The Scent of Burnt Papayas

 Venezuelans are facing mass hunger.

Desperate and confused, they wonder how things got this bad. Few thought that the situation would deteriorate to this point.

To those of us who have seen the process develop, what is happening today is the logical conclusion of all the terrible policies enacted by the government —as García Márquez might say, Crónica de Una Muerte Anunciada.

However, before all the rants against the rich people, before the seizure of Agroisleña, before the confiscation of private property, even before the mass firings from PDVSA, all the way back in 2000, one incident gave the game away.

Back then, it was already clear the Chavista government was listening to a group of unhinged zealots, ignoring experts and destroying millions of dollars worth of work, years of hard work, and an opportunity for the development of Venezuela.

It was an ominous warning of dark times to come, but few could see it for what it was back then. It was just an obscure incident among the many  in our country.

In the year 2000, an experimental field of genetically-modified papayas was burnt by anti-GMO activists with close ties to Greenpeace. These activists not only destroyed years of work and research, they also started a campaign of horrific lies about the genetically modified papayas: they caused mental retardation in children, they carried the bubonic plague, they caused cancer, and even that any vegetable that was big or shiny was genetically modified and therefore dangerous.

I saw this with my own eyes, and I experienced the terror that set upon Mérida, where I was working as a biologist. This campaign went unchallenged, and the scientists responsible for the papayas were silent.

What I didn’t know then was that they were threatened with prison and the destruction of their careers if they dared to speak out.

Not only did the government fail to punish the destruction of valuable research that could have helped the local farmers, but it turned the zealots’ argument into official policy.

What was really destroyed in Mérida was not a field of Monsanto papayas. The papayas were not engineered to withstand larger amounts of pesticides, but to resist a disease that hurts the fields and makes life more difficult for the farmers.

The papaya seeds were going to be given at cost to the farmers: it was the Universidad de Los Andes that was developing them. It was a local product, and maybe it could have been the first of many, if we had only had a supportive government. We were pioneers in the region, and now, 16 years later, we have ridiculous, unenforceable laws rejecting safe and nutritious GMO food during our worst food crisis, just like Zimbabwe and Zambia have done in the past.

Once, Venezuela was a pioneer of biotech in South America, but from that moment on, research in the areas was not only discouraged but punished. Banning biotechnology and “say NO to GMO” became official policy, part of el legado, the legacy of Chávez. Instead of high-yield fields, we chose to promote small subsistence fields, conucos. The anti-GMO position, based on ideology and not on facts, became a part of the chavista identity and its anti corporate worldview.

Not many people outside of Mérida know this story, and outside Venezuela even less are aware of our lost biotech.

Until now.

We are filming a documentary about it, and we are giving a voice to the scientists involved and to the workers on the experimental field. We are documenting the campaign of lies and fear against these crops. Our documentary, Silenced Crops is in production right now, and we are raising funds through Kickstarter to make it happen.

We only have a few more days, and we are very close to our goal. Please help us by sharing the link and donating. We need to tell this story, and create awareness.

This is just another example, one of the earliest, of how the Chavista government ignored evidence and embraced fact-free ideology. In order to rebuild Venezuela, we need to leave these attitudes behind. Please help us to make sure these lessons are learned and this story is never forgotten. Thanks.

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