17 April 2002
BRAZIL'S BATTLE TO CONTAIN GMOS
The Guardian (Society), April 17, 2002
The battle continues to prevent Brazil, a major soya producer, caving in to pressure to authorise GM crops. Sue Branford reports
Brazil is coming under increasing pressure to authorise genetically-modified crops, in the wake of India's decision in late March to open its doors to this technology. For four years, a small group of underfunded Brazilian environmentalists and consumers has succeeded against all the odds in keeping a GM ban in place, but many observers now believe it is only a matter of time before Brazil, too, follows the worldwide trend.
Brazil is a key piece in the global bio-tech jigsaw. The area under GM cultivation throughout the world rose from 1.7m hectares in 1996 to 52.6m hectares in 2001. About two-thirds of this area was planted with a variety of soya beans genetically engineered by the biotechnology multinational, Monsanto, to be resistant to the company's herbicide, Round-Up. Both the US, which is the leading soya producer, and Argentina, which is in third position, have authorised GM crops. Only Brazil, the second producer, is still holding out against GM. The Brazilian Chamber of Deputies is expected shortly to approve a bill that will authorise the cultivation and consumption of GM products. As a first step, the chamber's special commission on genetically modified foods approved a highly favourable report on GM products in late March. If Brazil gives the go-ahead, it will become increasingly difficult for Europe and Asia to purchase non-GM soya beans at normal prices. They will become a niche product, for which health conscious and environmentally aware consumers will have to pay a hefty premium. The GM crop will be the norm.
Bob Callanan, from the American Soybean Association, which is fervently pro-GM, said last year: "We are hopeful that the last domino will fall shortly. That's why the environmentalists are putting up such a stink in Brazil. They know that, if that goes, it's all gone."
Brazil's stubborn resistance to GM crops took the bio-tech companies by surprise. Four years ago, Monsanto expected Brazil to authorise GM crops on the nod, just as had happened in neighbouring Argentina.
As part of its global strategy, Monsanto had bought up seed companies in Brazil and was poised to dominate bio-tech farming. The Brazilian government had expressed its support for GM crops and was helping to fund a pounds 250m factory that Monsanto was building in the north-east of the country to supply the whole of South America with the raw materials for Round-Up. In early 2000, Monsanto even imported GM seeds to sell to farmers in the following planting season, after the anticipated authorisation.
But Greenpeace and the Brazilian Institute for Consumer Defence (IDEC) had other ideas. They jointly appealed to the courts that the government had no authority to authorise Monsanto to produce GM seeds when the country's environmental legislation demanded that studies must first be carried out into the long-term health and environmental impacts of transgenic crops. In a historic ruling in May 2000, a Brazilian judge found in favour of the plaintiffs. Monsanto immediately appealed, but is still waiting for a final decision, expected shortly.
Until recently, the anti-GM lobby had little support from Brazil's powerful farming community. Enticed by reports of high GM yields and low production costs, farmers in the south of Brazil began to purchase GM seeds smuggled over from Argentina. According to some reports, up to half of the soya planted in Brazil's most southerly state, Rio Grande do Sul, may be transgenic.
Over the last year, however, some of Brazil's farmers have been having second thoughts. A massive soya front has been moving north, taking over first the plains of Mato Grosso and now moving into the Amazon basin. These farmers have been very successful with their non-GM exports, with some soya beans now going directly to Europe through the new port of Itacoatiara on the Amazon river. Over the last two years, Brazil's share of the world soya market has risen from 24% to 30%, while the US slice has declined from 57% to 46%. A farming association recently said that it would be "very foolish" for Brazil to authorise GM crops, for "we would risk throwing away a market we have worked very hard to win".
However, Brazil's agriculture minister, Pratini de Moraes, is a firm advocate of GM crops. On two occasions he tried unsuccessfully to authorise some GM varieties. On a trip to the US last year, he said that Brazil was planning to invest heavily in GM crops. "We must not run the risk of being left behind in the technological race," he added. "We have room for all kinds of crops in our huge country - GM, conventional and organic. That is our good fortune."
Over the last few months, the battle over GM has become more heated. In January, Anthony Harrington, former US ambassador to Brazil and now a lobbyist for Monsanto, held a private meeting with President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, now in his eighth and final year in office. Shortly afterwards, Cardoso called together all ministers involved in the GM debate and imposed what amounted to a gagging order on environment minister Jose Sarney Filho, who had openly aligned himself with the environmentalists. Since then, the minister has resigned, apparently on an unrelated issue.
Attention has now turned to congress. As the chamber of deputies prepares to vote, several Monsanto directors, including chief executive Rodrigo Almeida, have been seen lobbying deputies. Ado Pretto, from the opposition Workers' Party, has spoken of the "enormous pressure" on congress. On three occasions, environmentalists and members of Brazil's Landless Movement (MST) have occupied committee rooms, in protest over the government's refusal to allow a full debate on the issue.
The environmentalists believe that, if they can manage to postpone a final decision for a few more months, the balance of forces could change. Reports from Argentina say that GM soya is not living up to expectations; yields have been disappointing and the use of pesticides has soared, because of the emergence of disease.
"Time is on our side, for the problems with GM crops are becoming much
clearer," says Flavia Londres, from the anti-GM umbrella group. "Moreover,
this is an election year in Brazil, and unexpected things can happen. No
one knows who will be chosen as the next president of Brazil in October's
elections. The battle is far from lost."
Sue Branford was the BBC correspondent in Brazil. Her book, with Jan Rocha, on resistance movements in Latin America will be published later this year.
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