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9-Misc: Brazil government sets up working group to discuss GE policy



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TITLE:  Brazil: Lula Confronts Transgenic Crop Dispute
SOURCE: Inter Press Service, by Mario Osava
        sent by AgBioView, USA
DATE:   Feb 21, 2003

------------------ archive: http://www.gene.ch/genet.html ------------------


Brazil: Lula Confronts Transgenic Crop Dispute

Rio De Janeiro, Feb. 21 (IPS) -- The new populist Brazilian government is
moving to stake out a consistent position on genetically modified
products in an effort to reconcile the divergent pressures from
environmentalists, scientists and the international business community.

A working group set up this week, with representatives from nine
ministries, will have one month to issue a governmental definition on the
matter of transgenics. One of the problems for which the group must find
a solution is the expanding illegal cultivation of genetically modified
soy in southern Brazil. Official figures state that 4 million tons of
this transgenic crop were harvested in the last year.

The debate pitting those who warn of the health and environmental risks
of transgenic crops against those who promote further research and
development created a deep rift between the ministries of Environment and
Agriculture under the previous government of Fernando Henrique Cardoso
(1995-2003).

The controversy continues under President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, with
the Ministry of Environment opposed to the introduction of genetically
modified organisms in Brazilian territory and the Ministry of Agriculture
championing transgenic crops. Transgenics -- plant or animal -- are
created in laboratory by introducing the gene of a different species into
the organism's own gene make-up. The aim is usually to improve its
characteristics, for example, making a plant more resistant to pests or
to extreme climates.

Cultivation of genetically modified crops is illegal in Brazil due to a
provisional court decision, issued in June 2000, which banned the
commercial planting of a transgenic soy variety developed by the U.S.-
based seed and agro-chemical giant Monsanto.

The case, dating back to 1997, should see a definitive ruling within 60
days, marking the end of a long series of postponements filed by
environmental organizations and authorities. The ambiguity of the
government stance and uncertainties in the legal sphere have apparently
contributed to the illegal planting of genetically modified soy in
southern Brazil.

According to denunciations, eight percent of the national soy harvest
this year is from genetically modified seeds, says agriculture minister
Roberto Rodrigues. The illegal crops are the result of seeds smuggled in
from Argentina, where nearly the entire national soy yield is from
transgenic seeds.

The Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics calculates that the
country's total soy production this year will be 48.5 million tons, with
nearly 4 million tons being of genetically modified varieties. Farmers in
southern Brazil, however, believe the volume of the transgenic soy
harvest is much higher -- more than double -- at 8.5 million tons, and
worth $1.74 billion. In Rio Grande do Sul state, which shares an
extensive border with Argentina, "they say that more than 70 percent" of
the soy grown is genetically modified, says Carlos Sperotto, president of
the local Federation of Agriculture.

What to do with the illegal harvest is one of the problems that the
inter-ministerial working group must tackle, along with assessing the
various ways that genetic engineering can be applied to agriculture.

Minister Rodrigues, a defender of biotechnology applications, comments
that decision-makers must not forget "the socio-economic reality" and
should not throw out the harvest, jeopardizing the approximately 155,000
farmers involved.

But six non-governmental organizations are leading the "Campaign for a
Transgenic-Free Brazil", demanding government action to eliminate illegal
genetically modified soy and to penalize those responsible for planting
it inside Brazilian territory. Pressure on the government is coming from
several fronts, while no conclusive scientific evidence is yet available
about the effects of genetically modified organisms on the environment or
human health.

Researcher Manoel Teixeira Souza, of the governmental Brazilian
Enterprise for Agricultural Research (EMBRAPA), says he regrets that the
controversy emerged in reaction to the soy variety Roundup Ready, created
by Monsanto to withstand the company's herbicide and thus facilitate its
application.

This new technology became associated with negative factors, such as
greater dependence on agro-chemicals and the dominance of a transnational
like Monsanto in the national market, according to Souza. "But the
technology could lead precisely in the opposite direction," said the
agronomist, a researcher of the banana genome at EMBRAPA's Genetic
Resources and Biotechnology Center.

The debate, stated in these terms, "hurts research," paralyzing projects
and inhibiting investment, comments Souza. He led the development of a
genetically modified papaya, the seeds of which could be ruined due to
the ban on planting transgenics in Brazil, while a transgenic papaya is
being grown for export in the U.S. state of Hawaii. There is no
technology that offers "100 percent security," but current knowledge
allows scientists to create genetically modified foods that are
relatively safe and are resistant to pests.

"I prefer to eat transgenic fruit that does not require agro- chemicals
to fruit that is treated with pesticides," he said. But the new president
of EMBRAPA, Clayton Campanhola, said when he assumed the post a month ago
that the government body -- which oversees 40 specialized research
centers -- should respect the principle of precaution in all of its
activities.

According to the precautionary principle, established in international
talks on biotechnology, nations have the right to ban the introduction or
development of substances or organisms whose innocuousness has not been
rigorously proven. Caution and the need for further research on
genetically modified organisms in a country with such rich biodiversity
as Brazil are also the arguments wielded by environment minister Marina
da Silva in opposition to the commercial production of transgenics in
this country.

But it will be difficult to resist economic pressures. Six business
associations in the Brazilian cotton industry, which includes textiles,
defend the cultivation of transgenic cotton as a means to halt the
country's declining production and increasing imports. According to
cotton producers, genetically modified seeds could represent 60 percent
savings in production costs. Without the transgenic variety, and faced
with competition from other countries -- particularly the United States,
where it is already widely cultivated -- Brazilian farmers will abandon
cotton for other crops, they argue.

Transgenic cotton cuts to less than a third the volume of agro- chemicals
needed to protect the crop, reducing costs and benefiting the health of
farm workers and the environment, Helio Tollini, director of the
Brazilian Cotton Producers Association, said in a conversation with IPS.
Cotton is particularly susceptible to fungus, insect and bacterial
infestations -- a list that runs to 250 pathogenic agents -- and
therefore requires the intensive application of pesticides or the
development of resistant varieties.

Tollini, however, is not calling for the immediate release of transgenic
seeds, but rather a greater effort in research, "based on national data",
so the country can take a decision on the matter, "in three years, minimum."