By Carlos Heras.

Agriculture, which accounts for about 15 percent of Bolivia's gross domestic product, is at the center of a controversy over genetically modified crops, with the government limiting the use of transgenic seeds to soybeans and farmers demanding expanded use to increase productivity.

Bolivia restricts the use of transgenic seeds, or genetically modified organisms, to just one variety of soybean resistant to the non-selective herbicide glyphosate.

Farmers, seeking to boost crop yields, want officials to allow the expansion of research on GMOs to other varieties of soybean and grains.

Bolivia "cannot compete within Mercosur without this technology," since other member countries, like Argentina and Brazil, employ it, Maria Mercedes Roca, professor of biotechnology at Mexico's Monterrey Tech, said.

Each GMO product should be "evaluated on its own merits, and case by case," the expert told EFE.

There is no scientific consensus on the safety of GMO crops for human food, Bolivian Environment and Water Minister Alexandra Moreira said, adding that she instead favored promoting organic farming, "where Bolivia has a niche."

"We operate on prudence, we do not wait until a catastrophe happens to take steps to prevent it," the minister told EFE.

Roca, for her part, argued that "no human activity or technology is risk-free."

The fact is that either because domestic production is low or imports are more competitive in terms of price, Bolivia, with the government's approval, buys GMO foods abroad.

Labeling will soon be required in Bolivia identifying genetically modified products, since "people need to know what they are eating," Moreira said.

Critics of GMOs oppose their use because the seeds aid mass agriculture and make small farmers dependent on the companies that produce the organisms.

Priority should be placed on "going beyond the export-oriented agro-industrial model, which is extensive and predatory," Martin Vilela, a sociologist with the Bolivian Platform against Climate Change, said.

The goal should be to move toward a "family communal" model, the sociologist said. EFE