientific risk and the public needs to be educated concerning that risk. Finally, Mr. Chase was interviewed by a prestigious local weekly and discussed the US position on biotechnology and biosafety issues.

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