Development & Aid, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

DEVELOPMENT-BRAZIL: Scientists Lead Charge in Favour of GMOs

Mario Osava

RIO DE JANEIRO, Jun 18 2003 (IPS) - Scientists in Brazil are on the move to defend continued research of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), enlivening a debate that is already having major impacts on the world agricultural markets.

Brazil is seen as the final front of resistance to genetically modified soya in the Americas. The vast majority of the U.S. and Argentine soya production involves GM seeds. As the world’s top soya producers and exporters, the three countries are the main contenders for market share.

The government so far upholds the ban on commercial farming of GMOs in Brazil due to a June 2000 court ruling, but also because of pressure from the environmental movement and the European market’s preference for conventional soya.

But it is increasingly difficult to maintain this stance, due to the pressure from farmers, agri-business and scientists interested in the new “transgenic” technology.

In an open letter to President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, to the parliament and to the Brazilian people, a group of scientists called for the elimination of the bans that have paralysed GMO research in Brazil for the past several years.

In order to pursue research in genetic manipulation, the scientists say they have to meet “impossible requirements” and deal with “an excessive bureaucracy.”


The country cannot renounce technology that is “essential for the sustainability and competition of Brazil’s agri-business,” and which would provide “social and economic benefits.”

Maintaining the current anti-GMO approach means relegating Brazil to last place in the competition for major shares of the world commodities markets, argue the scientists.

More than a thousand experts have signed the document, says Leila Oda, president of the National Biosecurity Association (ANBIO) and a leading proponent of freeing up GMO research in Brazil.

Several university graduate programmes, particularly in the state institutions, have been cancelled due to the “absurd requirements” for carrying out experiments, Oda said in comments to IPS.

To develop plants that are resistant to mould and bacteria requires going through the same registration process as one would for researching agro-chemicals, said Oda, expert in microbiology and risk assessment.

Authorisations must be obtained from the Brazilian ministries of Agriculture, Environment and Health, which is justified for commercial production, she said, but such rules “are not applied in regards to research anywhere in the world.”

Furthermore, the governmental Brazilian Environment Institute recently implemented new rules that require authorisation from that body as well for experiments involving GMOs or “their derivatives”.

Among GMO derivatives are insulin, enzymes used in powdered detergents and other products that have been consumed for years, says Oda. The requirement shows that the regulation was created by “people with little technical information,” she adds.

In her opinion, the debate is “irrational” because those who are opposed to transgenics argue based on “disinformation” and they “fear scientific innovation.”

They also talk about the “precautionary principle”, adopted in international environmental conventions, but it must not turn into an “inertia principle”, says the microbiologist.

Data from around the world indicate that genetically modified products are safe within the scope of currently available scientific assessments, says Oda, adding that the World Health Organisation (WHO) said as much in its document, “20 Questions on Genetically Modified Foods”, published last Oct. 15.

But attorney Andrea Salazar, of the Brazilian Institute for Consumer Defence (IDEC), says the WHO statement “was not categorical,” and the United Nations agency recognises the very real risk of the dissemination of genes from GMOs to other plants, as occurred with maize in the United States.

“We are not opposed to GMOs, but we want more research done,” and not just about their agricultural properties, because what is needed are studies to assess their impact on human health and the environment, Salazar said.

“Society can’t be made the guinea pig,” added the activist.

The sparring between defenders and critics of GMOs includes accusations that powerful economic interests are the motive behind actions.

IDEC, one of the most active organisations in the debate, has never been subjected to so much pressure, said Salazar.

The scientific community is also divided, admits Oda, a fact that has so far prevented the Brazilian Society for Progress in Science from issuing an official position on the matter.

The controversy itself was overrun by the reality of GMOs in Brazil. Three-quarters of this year’s soya crop in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul comes from transgenic seeds smuggled in from Argentina, where 98 percent of soya production involves GMOs.

To avoid having to destroy the six million tons of soya expected at harvest time, the Brazilian government authorised – as an exception – the sale of the GM product, but maintains the ban for future plantings. IDEC says the decision to allow the sale is unconstitutional.

The legislature of the northeastern state of Pernambuco passed a local law on May 7 that permits the cultivation and sale of genetically modified crops.

But the biggest victim in this battle appears to be Brazil’s seed producing industry. Sales have dropped off and uncertainty “inhibits investment in the development of new varieties,” even through conventional means, such as crossbreeding, says Joao Lenine Bonifacio, president of the Brazilian Seed Producers Association.

In Rio Grande do Sul, the sharp decline in seed sales threatens to push many companies into bankruptcy, he told IPS.

Farmers there announced that they will continue disobeying the ban on GMOs, arguing that the transgenic seeds give them higher yields and reduce the need for agro-chemicals.

If the government is not able to enforce the law, the already uncertain future in that region and others could lead the country to depend on imported seeds within just a few years, says Lenine Bonifacio. (END/IPS/LA/DV-SC/TRA-SO LD/MO/MP/03)

 
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