Are GMOs a threat? Exploring Views of Peru‘s Ban on Genetically Modified Organisms

Featured Scientist: Teddy Dondanville (He/Him/His), M.S. 2018, Department of Anthropology & Sociology, Illinois State University.

A picture of Teddy Dondanville looking into the camera.
A picture of Teddy with a group of student standing in front of a building.
In addition to his research, Teddy worked as a Peace Corps volunteer at the Instituto de  Educación Pública San Martin de Porres. The image above shows a Teddy, fellow teachers, and a small group of graduating seniors on a field trip to the local institute for higher education. The goal was to help students learn more about the college experience. 

Birthplace: Los Angeles, California

My Research: I am interested in the relationships between people and the environment. Specifically, I am interested in agricultural practices, like farming, and how agriculture is used to make food.

Research Goals: In the future, I would like to follow up with the research that I did in Peru on the law banning genetically-modified-organisms (GMOs).

Career Goals: I am currently transitioning away from my career from youth development programming (i.e. before/after school care, summer camps, etc.) in the non-profit sector. Moving forward, I am focused on programming in outdoor and adventure recreation.

Hobbies: I am an avid rock climber & cyclist.

Favorite Thing About Science: In general, I like conducting research and providing evidence that helps me to understand the world. For example, Sociology is a field of study that often examines problems in society. By conducting research and gathering data, I can shed light on problems happening in our communities and help find ways we can solve them.

My Team: Since this was my master’s Capstone Project, the majority of the research was carried out by me, with guidance by my committee. When I decided to publish it, Dr. Michael Dougherty signed on as a co-author and took part in the data analysis and the writing and editing of the final paper. Dr. Mathew Himley also supported this research with his expertise in Peru. Dr. Maura Toro-Morn also helped inform some of the methodological components.

Field of Study: Environmental Sociology

What is Environmental Sociology? Environmental Sociology is a branch of sociology that looks at the relationship between humans and the environment. For example, my research looked at farming culture and politics and how these concepts relate to agriculture.

Check Out My Original Paper: “Porousness and Peru’s moratorium on genetically modified organisms: stakeholder epistemologies and neoliberal science”

A QR code that links to the original publication.
QR code to the original publication

Citation: T.W. Dondanville & Michael L. Dougherty (2020) Porousness and Peru’s moratorium on genetically modified organisms: stakeholder epistemologies and neoliberal science, Environmental Sociology, 6:1, 107-119.

Research at a Glance: My research focused on the ban of GMOs in Peru. I studied the ideas behind different policy approaches towards the ban. I followed the historical development of Law #29811, a law that was designed to temporarily stop the importation and use of GMOs in Peru. Peru is one of three South American countries that has a national ban on GMOs. The main reason for the law was to protect agro-biodiversity. The concern was that natural agricultural products would be outcompeted if GMOs were introduced to the market. However, it was not that simple. I explored the language in Law #29811. Stakeholder groups had different opinions about the ban on GMOs as a result of the vague language used in the law. I argue that the language in Law #29811 was intentionally vague. Through observations and interviews, I examined the impacts of the law on local agriculture and how three stakeholder groups, (1) farmers, (2) academics and activists, and (3) representatives of state understood the law.

I found that the first two groups, farmers and academics/activists, supported the law on a policy level. The local Andean farmers rejected the idea of GMOs, finding them to be expensive and meaningless. They took great pride in their agricultural products, which showed their energy and commitment. Above all, the exemplar quality of the food they grew was important to them.  Non-genetically modified (non-GMO) food is important to farmers. They view it as an expression of hard work and it is grounded in traditional culture and farming practices. Academics and activists also rejected the idea of GMOs, but for a different reason. They believe that GMOs threaten biodiversity. Additionally, preserving biodiversity preserves the traditional livelihood of indigenous farmers with small parcels of land. GMOs can invade non-GMO crop fields and take over native and organic species. GMOs can also introduce allergens and the chemicals used to maintain them can leave toxins in the plants and soil. Some representatives of state did not support the ban and instead approved of the use of GMOs. They sought to benefit the economy by increasing competition in agricultural markets by allowing the trade and use of GMOs. After gaining an understanding of the various stakeholders‘ opinions, my research offered a critique of Law #29811 that was focused on its shortcomings and hidden intentions.

Highlights: For my project, I wanted to understand the real purpose behind the ban of GMOs in Peru. I argued that the ban was never designed to be long term. Law #29811 had a 10-year time limit. There were also many steps written into the law that would allow Peru to adopt GMOs after the 10-year time limit. This is similar to other policies throughout South America. I argue that Peru’s ban serves as an example of neoliberal multiculturalism. The term neoliberal refers to the type of governmental and economic decisions that support free markets and decreased government intervention. Multiculturalism is the practice of accepting and coexisting with people of different ethnicities, cultures, religions, etc. Law #29811 is an example of neoliberal multiculturalism. On the surface, it exists to protect indigenous Peruvian farming culture by banning GMOs. However, the protections offered by this law only create the illusion of multiculturalism. In reality, under the Peruvian neoliberal government, the law seeks to actually further the use of GMOs in agriculture. It recognizes the indigenous agriculture but does not protect it in the long run. We found this through extensive translation and analysis of government documents and through interviews with academics and activists who were focused on agriculture.

What My Science Looks Like: The table below summarizes the policy approaches of the representatives of the state, academics and activists, and famers. It also summarizes how these stakeholder groups have different perspectives, or how they vary epistemologically. Epistemology refers to the study of knowledge. Essentially, how do people know things? It refers to people’s ability to reason, their belief systems, and how they perceive the world. In my study, I found that each stakeholder group views Law #29811 differently based on their own experiences and knowledge of GMOs. I found that representatives of the state and academics/activists have different policy approaches towards GMO use in agriculture. They both agree that competition and economic development are important. They also agree that science (i.e. GMOs) should be used to increase economic development. However, academics, activists, and farmers all support the ban. They are against the use of GMOs in agriculture, but for different reasons.

A table that lays out stakeholder's policy approaches to the GMO ban. Representatives of the law oppose the ban and suggest that GMOs can enhance competition and economic development. Academics and activists support the ban, but still place value in competition and economic development. Farmers support the ban and value hard work and collectivism.
Policy approaches and epistemological views of representatives of the state, academics and activists, and famers toward GMOs. Table adapted from Dondanville et al. 2020.

The Big Picture: My research combines the topics of both GMOs and neoliberalism in South America. I show how modern economic ideas relate to farming and how policy decisions can affect indigenous communities. By using ethnographic and qualitative research techniques, my research serves as an example on how to study GMOs in agriculture. This research is important because it helps to highlight complicated ideas that relate economic development to industrialized agriculture. Like many other countries, Peru is still developing. To fully understand its growth and what the country has been through, I needed to first understand the origin of the country and where it might be in the near future. Research like this combines the perspectives of multiple actors playing a part in a larger scenario. This works to include many voices, especially the voices of those who have been traditionally marginalized. My research gave them a chance to make their voices heard. The data that we collected helps to paint a more complete picture of the complexities involved in an important facet of daily life.

Decoding the Language:

Agro-biodiversity: Also known as Agricultural (Agro) Biodiversity. Biodiversity refers to the variety of living organisms (flora and fauna) in any given ecosystem. Agro-biodiversity refers to the variety of different plant species that are used specifically for agriculture.

Epistemological: The adjective form of “epistemology”: which is the study of knowledge. It seeks to understand what exactly knowledge is, how it is created, and what it actually means. It works towards understanding the ways through which people and cultures come to understand the world around them and form their beliefs.

Ethnographic: Also known as Ethnography. It is the process by which the observer seeks to understand the customs of individual peoples and/or cultures by living in a certain place for an extended period of time.

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs): GMOs are living organisms whose DNA is altered to give them specific/desired traits. Usually, agricultural plants are modified so that they are tolerant to drought or to pesticides

Marginalized: People or groups that are treated as insignificant, excluded, or are in the minority.

Neoliberalism: Neoliberalism is an economic ideal that revolves around free and open trade markets, little to no government intervention, and rolled-back regulation of business practices and environmental protections.

Neoliberal Multiculturalism: Multiculturalism is the belief that having diversity of cultures is a good thing. For example, a country should strive to protect and promote the different cultures that make up its population. Under a neoliberal government, multiculturalism is promoted as a strategy to obtain certain political and economic goals and not just for the betterment of the society.

Qualitative research: Qualitative research is a type of research that allows us to classify and describe the characteristics of an individual or culture through collecting and analyzing non-numerical data. This would include observations, videos, recorded audio, or text.

Stakeholder: Someone who has an interest or concern for an issue that is likely to personally affect them. Often, a stakeholder will have a financial interest in the issue.

Learn More:

Illinois State University Department of Sociology and Anthropology

Illinois State University Center for Community & Economic Development, The Stevenson Center

Global international organization committed to support and help communities in crisis OXFAM International, Peru

Peruvian Society of International Law (in Spanish) Sociedad Peruana de Derecho Ambiental

Non- profit organization dedicated to help Andean communities, Center for Social Well Being

Synopsis edited by Maisam Yousef, B.S. 2019, and Elyse McCormick, M.S. Anticipated 2022, Illinois State University.

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