GM Report Adds Twist to Peruvian Defamation Case

SciDev Net

– Zoraida Portillo,  August 25, 2010

‘New report failed to find GM crops whose existence Bustamante challenged before being convicted of defamation’

An official study in Peru has found no evidence of transgenic maize crops in the valley of Barranca, casting doubt on earlier claims by a researcher of their illegal existence.

Those claims were central to a recent court case in which Ernesto Bustamante Donayre, a molecular biologist and vice-president of the Peruvian College of Biologists, was convicted of defamation after criticising research by Antonietta Ornella Gutiérrez Rosati – that purported to find evidence of such crops.

The existence of the official report was revealed during an international biotechnology workshop organised by Peru’s National Institute of Agrarian Innovation (INIA) in June. Although it has not yet been published, SciDev.Net has gained access to it. The report examines 164 maize samples from the area, and concludes that there was not enough evidence to determine the presence of transgenic crops in the Barranca valley.

In November 2007 Gutiérrez, a biologist at the National Agricultural University of La Molina (UNALM), Peru, claimed in a newspaper article that she had found unauthorised transgenic maize in the valley. Such maize would have been illegal because any release of GM crops must have prior government approval, although the procedure is not clear as the country’s biosafety regulation is still under discussion.

When Bustamante criticised Gutiérrez’s study in the media, she filed a defamation case against him, leading to his conviction in 2010. Scientists have protested against the court decision.

Since then, the Peruvian government has conducted research in an attempt to check Gutiérrez’s findings. The results are presented in the report, peer-reviewed by a panel of independent international scientists. Several sources told SciDev.Net the government had come under strong political pressure and lobbying by anti-transgenic groups to prevent its publication.

But Jorge Alcántara Delgado, head of the department of genetic resources and biotechnology at INIA, denied this, and told SciDev.Net that the report would be published in the first half of September. The delay occurred because the peer-review panel were late in sending their comments, he said.

Santiago Pastor Soplin of the biological diversity division at the Ministry of Environment, told SciDev.Net that the ministry had not received the report from INIA and was not aware of its publication date. “Our institutional interpretation is that to wait two years [since the first suggested evidence of GM crops emerged] before taking samples, and more than seven months before carrying out monitoring, reveals a dangerous regulatory weakness for a mega-diverse country such as Peru,” he noted.

He criticised INIA for appearing to be waiting for clear evidence of transgenic material in the crops instead of taking precautionary action “even in the absence of scientific certainty”.

Rolando Estrada, a professor at National University of San Marcos, in Lima, and former director of INIA’s department of genetic resources and biotechnology said although the publication delay had generated suspicion, that was “healthy” if it was because of the need for rigorous peer-review. However, he also called for periodic further assessments in the valley.

Ernesto Bustamante, who received a one-year suspended prison sentence and cannot leave Lima without the court’s permission, told SciDev.Net that he hoped Gutiérrez would withdraw her complaint after the report is published. “My criticism was of her work, not of her person, and I only emphasised that it was not possible to derive such conclusions from what I feel to be shoddy science,” he said.

Gutiérrez did not respond to SciDev.Net’s requests for comment.