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RIO DE JANEIRO, Oct 4 2011 (IPS) - Critics complain that a genetically modified bean developed in Brazil, resistant to one of the country’s most damaging agricultural pests, was approved without enough debate or guarantees that the crop will not affect human health or the environment.
The GM bean, named 5.1, was developed by Embrapa, the government’s agricultural research agency, to resist the bean golden yellow mosaic virus (BGYMV), whose main symptom is a bright yellow or golden mosaic on the leaves, as well as leaf wrinkling and rolling. The seeds and plants are also stunted, malformed and discoloured, and flowers are aborted, leading to the loss of between 40 and 100 percent of the beans.
According to Embrapa, the virus transmitted by the whitefly (Bemisia tabaci) causes annual losses of between 90,000 and 280,000 tons of beans – enough to feed six to 20 million more adults in this country of 192 million people.
The transgenic bean, which is to be on Brazilian tables in three years, promises to benefit small and large-scale agriculture alike, and will increase crop safety, Francisco Aragao, one of the project’s lead researchers, told IPS.
While producers who can afford to do so use pesticides as often as once a week to control the whitefly, “all small-scale farmers can do is pray that they won’t suffer significant losses,” said Aragao.
The researcher said that since no pesticides are needed to grow the GM bean, production costs are cut, which in turn will bring down the price of one of the staples of the Brazilian diet.
Sales of 5.1, the first genetically modified organism produced in Brazil, were approved in mid-September by the Ministry of Science and Technology’s National Technical Commission on Biosafety (CTNBio) by 15 votes in favour and two abstentions, while five members called for more study into the matter.
To justify sales of the GM bean, Embrapa argues that the biosafety tests carried out from 2004 to 2010 followed the CTNBio’s recommendations.
“The 5.1 bean plant shows no phenotypic alteration compared to the non-genetically modified parent plant,” Embrapa technical experts stated.
“We consider it totally safe for human consumption,” said Aragao, who described claims that the transgenic bean is less nutritional as “totally absurd.”
“It is as nutritional as any other bean in Brazil,” he said. Any differences, he added, even among the traditional varieties, are regional.
Aragao told IPS that Embrapa is in negotiations with the University of Honduras to carry out in situ testing on controlled plots in that Central American country.
The researcher said he has no doubts that the technology developed in Brazil will also work in Argentina and Bolivia, but that he is not sure about what will happen in Mexico and Central America.
No consensus in Brazil
Responding to questions from IPS, Renato Maluf, president of the Brazilian National Council for Food Security and Nutrition (CONSEA), questioned the quick approval of sales of the beans, citing the precautionary principle, which gives governments the right to suspend production or trade of transgenic crops until there is proof that they are harmless to the environment and human health.
He stressed that only two of the 22 tests carried out did not fail, and that not all of Brazil’s different climates and ecosystems were taken into account in the evaluation process.
“We believe the rush to approve a product consumed by the entire population, and about which we have no food and nutritional guarantees, was rash,” said the head of CONSEA.
“We believe Embrapa, as a highly prestigious public company, should adopt exemplary behaviour with respect to the precautionary principle,” Maluf added.
Ana Carolina Brolo, legal adviser to Terra de Direitos, a human rights group, concurred with Maluf, saying approval of sales of the GM bean “failed to respect national and international biosafety laws.”
Brolo said there was too much secrecy surrounding information that should be available, in order for the scientific community and society at large to evaluate the risks presented by the GM bean.
Policies, not GM bean, needed to fight hunger
But the criticism goes beyond the fields of science and technology. One major question is whether a transgenic crop is necessary in a country like Brazil, where 3.5 million tons a year of common beans are produced, making it the world’s leading producer.
Maluf said the current production of beans is sufficient to meet domestic demand, and argued that it is a “fallacy” to claim that increased output of beans or other crops is necessary “to fight hunger.”
“History has already shown that this isn’t true. Brazil is one of the world’s top producers and exporters of food, and until recently it had unjustifiable levels of hunger,” the head of CONSEA said.
From the point of view of food security, Maluf said there are several risks, “starting with the known environmental impacts, and the undermining of the common practice among family farms involving the saving and exchange of seeds – as well as the dominant role that the providers of GM seeds gain.”
It has not yet been determined whether Embrapa will charge royalties for the seeds. Bean production is a key activity of family farms, which produce 70 percent of the food consumed in Brazil.
Lawyer Leonardo Ribas, a researcher at the UNIABEU University Centre human rights and food reference centre, asked “who is going to pay the bill for the transgenic bean?”
“We’re talking about the approval of the genetic modification of a living organism, whose patent will be put at the disposal of companies that, paying royalties, will be able to sell the product to Brazil’s potential consumer market,” said Ribas, who is also an adviser on food security for the state of Rio de Janeiro.
If the 5.1 bean is widely grown and consumed because of the supposed “advantages” it offers, “it will be family farms that ultimately pay the costs of this product, and thus, the majority of the Brazilian population,” he told IPS.
Ribas argued that “the solution to food insecurity in Brazil does not depend on the will of God – the justification given in the past – nor on reductionist, piecemeal scientific solutions,” but on political will.
“Brazil doesn’t need transgenic beans; it needs public policies that guarantee food and nutritional security by means of measures that respect the biological, sanitary, nutritional and technological quality of the products,” he said.
“Socially just and ecologically sustainable measures must be respected and encouraged,” Ribas said.
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