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Brazzil - Issue - August 2003

Brazil: The Transgenics Dilemma

The Brazilian Congress is divided over the issue of cultivation and
sale of transgenics in Brazil. Apparently there are three distinct
groups: one totally opposed to transgenic products; another one that
favors their adoption; and still another that occupies a middle
ground, defending a cautious adoption of those products.



The bill that the Administration is preparing to regulate the cultivation, commercialization, and consumption of transgenic products, especially soybeans, is dividing members of the Congress, including those who belong to the PT (Workers' Party). "It is an issue that is dividing the administration, the Workers' Party, and, most of all, society," in the assessment of Deputy João Alfredo (PT, Ceará state), coordinator of the PT's Environmental Nucleus. On Thursday (21), he presided a debate on this topic, together with the coordinating board of the party's Agrarian Nucleus, in the Chamber of Deputies.

According to João Alfredo, "consensus should be sought following the principle of caution, according to which, when there is no certainty, it's better to wait. We can't be laboratory rats in experiments that haven't yet been concluded. If the Administration's project includes guarantees of health and environmental impact studies, we shall be in favor," he stated.

The debate held by the coordinating boards of the PT's Environmental and Agrarian Nuclei was based on a trip made in June by seven Federal Deputies, five of whom are members of the PT, together with representatives of NGO's and the Brazilian government, to the United States and South Africa to obtain more information about transgenic products from government officials, scientists, independent organizations, and farmers.

Just as what happened during the trip, the debate divided the group into three factions: those who are totally opposed to transgenic products and want them to be prohibited until there is scientific proof that they are not harmful to health and the environment; those who favor their adoption, though cautiously and on the basis of research; and those who occupy a middle ground, using as a favorable argument their wide acceptance by producers and government officials in the United States, but countering with the fact that certain companies, such as the MacDonald's fast food chain, refuse to accept the production of transgenic potatoes, due to fear of the impact that this might cause for their consumers worldwide.

On the favorable side, Deputy Nilson Mourão (PT, Acre state) said that it is no longer possible to ignore the presence of transgenic products, which are being researched, produced, and consumed mostly in the United States and Japan. He said that, "if Brazil does not define its position, the technology, which is here to stay, will impose itself on farmers, who will adopt it in the worst possible manner, illegally, through the black market."

He argued that Brazil, in adopting transgenics, should be rigorous when it comes to regulations and environmental impact studies and should label the products, as is done in Europe, contrary to the practice followed in the United States, where products carry no warnings.

The representative of the NGO, National Institute of Socio-Economic Studies, Karen Coppe, who also accompanied the delegation to the United States and South Africa, argued that there is no scientific evidence of possible harmful effects from transgenic products, because, in the United States, for example, they are not labeled. "80 percent of American consumers don't care about this question; all they want to know is the percent of calories and the expiration date."

She warned that the major American producer of transgenic seeds, Monsanto, has an interest in introducing these products in Brazil, in order to change the profile of soybean consumption by European and Asian markets, since Brazil is the world's largest producer of conventional soybeans, and a change in the country's policy might be accompanied by Europe, China, and other markets.

Deputy Fernando Ferro, for his part, said that corporations are very much involved in following this issue, and, in the eight years that transgenics have been used in the United States, "there is no indication, nor scientific evidence, that this has caused problems." He criticized the lack of transparency on the part of American government officials about the question of transgenics during the Brazilian delegation's trip, and he said that this lack of openness has a negative impact on the quality of this new technology.

Special Licensing

The Ministry of Environment will have to demand licenses and environmental impact studies from whoever intends to plant and commercialize transgenic soybeans. This information was provided by Minister Marina Silva, in comments on a judicial decision that removed restrictions on both cultivation and commercialization. "The studies that exist are based on realities different from ours," the Minister explained to the National Congress.

The judicial decision overturned a judicial order prohibiting the cultivation and commercialization of transgenic soybeans. The order had been conceded to the Brazilian Consumer Protection Institute (Idec) and the Greenpeace organization. This year, Provisional Executive Order (MP) no. 113-03 allowed commercialization of the transgenic soybean crop until January 31, 2004. From this date on, according to the MP, all the remaining inventory should be incinerated.

Marina Silva explained that an interministerial group will submit a bill to Congress on this matter. "Given the absence of environmental security, we must be cautious. In any case, the Ministry's legal department is studying the whole process concerning transgenic soybeans," the Minister concluded.

Earlier this month, a Federal judge in Brasília, Selene Maria de Almeida, had ruled that genetically modified crops (gmc) can be cultivated and commercialized in Brazil. In her opinion, Almeida argued that international scientific research has certified that gmc can be used safely for human and animal consumption.

The judge also took into consideration testimony by Monsanto and Monsoy to the effect that the delay in a decision on the matter has resulted in a bottleneck causing lost jobs and income. The companies pointed out that the farm sector now accounts for 20 percent of Brazil's GDP and employees 30 million people.

Reaction to the decision on gmc in the private sector was optimistic. Macel Caixeta, the head of the Goiás state agricultural federation, and a board member of the National Agricultural Confederation, declared that the sentence was "a great technological advance for the country. We are the world's biggest soybean exporter and now we will export even more."

However, Caixeta advised farmers to continue planting traditional soybean seeds as well, saying Brazil is known for producing both types of soybeans. He suggested that farmers who raise the traditional soybean should get some kind of bonus. "It is very important for authorities to understand that the two types are different," he concluded.

Monsanto Probes

The multinational company, Monsanto—responsible for the production of genetically modified soybeans under the brand name Round Up Ready—is has been carefully making a series of probes with the federal government to define a new investment strategy to implement in the country. One of the encounters to discuss this matter occurred in June between the Minister of Development, Industry, and Foreign Trade, Luiz Fernando Furlan, and the president of Monsanto's Executive Board, Frank Atlee.

The prospects of Brazilian agriculture and the federal government's activities with regard to research in the area of biotechnology were the themes that dominated the meeting. According to a note released by Monsanto's Press Office, the company still sees Brazil as an important agricultural industry in the company's international operations. During the past five years, Monsanto invested over US$ 800 million in the country.


The material for this article was supplied by Agência Brasil (AB), the official press agency of the Brazilian government. Comments are welcome at lucas@radiobras.gov.br




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