Peru's ancient Inca capital says no to GM-potato

A major region of Peru has banned genetically modified (GM) varieties of a crop that has been grown there for thousands of years and which helped to fuel the ancient Inca empire.

News, 19 June 2007

The Cusco regional government’s Order 010 was approved by majority vote on 21 June and will be made this week. It is intended to protect the genetic diversity of thousands of native potato varieties. It forbids the sale, cultivation, use and transport of GM potatoes as well as other native food crops.

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

Local farmers’ organisations fear that genes from GM potatoes could transfer into local varieties and alter their unique properties.

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.”

The Order was passed in response to proposals submitted by a network of local potato-farming communities and Asociacion ANDES, an indigenous nongovernmental organisation based in Cusco, in collaboration with the sustainable agriculture, biodiversity and livelihoods program at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED).

“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.”

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

“Responding to citizens’ concerns, it 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.”

“This, and a growing number of other examples throughout the world, suggests that much can de done by working with local governments that are not captive to national elites and transnational corporations,” says Pimbert.

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

The region’s capital Cusco is the oldest, continuously inhabited city in the Americas and, along with nearby Machu Picchu (the ‘Lost City’ of the Incas which was recently named as one of the new seven wonders of the world), is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

This month (6 July), the Peru-based International Potato Center (CIP) announced that it had developed the first GM crop variety in Peru - a GM potato that can resist attack by insect pests. The potato, named Revolución, produces no pollen and has been tested only in the laboratory to date. It was genetically modified to carry a bacterial gene that produces a protein called Bt that is toxic to insects.

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