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Brazil Will Allow Limited Planting of GE Soybeans

Hard Realities: Brazil Drops Resistance to Genetically Altered Crops

By LARRY ROHTER, New York Times

IO DE JANEIRO, Sept. 27 < In barely 36 hours, Brazil's left-leaning
government first announced that it would allow farmers to plant genetically
altered soybean seeds, then reversed course, before changing yet again, late
on Thursday.

The result is that Brazil, a bastion of global opposition to genetically
modified organisms, has given in.

From the time President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva founded the Workers' Party
more than 20 years ago, environmentalists have been an important
constituency and their programs part of the party's platform.

Those commitments, though, have had to give way to the hard realities of
politics and to Brazil's drive to increase exports. The country wants to
become an agricultural superpower.

Brazil is the world's second largest producer of soybeans, but it is
expected to surpass the United States to become the largest soybean producer
as early as the coming harvest. The Southern Hemisphere's planting season is
just starting, and the government has faced mounting pressure from
agribusiness interests to ignore court injunctions, requirements for
environmental impact studies and other regulations.

The issue has proved so contentious that Brazil's 175 million people have
been treated this week to the spectacle of a public exchange between Mr. da
Silva, who was in New York for United Nations meetings, and his vice
president, José Alencar. After Mr. Alencar had second thoughts and said he
would not approve the measure, Mr. da Silva warned from the United States
that the vice president "knows what he has to do, and he will do it."

As recently as June, Mr. da Silva's chief of staff, José Dirceu, promised
that Brazil would not allow the planting of genetically modified crops,
which opponents contend can present risks to human health, the environment
and biodiversity. "The law will be obeyed because that is the determination
of the president," he said then at a seminar in São Paulo.

The Brazilian press has speculated that Mr. Dirceu engineered the timing of
the announcement of the measure so it would occur when his boss was out of
the country and Mr. Alencar was the acting president, as provided for in the
Constitution. That way, the vice president, who is not a member of the
governing party, and not Mr. da Silva, would have to bear the political onus
of making so unpopular a decision.

But Mr. Alencar initially surprised everyone by saying the measure "goes
against existing Brazilian legislation" and calling an emergency cabinet
meeting. "The next time, I'm going to be the one who travels," Mr. Alencar
said Thursday night, after backing off and finally signing the decree.

The "provisional decree" that the government announced applies only until
the end of next year and contains several other restrictions. Farmers cannot
plant genetically modified soybeans near nature reserves and watersheds or
transport seeds across state lines and must also sign a document agreeing to
pay an indemnity for any damage to the environment or consumers' health.

Nevertheless, the decision is a significant victory for large biotechnology
companies like Monsanto, which stands to gain the most from the policy
change. Since the mid-1990's, Greenpeace and other international and local
consumer and environmental groups have been battling in Brazilian courts and
the corridors of Congress to prevent Brazil from following the path of
Argentina and other large agricultural producers that have already legalized
the genetically modified crops.

In addition, Brazil, which in years when it has bumper crops often ranks as
the largest exporter of agricultural products after the United States, has
traditionally banned genetically modified foodstuffs from the shelves of
grocery stores here and prohibited the use of genetically modified animal
feed and grain. That has given it a certain commercial advantage over its
rivals in markets like Europe, where opposition to such products remains
strong.

On Thursday, the Brazilian chapter of Greenpeace accused the government of
betraying its principles, selling out to big business and "disrespecting a
commitment" made during last year's presidential campaign. The group vowed
to challenge the decree in court and was joined in its criticisms by the
national association of judges, which said the measure was "juridically
absurd and flagrantly unconstitutional."

The government's about-face is also likely to provoke tensions in the warm
relations between Mr. da Silva and his allies and admirers in the Green
movement in Europe. His Workers' Party has been the main sponsor of the
annual World Social Forum in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, which
has emerged as a magnet for antiglobalization groups, whose agenda includes
strong opposition to the genetically modified foods.

But many small farmers affiliated with the landless movement have also been
clandestinely planting their own fields with genetically modified soy seeds
smuggled across the border from Argentina. They justify that contradiction
by arguing that they have lower production costs with these seeds and have
complained that they will be driven into bankruptcy if the Brazilian
government continues to ban them.

Monsanto has tried unsuccessfully to collect royalties from Brazilian soy
producers using its genetically modified seeds. The government decision
includes a provision that requires farmers planting such seeds to
acknowledge that they, and not the government, are responsible for any such
payments.


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