A ten-year moratorium on the entry of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), approved by Peru's Congress last month, has been thrown into question by a decision by the country's Executive to return the bill for further debate.
The outgoing president, Alan García, and his ministers, who make up the Executive, say that the moratorium would jeopardise research and shift responsibility for biotechnology issues to the Ministry of Environment which, they say, does not have the experience to deal with them. Currently, this responsibility lies with the agriculture, fisheries and environmental health agencies.
The moratorium law was approved on 7 June and its return by the Executive means it may now be discussed and amended — or parliamentarians may vote for it again, regardless. But, unless a special session of Congress is called, any action will be delayed until the new Congress takes power on 28 July, as the current Congress has closed its regular sessions.
If it goes ahead, all other laws and regulations that contradict its edicts will be suspended for ten years, which has alarmed the science community.
The Executive's position against the moratorium is detailed in a document — signed by president Garcia on 6 July — which remarks that a five year moratorium would be enough to build necessary 'safety filters' to avoid some risks of introducing GMOs.
Eight other reasons are given. The document says that scientific evidence has shown that GMO cultivation poses no threat to biodiversity and that the law goes against advances made by Peru's previous biosafety laws.
They state that such a law would prevent the entry and marketing of biotech drugs and vaccines jeopardising access to medicine and discouraging research in genetic engineering.
Jorge Villasante, minister of agriculture, told SciDev.Net: '[The moratorium] would clearly paralyse biotechnology research, so the Peruvian scientists' access to advances in agriculture, forestry, aquaculture and medicine, as well as genetics, would be affected.'
The decision did not come as a surprise to the country as all ministers, apart from the minister of environment, Antonio Brack-Egg, opposed the moratorium.
However, observers say the new make-up of Congress, after the election of Ollanta Humala Tasso, is likely to mean it will be in favour of the moratorium.
Some of the country's scientists agree with the ministers that the law would confine GMO research to controlled laboratory conditions.
'Science will be affected again, because working in confined environments means that you cannot evaluate either the behaviour or risks or anything,' Rolando Estrada, a professor of biological sciences at the University of San Marcos, told SciDev.Net.
'In practice, we have already had a moratorium of more than ten years, a period in which there was no authorisation to release GMOs, even in containment or experimental areas, and if we have to wait ten years more, it will be a huge setback not only for modern biotechnology but for the development of science and technology at all, in which we are already quite behind,' he added.
The Executive's decision has been harshly criticised by sectors opposed to the entry of GMOs, however.
Environmental groups, such as the Peruvian Environmental Law Society, and the National Agriculture Convention, which is an alliance within the agricultural sector, have called for public demonstrations in support of the moratorium.
The National Agriculture Convention, which includes the main agricultural producers, has also called for public demonstrations in support of the moratorium.
An editorial in the Peruvian newspaper La Republica said the Executive's decisions were 'fundamentalist stubbornness' going against the public mood and that some of the nine reasons given by the committee are 'inventions'.
The Peruvian Environmental Law Society issued a public statement calling the insistence on introducing GM seeds in agriculture as 'suspicious' alluding to accusations by anti-GM groups that the government is going along with the needs of the big multinational GM companies.
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