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ENVIRONMENT-BRAZIL: Transgenic Cotton Ploughs Its Way Through Congress

Mario Osava

RIO DE JANEIRO, Dec 26 2006 (IPS) - In Brazil, cotton is following in soy’s footsteps. Transgenic cotton varieties, smuggled into the country in recent years, may now be legalised by a draft law already quietly approved by the lower house of Congress.

Now the draft law will go to the Senate, where it is almost certain that it will be passed, because there is an even more overwhelming majority in favour of genetically modified (GM) crops, according to Jean Marc von der Weid, coordinator of Advice and Services for Alternative Agriculture Projects (AS-PTA), a non-governmental organisation active in the cause “For a GM-free Brazil”.

The Chamber of Deputies was actually supposed to be debating the signing into law of a “provisional measure”, which is a presidential decree with force of law that depends on congressional approval to remain in effect after the first three months.

The provisional measure in question established rules to protect natural conservation areas from the risk of transgenic contamination, by establishing a safety perimeter separating transgenic crops from forest and biodiversity reserves. But in fact it cut the minimum distance between GM crops and conservation areas from 10 kilometres to 500 metres.

During the debate to convert the provisional measure into law, the bill’s sponsor, Deputy Paulo Pimenta of the governing Workers Party (PT), introduced two new provisions.

The first amendment legalised GM cotton grown illegally in Brazil.

The other addition affects the working statutes of the National Technical Commission on Biosafety (CTNBio). At present, approval of the use of GM crops in Brazil requires a two-thirds majority, or 18 out of the 27 members of CTNBio. The amendment relaxed the requirement for approval to a simple majority, that is 14 out of 27 members. This will make approval of transgenic crops in Brazil much easier.

The changes are due to pressure from researchers and agribusiness associations, which has intensified in the last month, after a meeting of CTNBio failed to authorise the importing and sale of a transgenic vaccine against Aujeszky’s disease, which affects pigs, although 17 members voted in favour and only four against.

The amendments proposed by Pimenta were approved last Wednesday by 247 deputies. There were 103 votes against, mainly from PT deputies together with members of small leftist parties.

It will be the Senate’s turn to examine the issue in February, after the two-month congressional recess.

Reducing the required majority for CNTBio decisions is part of “a process of intimidation” of those of its members who oppose freer use of transgenics and want policies that ensure biosafety, von der Weid told IPS. “They want to expel them from the commission,” he said.

In his opinion, the change will have little practical effect, since CNTBio already has a majority of members who are scientists interested in GM research, and whose research projects are approved without difficulty.

But before commercial cultivation of GM crop varieties are approved, CNTBio will have to define the criteria for risk assessment, and that is what is delaying their authorisation, rather than any difficulty in obtaining a two-thirds majority.

Besides, the new rule for CNTBio decisions is “irrelevant” given the policy of acceptance – as a fait accompli – of the illegal introduction of transgenic varieties into the country, which are simply legalised after the fact by Congress, von der Weid said.

The story of GM soy, modified by U.S. biotech giant Monsanto to create resistance to its own herbicide, Roundup Ready (RR), is similar. About ten years ago, the Monsanto seeds were smuggled into the south of Brazil from Argentina, and are now the predominant soy crop in the state of Rio Grande do Sul which borders on Argentina.

Given the de facto situation, the administration of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva decided to legalise the crop by means of successive provisional measures, beginning in 2003, until Congress finally approved a new Biosafety Law in 2005. A large part of the soy produced in central, western and southern Brazil is now transgenic.

Opponents to GM cotton and maize point out that these crops are a greater contamination risk than soy because there are native species of cotton and maize, but not soy, in Brazil. Cotton grown from transgenic seeds is estimated to cover 150,000 hectares.

The decision in the Chamber of Deputies is “a step backwards” for biosafety policy, and sends “a very negative signal,” indicating that laws may be broken and nothing will happen except the post hoc passage of a measure to wipe out the crime, the activist said.

The movement “For a GM-free Brazil” will attempt to block the draft law in the Senate, but here the balance of forces is even more unfavourable to their goal, as many senators have links with agribusiness and stock raising.

But legal action will also be brought “against the illegal decision by the Chamber of Deputies, which passed a bill that broke laws” that had been previously approved, said von der Weid. Action will be taken against the Ministry of Agriculture, he added.

The ministry was “in collusion” with farmers when it failed to destroy illegally grown transgenic cotton, and neglected due diligence by failing properly to inspect the crops, he said.

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