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South and Central America

Some of the Earth’s most interesting and diverse foods are native to Central and South America.  Fruits such as rambutan, mangoes, pineapples, papayas, and pitahayas are considered “exotic” fruits by importing countries, such as the United States, Japan and Great Britain.

However, fruit flies are endemic to this region, creating a substantial “trade barrier.”  Recently, the Animal and Plant Inspection Service (APHIS) of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) decided that irradiation could be used in place of chemical or heat treatment to kill pests. For the first time in history, irradiated produce are now allowed and actually encouraged for exportation to the US. The rule will benefit large food producers, processors and exporters at the expense of small farmers. Farmers in South and Central America won’t be able to compete with cheap exports, so their land and labor will become susceptible to joint ventures that grow cash crops of tropical produce. Cash crops will be irradiated and shipped at low cost back to the industrialized world. As a result, agricultural diversity, and hence ecological sustainability, will be turned a blind eye along with small-scale family farmers.

The following country briefs outline developments across Central and South America:

Brazil:  Brazil, with four growing seasons and a landmass approximating the size of the United States of America, is a major world exporter of fruits and vegetables (in excess of 84 billion pounds annually).  However, Brazil’s agricultural economy has several strikes against it because of the weakness of the Brazilian currency (the real), which encourages exports. Post-harvest losses are significant due to the lack of infrastructure to move produce across a large and very sensitive environment.

For these reasons, leaders in Brazil are pushing for irradiation to the delight of the irradiation industry.  While Brazil is currently home to eleven irradiators, Surebeam and Tech Ion Industrial Brazil are planning a further twenty-one. Brazil has the most liberal food irradiation legislation in the world. Any food can be irradiated in Brazil, at any dose, and for any reason.  Brazil was also the first country to adopt the FAO/IAEA/WHO study group’s recommendation to allow food to be irradiated at very high doses.

Increased irradiation in Brazil carries with it several concerns.  First, the very delicate environment could be imperiled by the expansion of roads and train services, driven by exploding agricultural production, through what was once rainforest or savanna.  Second, farmland in Brazil is cheap—US$700 per acre, compared to US$3850 in the United States in Illinois.  Cheap land lures prospectors from across the world that want to grow lucrative cash crops for export, pushing indigenous peoples from their land. American farmers have been moving in and buying up land for vertical production of soy beans, maize and pigs - at times reaching into the Amazon’s fertile land.

Mexico:  Mexico is home to three irradiators and has given clearance to irradiate 64 food categories.  In 2000, Ion Beam Applications (IBA) and MDS Nordion opened a new facility in Tepeji, sixty kilometers from Mexico City.  This $7 million facility, NGS Enterprises (“NGS”), functions with gamma irradiation.  Facilities that process with gamma irradiation require radioactive isotopes (either cobalt 60 or cesium 137) to function.

Chile: Chile is home to one irradiator, although Surebeam has indicated interest in opening a facility there in the future.  Chile has cleared a total of twenty food products for irradiation, including potatoes, papaya, wheat, chicken, onions, rice, fish products and spices. 

Argentina:  Argentina has three irradiation facilities.  One opened in 2000 in Salta especially for the thirteen foods that are cleared in Argentina, including spices to a dosage of 30 kGy.

Cuba and Costa Rica: There is one facility in Cuba.  Both Cuba and Costa Rica have cleared eighteen items for irradiation.

    » cmep | foodsafety | international | americas


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