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

BRAZIL: Contraband Transgenic Maize Causes Alarm

Mario Osava* - Tierramérica

RIO DE JANEIRO, Dec 23 2005 (IPS) - Reports of illegal imports of genetically modified maize in southern Brazil, crossing the Argentine border, have caused alarm among officials and experts, who warn that the crop’s environmental effects could be worse than those of smuggled soybeans nine years ago.

Rio Grande do Sul legislative deputy Frei Sergio Gorgen denounced Agropecuaria Campesato before the judicial authorities for selling genetically modified (GM) maize seed, after verifying an anonymous tip received last month.

According to Gorgen, the transgenic maize variety marketed by this small company reportedly came from Argentina and belongs to the agricultural biotechnology giant Monsanto. The U.S.-based corporation has been at the centre of Brazil’s GM controversies since 1996, when its RoundUp Ready (RR) soybeans were illegally diseminated also throughout Rio Grande do Sul.

The prevelance of transgenic soybeans reached more than 80 percent of the area cultivated with soy, according to farmers’ estimates, and expanded to other Brazilian states as well.

But maize – or corn – is different, because it can affect the environment and farming more extensively than soybeans, Claudio Langone, deputy minister of environment, told Tierramérica. Because it is a “direct pollination” crop, the gene added to the modified variety can spread to and contaminate conventional maize, he said.

“Brasil de Fato”, a weekly publication linked to the landless workers’ movement (MST, Movimento dos Sem Terra), states that some of the smuggled maize contained the gene GA21, used in Monsanto’s RRGA21 variety, resistant to the herbicide glyphosate. However, the transnational corporation said it was not aware of the maize’s origins and denounced the sale and cultivation of any illegal seed, “whether conventional or transgenic”.

“It is irresponsible” to introduce maize into the country that way, given that the transgenics regulation law is still in force, and the expansion of the GM crop could have “tragic” consequences, said Langone, pointing to potentially irreversible environmental impacts and damage to the credibility of Brazilian agriculture, thus threatening its exports to certain markets.

In March – against the protests of environmentalists – the Brazilian Congress passed the Biosecurity Act, which opened the doors to controlled research, development and production of genetically modified organisms.

“Maize is for domestic consumption, but it is a key input in the production of pork and poultry, which are important to Brazil’s exports,” explained Langone.

“Furthermore, this illegality violates the rights of the consumer, who would eat transgenics without being informed,” he added.

Transgenic organisms are modified in the laboratory by introducing genes from other plant or animal species in order to improve certain characteristics, such as the crop’s yield, or resistance to pests, pesticides or climate factors.

The biotechnology research that Monsanto conducts in Brazil is authorised by CTNBio, the national biosecurity commission, assured the corporation itself in a public statement. The research includes the maize varieties YieldGard and RR resistant to insects and to glyphosate herbicide, respectively, and not yet authorised for commercial production here.

According to lawmaker Gorgen, who filed the complaint in Rio Grande do Sul, it is now up to the police and the judicial and agricultural authorities to find the smuggler and put an end to the contraband, and to determine the responsibility of Monsanto, which owns the GM seed patent.

“Whoever owns it for profit also owns the responsibility of controlling it,” Gorgen told Tierramérica.

In his opinion, this case will not have the same fate as that of the smuggled soybean seed in the 1990s, which temporary laws accomodated as “fait accompli”, and, with certain conditions, let the farming of GM soy continue.

“The farmers have already realized what a disappointment the transgenic soy was – an economic failure,” because it requires more agro-chemicals, driving up production costs after the first few years, said Gorgen.

Furthermore, public opinion has “a different perception”, the federation of big farmers said they would not put up with another case of illegal seed, and the meat industry fears losing export markets if its hogs and chicken are fed with GM maize, he said.

For Narciso Barison, head of the Rio Grande do Sul association of seed producers and sellers, APASSUL, the transgenic maize is following the same path as soybeans did, “but won’t have the same future.”

Hybrid maize seed, the most widely planted, is difficult to reproduce; it doesn’t multiply like soy, says Barison. The farmers will face a “dramatic fall in productivity” if they use illegal seed, without the quality assured by certified seed producers, he predicted. His own farms suffered losses as a result of the illegal GM soy.

But until such losses reach 50 percent of productivity, the “traffickers” will continue to fool the farmers, he lamented. The hucksters will likely go unpunished because “the farmers who suffer losses from illegal seed don’t want to admit it.”

Meanwhile, Elibio Rech, a researcher at the biotechnology center of the government’s agricultural research agency, EMBRAPA, foresees positive developments for transgenics in Brazil, because, he says, the Biosecurity Act will operate better beginning in 2006.

Rech does not expect any major environmental impacts from smuggled transgenic maize. The GM crop might contaminate other plants, but there are “methodologies and barriers” to prevent it, and the genes that were added to the seed “do not give it competitive advantages” to provoke environmental harm, he argued.

(*Mario Osava is an IPS correspondent. Originally published Dec. 17 by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backingof the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Environment Programme.)

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