It is possible that Brazil may win a sad new title in 2010: the first country in the world to license the commercial planting of a new variety of genetically-modified rice, Bayer's LL62. If CTNBio (National Technical Commission on Biosecurity) approves the proposal at a meeting later this month, the rice will be the 20th genetically-modified product grown commercially in the country.
CTNBio has maintained a steady flow of approval of GMO (genetically-modified organisms) licensing requests over the last years. Between 2005 and 2009, CTNBio gave licensing for two varieties of soy, eleven varieties of corn and six of cotton. There seems to be little doubt that the commission will continue this trend and approve the rice, except for one thing: this time there is a generalized opposition to the rice from various sectors.
Opponents include researchers, consumer groups, environmental groups, and even groups that have traditionally been pro-transgenic, such as Embrapa (Brazilian Agricultural Research Company, a public entity which has supported GMOs), Farsul (Agricultural Federation of Rio Grande do Sul), and Federarroz (Federation of Rice Grower Associations of Rio Grande do Sul).
According to Embrapa and Southern rice farmers, the major threat of Bayer's rice is the possible transference of a genetic mutation of red rice, which is considered the most invasive plant of irrigated rice farming. With contamination, this plant, which already causes damages to productivity and quality of the rice in areas which are highly infested, will become resistant to chemical control.
In other words, according to Embrapa, if transgenic rice is licensed, it will be a threat to food security, capable of contaminating other varieties of rice in the country.
Thus, if researchers (concerned with scientific evaluations), producers (concerned with economic questions), and consumers (concerned with what they eat - Greenpeace has already gathered 20,000 signatures against the transgenic rice) are opposed to the proposal, then one could ask the question, To whom is the CTNBio catering if it votes in favor of Bayer's rice?
Perhaps it would be imprudent to suggest that the sales of multinational transgenic companies is related to the licensing of GMOs in Brazil. But the fact is, according to Exame magazine, Monsanto, which has had nine varieties of GMOs approved, earned in sales US$ 783.9 million in 2006, US$ 899.2 million in 2007, and US$ 954.8 million in 2008.
According to the Law of Biosecurity, the commission, created in 2005, was to "give technical and consultative support to the federal government in formulating, updating, and implementing the National Policy of Biosecurity, relative to GMOs, such as the establishment of technical norms and technical partners in regard to the protection of human health.
"Such protection also extended to other organisms and the environment, and activities which involve the construction, experimentation, farming, manipulation, transportation, commercialization, stocking, consuming, licensing and disposal of GMOs and their derivatives."
In order for a GMO to obtain commercial licensing, fourteen of the 27 members of the commission must approve the product.
According to entities of civil society who have watched over the work of CTNBio, many of the technical analyses in the processes of licensing GMOs have lacked scientific rigor and have not followed the principles of caution as outlined in the Protocol of Cartagena regarding Biosecurity. In addition these processes have lacked research on national soil that proves the security of the commercial planting of the varieties that were licensed.
On the contrary, a strong characteristic of the majority of the commission's members is that they favor GMO technology. In 2003, eight of the current members of CTNBio wrote an open letter in which they affirmed that "Brazil cannot let go of transgenic technology" as it is "essential for sustainability and keeps agribusiness and small family farms competitive, and brings innumerous social and economic benefits to the country."
Among current members, there are various who have or have had some personal relation with biotech companies or with the pro-transgenic lobby groups of Basf, Bayer, Cargill, Dow, Dupont, Monsanto, Pioneer, Syngenta, and others.
Regarding observance of adequate scientific criteria in the process of licensing GMOs, or in the establishment of security norms for protection against contamination of non-transgenic fields by GMOs, CTNBio has been repeatedly challenged by diverse institutions.
In 2007, the licensing of Bayer's transgenic corn Liberty Link and Monsanto's MON 810 (outlawed in France, Austria, Greece, Luxemburg, Hungary, Italy, Poland and Germany) was questioned by Anvisa (National Sanitation Agency) and Ibama (Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Natural Resources).
Both entities pointed out errors in the technical reports which were fundamental in the licensing. In the case of Bayer's corn, Anvisa pointed out the insufficient data around proof of the security of transgenic corn for human consumption.
According to Ibama, CTNBio ignored the inexistence of environmental impact studies and an analysis of risk. The Minister of the Environment also pointed out the absence of "studies or literature which prove the absence of environment damage, something alone which should have impeded the licensing."
Shortly after these charges were made, entities filed a civil suit which forced the Justice Department to demand of CTNBio the creation of norms which would in theory protect non-GMO corn fields from contamination. In this case, minimal distances were established to protect non-GMO corn fields from transgenic corn - 20 to 100 meters depending on different types of barriers.
But over the past three years, various entities have reported the contamination of non-GMO corn fields. The Department of Inspection and Agriculture Defense officially confirmed these accusations in 2009, proving that the CTNBio's norms are inadequate.
"The preliminary reports indicate that under the present norms it is impossible to secure the coexistence of GMO fields, conventional fields, and organic fields, as at the present moment all areas monitored show cross-pollination at a distance much greater than the current norm provides," affirmed the Secretary of Agriculture.
Given this information, at the end of October 2009, various organizations of civil society promoted a civil law suit that ask for the suspension of the licensing for commercially planted transgenic corn until an adequate norm can be established. The suit currently is awaiting a decision from a judge in Paraná.
In response to this issue, a representative of the Science and Technology Ministry, Luiz Antonio Barreto de Castro, acknowledged the contamination of non-GMO corn, but stated, "the norms of CTNBio were established taking into consideration that not always would the contamination result in damage for the farmers who produce varieties called heirlooms...even if contamination occurs, it will be to the advantage of the farmer."
But contrary to Castro's assertion, damages caused by contamination from GMO fields are recurrent in Brazil and in the rest of the world. In 2004, for example, Eco Brazil Organics Ltda in the state of Paraná had its production paralyzed after their fields were contaminated - three million dollars worth of damage.
In 2006, Bayer's experimental fields for transgenic rice contaminated conventional fields and caused damages of one billion dollars around the world, according to a report issued by Greenpeace International.
CTNBio's generosity towards transgenic has already had its collateral effects. Biotech companies originally argued that their technology would mean less use of chemicals and pesticides. Yet one study shows that the use of herbicides on soy, for example, has actually increased.
In 2004, 129.6 thousand tons of herbicides were poured into soy fields. In 2008 the volume was raised to 192 thousand tons. It is important to remember here that Brazil has become the biggest world consumer of agricultural chemicals, using nearly 673,890 tons per year. The collateral effects of this: 6.3 thousand cases of human intoxication in 2007 resulting in 162 deaths.
Verena Glass writes for Revista Sem Terra and Agência Carta Maior.