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Chile aims to export genetically modified fruit

Chile: March 8, 2004

SANTIAGO, Chile - Chile, the biggest exporter of fresh fruit in the Southern Hemisphere, is developing new gene-modified foods for sale abroad, despite consumer concerns about such products, in a bid to compete with richer countries.

The country now uses only traditional farming methods to produce the $1.5 billion in fruit bound for North America, Europe and Asia during the northern winter. But Chilean exporters and scientists at the Global Biotechnology Forum in Chile this week said they believe they can develop and patent new species of grapes, nectarines and peaches - using genetic material made in the laboratory and transferred to the plant - within four years.

"We believe that by 2008 we will have a transgenic plant and Chile will be ready to cultivate transgenic crops," said Patricio Arce, a Chilean scientist heading research to develop cheaper, pest resistant grapes at Santiago's Catholic University.

Colleagues are doing similar work on other crops.

Conscious of widespread fears about the potential health and environmental damage from genetically modified organisms, Chile's plan is to test domestic reaction to the new products first before venturing into export markets.

Public and private investment in biotechnology totals about $50 million a year in Chile, very low compared with developed countries and with regional leaders like Brazil, which announced on Wednesday it has developed a new genetically modified soybean.

But President Ricardo Lagos has started the ball rolling with a five-year biotechnology plan to boost research and development focused on Chile's top exports and cash earners - mining, forestry, salmon, fruit and wine.

The goal is to lower costs and raise volumes by developing new, hardier plant species and to find new techniques to fight pests and disease and preserve perishable produce after harvest.

"For example, in our export fruit we have the problem of how long it can last between harvest and arrival at its final market," Agriculture Minister Jaime Campos told Reuters.

The biggest market for Chilean fruit is the United States, where regulations on genetically modified products are looser than in the European Union, Chile's other big market.

Campos said Chile wants a co-existence of traditional agriculture, organic farming and and genetic engineering and plans to tread carefully given the global disputes over trade and labeling regulations for genetically modified organisms. Consumer groups criticize the government for bending to business pressure to quickly develop GMOs. They demand that Chile draft strong laws to protect shoppers.

"There is an urgent need to educate the population so that the citizenry - and not the transnationals that promote these products - decide if they accept or reject these foods," said the Chilean branch of Consumers International.

Chile, like Brazil, wants to end dependence on foreign biotechnology firms, such as the U.S.-based Monsanto Co. (MON.N: Quote, Profile, Research) , saying it has not received compensation for GMOs developed by foreigners from native Chilean species.

Chile has 10,000 hectares producing genetically modified seeds for export and 31 private-sector biotechnology companies are working with academics on a variety of projects ranging from improving crops to developing vaccines for salmon and cattle.

Arce predicts that by the time the world reaches an agreement on GMO trade, Chile will be ready to take advantage of the new regulations.

Story by Louise Egan


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