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2-Palnts: Drought takes toll on transgenic soy in Brazil

-------------------------------- GENET-news -------------------------------

TITLE:  Drought Takes Toll on Transgenic Soy
SOURCE: IPS News, by Mario Osava*
DATE:   31 Mar 2005

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Drought Takes Toll on Transgenic Soy

RIO DE JANEIRO, Mar 31 (Tierramérica) - Drought in southern Brazil has
reduced this year's soybean harvest dramatically in Rio Grande do Sul
state -- and added fuel to the heated national debate about transgenic crops.

Genetically modified (GM) soy, which accounts for the majority of soybean
production in the southern state, suffered greater losses than
conventional soy varieties, according to reports by local growers.

That is to be expected, says Narciso Barison, president of APASSUL, a
state association of seed producers, because transgenic seeds are
smuggled into Brazil from Argentina and are not intended for the local
climate, so proved less resistant to the water shortage,.

The conventional varieties, developed by national Brazilian agencies,
certified and adapted to the region, had better results. The differences
in crop loss varied according to the conditions of each field, reaching
''a maximum of 25 percent'' for non-GM soy, he said.

The U.S.-based agribusiness giant Monsanto, which developed a GM soybean
resistant to its glyphosate herbicide -- thus increasing potential sales
of both products -- rejects the comparison of its transgenic variety with
the local conventional varieties.

''The intensity of the drought does not allow us to verify differences in
yields,'' said Ricardo Miranda, Monsanto development director in Brazil.

''No soybean variety can withstand that level of hydric stress,'' which
in some areas caused losses of 80 percent of the crop, he said.

There are two more factors, according to Miranda, that determine the
performance of transgenics in drought conditions: the GM variety
facilitates and promotes direct planting -- no need for tilling so the
soil retains more moisture -- and allows greater control of weeds, which
otherwise compete with the crop for the scarce water available.

The drought that has dragged on for five months in Rio Grande do Sul is
harshly punishing soybeans, which are planted primarily in October and

The governmental rural technical assistance and extension agency, EMATER,
calculated a 61 percent decline in the average yield of soybean fields in
the state, falling from an expected 2,007 kgs per hectare to just 782. As
such, the predicted 8.3 million tonnes of soybeans from the harvest will
be only around 3.2 million tonnes.

Monsanto's RR (Roundup Ready) soy seed began to be smuggled into the
state almost 10 years ago, and its presence grew to 80 percent of the
total area planted with soy, according to assessments that for obvious
reasons cannot be exact.

In the last two years, faced with fait accompli, the government tried to
grant temporary legal status to the banned transgenic soy through a court
ruling made in 1999.

Now, with the Biosecurity Act approved by the Brazilian Congress on Mar.
2, a definitive solution is sought for the legal uncertainties
surrounding the use of biotechnology in agriculture in this country.

Clandestine cultivation of GM seed and the legal confusion of recent
years produced a critical situation for soy seed producers in Rio Grande
do Sul. The local companies were pushed out of the market by the growing
presence of contraband transgenic seed, which they themselves could not
legally produce.

Now that the drought has ''proved'' the advantages of the varieties
created for the local climate and soil conditions, there should be a race
by the soy farmers for certified Brazilian seed, but there are not enough
stocks to supply the market, said Barison.

The multiplication of transgenic seed to meet demand throughout Rio
Grande do Sul state would require three years, and the conventional (non-
GM) varieties are currently insufficient as a result of the low demand in
recent years.

As a result, soy production in Rio Grande do Sul, which represents more
than 15 percent of national output, will take some years to recover its
previous volume. For the next planting season farmers will have to use
their own seed, of low quality worsened by the drought.

''It is an opportunity for a deeper debate on the country's agricultural
development model,'' said Altermir Tortello, coordinator of FETRAF-Sul, a
federation of family farmers in the southern region, and member of the
government's food security and economic and social development agencies.

In his opinion, the drought ''has been a big lesson,'' not only about the
transgenic issue, but also about monoculture.

The so-called ''green revolution'' -- begun in the 1970s in Brazil with
widespread mechanisation of farms, over-use of chemical inputs and focus
on a limited number of crops for export -- is one of the causes of the
current drought in the south, or at least contributed to worsening its
impacts, says Tortello.

The green revolution model was implemented with widespread deforestation,
drainage of wetlands and intensive use of water supplies, throwing
ecosystems out of equilibrium, he said.

In Rio Grande do Sul, ''one can travel hundreds of kilometres without
seeing any forest, only soy fields.''

Small farmers who were attracted to monoculture of soybeans because it
seemed at the time to be a ''goldmine'', have now gone bankrupt, says
Tortello, who advocates ''a change in the model'' in favour of crop
diversification, which would also foster environmental and social

Transgenics strengthen and intensify the monoculture export model, which
concentrates land ownership in the hands of a few, pushes out and
impoverishes small farmers and furthermore degrades the environment, he said.

Barison, meanwhile, defends the free marketing of transgenics so that
farmers can choose the variety that is most convenient for them. In his
opinion, the soybean farmers in the south ''are paying for the risk they
assumed'' when they planted illegal GM soy, and that the losses were not
due to the genetic modification, but rather to inappropriate seed.

Several agricultural technology companies, including the state-run
Embrapa, developed transgenic varieties with strong yields, incorporating
the gene from Monsanto's Roundup Ready which includes resistance to
glyphosate herbicide.

Miranda believes that if the Brazilian Biosecurity Act enters into force
in the form in which Congress approved it, there will be rapid expansion
of transgenic crops because of the high demand by farmers.

(* Originally published Mar. 26 by Latin American newspapers that are
part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news
service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations
Development Programme and the United Nations Environment Programme.)


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