Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

BRAZIL: War Over Transgenics Returns to the Courts

Mario Osava

RIO DE JANEIRO, Mar 3 2005 (IPS) - The battle over transgenics will continue, because the biosafety bill recently passed by Brazil’s lower house is unconstitutional, say organisations opposed to the introduction of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) without prior studies into their environmental and human health impact.

Sezifredo Paz, executive coordinator of the Brazilian Consumer Defence Institute (IDEC), told IPS that legal channels will now be pursued in an attempt to revert the congressional decision. "We trust in the justice system, because it is the only one that has acted independently on this issue," he said.

The new Biosafety Law will replace the one adopted in 1995. Approved by the Chamber of Deputies on Wednesday night, it will make it easier to acquire authorisation for planting genetically modified crops, as well as authorising embryonic stem cell research for treatment purposes.

The combination of these two rather disparate issues in a single piece of legislation reflects the tortuous road travelled by the bill passed by the lower house of parliament in a vote of 366-59.

This overwhelming majority is especially remarkable, considering that the version of the bill the deputies approved on Wednesday omitted a number of fundamental points included in a bill passed by the same lawmakers a year ago.

On that occasion, the majority supported a version that also satisfied environmentalists and consumer protection groups, because it stipulated the need for prior studies into the impact of transgenic crops on the environment, human health and food security before cultivation could be authorised.

At the last minute, a group of vocally Christian deputies managed to tack on a ban on the use of embryonic stem cells in scientific research.

But once that original bill was passed, it went before the Senate, where modifications were introduced, leading to the new version and the need for another vote in the Chamber of Deputies.

The bill that has now received definitive congressional approval, with the changes made by the Senate, authorises research using human embryos that have been frozen for at least three years. A movement of scientists, the disabled and people suffering from illnesses that could potentially be treated as a result of stem cell research pressured Brazilian lawmakers to include this clause.

The issue of transgenics was overlooked in these lobbying efforts. The biosafety bill, which now merely needs the president’s signature to become law, grants full power to authorise the use of GMOs to the National Technical Commission on Biosafety (CTNBio), a department of the Ministry of Science and Technology.

The Commission can freely adopt decisions without needing to consult with the Ministry of the Environment or even the health authorities responsible for studying the potential threat posed to human health.

Embryonic stem cells (which can transform themselves into any kind of cell in the human body) served as a "Trojan horse" to distract attention and allow the new rules on transgenics to pass unnoticed, said Paz.

But the new law is unconstitutional, because the Brazilian constitution adopted in 1988 explicitly stipulates the need for prior studies on environmental impact, he said.

This provision served as the grounds for a successful lawsuit filed by IDEC six years ago, in which the final ruling prohibited the planting of transgenic soy sold by the U.S.-based biotech transnational Monsanto.

The Brazilian chapter of the environmental group Greenpeace called for a mobilisation of civil society to urge President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to veto the bill.

The CTNBio, made up of 27 members, most of them scientists appointed by the Ministry of Science and Technology, has already demonstrated that it is "totally committed to promoting biotechnology and the hasty release of transgenics," said Gabriela Couto of Greenpeace Brazil’s genetic engineering campaign.

In the meantime, Paz said he was "sceptical" about a presidential veto, given the backtracking seen in the stance of the government and Lula in particular with regard to this issue.

By way of example, he pointed to the three special decrees with which the president granted after-the-fact authorisation for the sale of transgenic soy during his first two years in office, thereby accepting as a "fait accompli" the fact that farmers in southern Brazil were using seeds smuggled in from Argentina.

In addition, Lula "failed to make the slightest effort to defend the bill drafted by his own government", which incorporated the environmental and health considerations outlined in the constitution. What’s more, the ruling coalition leaders in Congress supported the modifications in favour of transgenics, Paz noted.

The battle will continue in the legal arena and through the mobilisation of environmentalists and consumer defence groups, he said. IDEC is in the process of studying the bill and analysing potential channels for legal action.

"Releasing transgenics is sheer stupidity," Lula declared when he was a presidential candidate, a fact pointed out by the non-governmental Alternative Agriculture Projects Advisory and Services Group (ASPTA).

The Zero Hunger Programme launched by the president also opposed the use of GMOs, because it would "exacerbate the dependency" of farmers on the transnational monopolies, added ASPTA.

It is impossible for transgenic crops to be planted alongside conventional crops without contaminating them, the organisation stressed.

As a result, the group predicted, there will be an onslaught of legal proceedings launched by farmers whose crops are contaminated, as well as lawsuits against farmers, as is the case in Canada and the United States, where Monsanto has taken growers to court for illegally using its genetically modified seeds, even when this is a result of contamination.

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