The Latinas behind the Americas Latino Eco-Festival

Festival founder, Irene Vilar (Photo/Gary Isaacs)

Festival founder, Irene Vilar (Photo/Gary Isaacs)

Irene Vilar is no stranger to activism. She says her own grandmother spent 27 years in prison for fighting to make their native Puerto Rico an independent state.

Vilar wrote a memoir and became an author at the tender age 22. Years later, she founded the non-profit Americas for Conservation + the Arts, the mother organization of the Americas Latino Book Awards, as well as the first non-profit literary agency in the U.S. dedicated to proliferating minority literature in the Americas. Continue reading

The use of GMOs in our food supply – a look at the debate

People hold signs during a demonstration against agribusiness giant Monsanto and genetically modified organisms (GMO) in front of the White House in Washington on May 25, 2013. (Photo/NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

People hold signs during a demonstration against agribusiness giant Monsanto and genetically modified organisms (GMO) in front of the White House in Washington on May 25, 2013. (Photo/NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

In the past two months alone, there have been international marches against Monsanto, which produces genetically modified seeds, in more than 400 cities, and the company has been named in several lawsuitsOccupy Monsanto is also gaining momentum for a large protest on September 17. On the other hand, others defend genetically modified crops as an answer to providing food for the world’s growing population.

NBC Latino decided to talk to scientists on both sides of the debate about biotech agriculture and the controversial genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) it produces.

“There have been lots of protests against Monsanto, because they sell their seed and want to make sure growers don’t use their own seed for a year,” says Dr. Juan Luis Jurat-Fuentes, a researcher at the Institute of Agriculture at the University of Tennessee who has been working on developing new types of transgenic crops since 1995. “Monsanto is just a company that has spent millions of dollars in research — I don’t think it’s wrong.”

After spending years studying how insects respond to insecticides and transgenic crops, he says he hasn’t seen any negative effects.

“The only negative thing I’ve seen is bugs that develop resistance to these transgenic plants,” he says. “The second thing that can happen is eliminating pests from the field opens up other pests to take their place.”

Currently, he says about 70 percent of corn in the U.S. and 80 percent of cotton is made in the transgenic variety.

Dr. Cecilia Chi-Ham is the director of science and technology at PIPRA — an organization started by the Rockefeller Foundation to make sure the latest technologies reach farmers in developing countries. The researcher agrees with Dr. Jurat-Fuentes that there is nothing dangerous about companies like Monsanto.

“I develop genetically modified crops and research the impact of genetically modified seeds on small farmers,” says Dr. Chi-Ham. “One our biggest challenges is that the world population is growing and we need to produce the same amount of food as before…that’s when technology like GM can be so important.”

She says many organizations such as, The Pontifical Academy of Science (the Vatican) and theAmerican Medical Association have also reached the conclusion that there is no harm in biotechnology. Instead, she feels it has only contributed to improving agriculture and health.

“There are many drugs that are made by using GM organisms — medications like for diabetes, for example,” says Dr. Chi-Ham. “Before, insulin was extracted from the pancreas of cows or pigs, which could cause some problems.”

Other researchers don’t agree and feel that GMOs pose health concerns as well as threaten the rights of small farmers.

Dr. Ignacio Chapela, a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, has been an outspoken critic of UC Berkeley’s ties to the biotechnology industry for more than a decade. He’s also appeared in the documentaries “The World According to Monsanto” and “The Future of Food.”

Dr. Chapela pointed to studies showing that Bt toxins found in Monsanto crops damage red blood cells in humans, not only insects, and Dr. Chapela has been talking about the dangers of GM corn for years.

“For example, the corn produc[es] a toxin that kills insects [and] has serious consequences because it’s leaking that insecticide into the environment…through the roots,” said Dr. Chapela in a video. “A lot of that Bt toxin goes into the soil.”

Chapela also says GM seeds lead to crops becoming homogeneous, causing the loss of the diversity we need and require for the future survival of the crop.

“It’s not an exaggeration to say that it’s really world food sustainability that’s at stake,” said Dr. Chapela.

Dr. Ricardo Salvador, director of the food and environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, is also concerned about the monocrops being developed by biotech companies such as Monsanto.

“Through genetic modification, human beings have taken out lots of the characteristics of corn, which are not for human consumption,” says Dr. Salvador. “There’s a lot of people that argue that’s why we are developing huge food allergies and dietary diseases like Crohn’s disease.”

He explains that by changing the DNA of organisms, it’s harder to research the results. The assumption now, he says, is that GM seeds are safe unless there is evidence to the contrary.

“There is effectively no formal approval process for transgenic food crops…We need to produce more of the right stuff and less of the wrong stuff,” says Dr. Salvador, explaining we need healthier fruits and vegetables and less meat and grain — what is being produced now. “We need to do more research on that.”

He also says we need to take a closer look at where the GM products are really going.

“They are not going into the food supply or going to the hungry of the world, but to produce biofuel, fatten livestock, and to produce the raw ingredients for junk food,” says Dr. Salvador. “The market that is buying meat and biofuel is the wealthy of the world.”

As the use of GMOs increase, the debate continues between both sides of the issue.

Originally published on