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BRAZIL: GM Maize ‘Worst Tragedy’ of Lula Administration – NGOs

Fabiana Frayssinet

RIO DE JANEIRO, Feb 16 2008 (IPS) - Non-governmental organisations actively involved in the Campaign for a GM-Free Brazil are protesting against what they call “the worst tragedy” to befall the country during the government of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva: the release for cultivation and sale of two transgenic varieties of maize.

The decision to authorise the LibertyLink and MON810 genetically modified (GM) maize seeds, made by the German company Bayer and U.S. biotech giant Monsanto, respectively, was reached this week at a meeting of the National Biosafety Council (CNBS), made up of 11 ministries, with seven votes in favour and four against.

The CNBS thus confirmed the authorisation decided in January by the National Biosafety Technical Commission (CTNBio).

This is the first time commercial-scale cultivation of transgenic maize has been allowed in the country. The only other GM crops that have received authorisation are soybeans and cotton.

The press relations office of the Science and Technology Ministry, which announced the Commission’s decision, declined to comment.

Journalists were referred to a press conference given by the minister earlier this week, and it was suggested that they consult the official communiqués and the expert opinions on which the decision was based.

On his official website, Science and Technology Minister Sergio Rezende, who voted in favour of the decision, argues that both the newly-authorised GM varieties of maize are resistant to herbicides and to insects, and are 30 to 40 percent more productive than conventional maize.

The minister was enthusiastic about the prospect of “entering a new stage in the advancement of science,” and stressed that the decisive factor for approving the release of transgenic maize was the strength of the evidence in the research cited by CTNBio that it is not harmful to human or animal health or to the environment.

However, this was not the view expressed behind the scenes by other ministers on the Council.

Although voting was secret, some ministers who disagreed with the outcome revealed their position, demonstrating a split in the Lula administration over this issue.

Word got out that those who voted in favour were the Science and Technology minister, his colleagues in the Agriculture, Foreign, Development, Defence and Justice Ministries, and the ministerial-rank chief of staff. The ministers of Health, Environment, Agricultural Development and Aquaculture and Fisheries voted against the measure.

An article on the official CTNBio website confirmed the press reports, saying the Health Minister, José Gomes Temporao, wanted further studies on the possibility that these varieties of maize might be toxic or allergenic.

At the CNBS meeting, two appeals were considered, from the National Health Surveillance Agency (ANVISA) and from the state Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA), but both were overruled.

Environment Minister Marina Silva, who opposes cultivation of transgenic species, chose not to even attend the meeting.

“We have lost some battles with the government before,” María José da Costa, of the Small Farmers Movement (MPA), told IPS. “But in our view, this is the greatest tragedy of the Lula government.” she said.

MPA and other organisations like the international Via Campesina are part of the Campaign for a GM-Free Brazil.

The Campaign sent a letter to Justice Minister Tarso Genro protesting the Commission’s decision, taken in spite of the ANVISA and IBAMA appeals.

The two appeals called for the cancellation of the technical authorisation given by CNTBio in January because, for one thing, the data presented did not support the conclusion that human consumption of MON810 maize was safe.

IBAMA’s appeal said that the CNTBio decision should be overturned because of “the many procedural flaws” in the research, including the lack of any environmental studies.

Like transgenic Roundup Ready (RR) soybeans, MON810 maize is resistant to an herbicide, glyphosate, used on the crops. Cultivating these maize seeds with liberal applications of the herbicide could cause the same kind of environmental and agricultural problems already caused by planting GM soybeans, IBAMA said.

IBAMA cited its own studies carried out in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, which found that glyphosate traces in the environment increased by 650 percent over the period 2000-2004, at the time when RR soybean cultivation was expanding.

The letter from the Campaign for a GM-Free Brazil also said that sowing transgenic maize will inevitably contaminate native varieties of maize, which can be grown organically and are ecologically sound.

The measure, it said, is a “flagrant and unconstitutional imposition that sets the economic interests of companies interested in growing GM maize commercially above the health of the population, the need to protect the environment, and also the interests of farmers and consumers who do not want to plant or eat transgenic foods.”

According to da Costa, considering the “harm done to people” due to soybeans and other transgenic crops in Brazil, “the disasters that will be caused by the authorisation of GM maize will be of far greater proportions.”

She said that maize, in particular, which was first domesticated in Latin America, will now suffer “a great loss of biodiversity, as well as genetic degeneration and impoverishment.”

The leader said that native seeds cultivated by small farmers and indigenous peoples “run the risk of disappearing through cross-contamination.”

Unlike soybean plants which are almost entirely self-pollinating, maize is generally cross-fertilised, and its pollen “can be carried several kilometres and contaminate other types of maize at great distances, transported by insects and the wind,” she said.

Furthermore, she said, farmers will have no legal recourse for any complaints against contamination of their crops, because jurisdiction is unclear.

And if contamination of their maize does occur, they will have to resort to other seeds, and they will become dependent on the transgenic species, because GM seeds are designed to produce a second generation of seeds that will not germinate.

“The food sovereignty of small farmer communities will be endangered, because they will have to buy seeds outside the community, and they will have to pay royalties to the transgenic seed companies,” said da Costa. At present, farmers save their seed from year to year for the next planting.

She also called attention to the technical studies cited by the Science and Technology Ministry in support of the authorisation of transgenic maize, noting that most of them were carried out abroad, and fail to take into account the uniqueness of Brazil’s diverse ecosystems.

Another matter of deep concern to opponents of the measure is the risk to human health, especially the possibility of allergic and toxic reactions, raised in the ANVISA appeal.

According to a decree issued in 2003, products containing more than one percent of transgenic ingredients must be duly labelled for the information of consumers.

But in practice, with the exception of two brands of oil, which are only labelled because pressure was exerted by consumer defence organisations, this decree is not respected, Andrea Salazar, a legal consultant for the Sao Paulo-based Brazilian Institute for Consumer Defence, a nation-wide consumer association, told IPS.

“We think that the government’s decision is highly irresponsible. It’s a political decision against the appeals presented by IBAMA and ANVISA,” she said.

Salazar said that LibertyLink maize has a gene for antibiotic resistance which is “totally condemned by the Health Ministry and international health-related and scientific organisations,” and that there is insufficient proof that transgenic maize will not cause problems connected with toxicity and allergies.

Both da Costa and Salazar mentioned several countries which originally authorised transgenic maize but later changed their minds, including France, Hungary and Austria.

France based its decision on the need for further studies, da Costa said, adding that this was the stance taken by a country with “a conservative government,” and a president (Nicolas Sarkozy) “who supported transgenic research during his election campaign.”

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