Heated Battle Over GE Soybeans in Brazil

Society: Genetically Modified Foods: Brazil fights phantom menace in soya
wars
The state of Rio Grande do Sul in southern Brazil is leading the country's
fight against GM corporations.
The Guardian (UK) June 1999

The town of Nao-Me-Toque, or Don't-Touch-Me, in southern
Brazil owes its peculiar name to an obdurate traveller who slept
rough on the land before it was settled. Last month
Nao-Me-Toque gained a more contemporary meaning when a
depot there received international food giant [ Monsanto ] 's first
harvest of Brazilian genetically modified (GM) soya, which is the subject
of a court order that it
cannot be touched.

The crop is now the symbolic prize in a legal tussle that could determine
the future for GM foods
in Brazil, currently the world's largest producer of non genetically
modified soya and the source
of more than a third of soya imported to the UK.

Brazil, which accounts for 25% of world production, is the last remaining
major soya grower that
has yet to grow the transgenic product commercially. Both the US (50% of
world production)
and Argentina (16% ) are already dominated by the genetically modified seed.

The crop, now in sealed packages in the silvery-blue Nao-Me-Toque depot,
was planted by
Monsanto when the Brazilian government gave the go-ahead last year for
test sites. In March,
however, the state of Rio Grande do Sul overruled the government and
banned test plantations.
Monsanto went to court and the soya was harvested under the watch of the
state authorities and
taken to Nao-Me Toque, pending a ruling on its legal status.

The case is more than just a parochial flashpoint in the genetic debate.
It will establish to what
extent Brazilian states can resist the federal government's decisions on
genetically modified foods
and keep one of the world's main agricultural exporters GM-free.

The government and the states are at loggerheads over GM production. The
ministry of
agriculture has already liberated commercial growing of five GM seeds.
However, all of Brazil's
states are against the new technology. In an unprecedented decision last
month, all 27 state
agriculture secretaries voted during their National Forum against
commercialising genetically
modified crops.

The fight against Monsanto is being led by Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil's
southernmost state and
second largest soya producer, whose recently-elected Marxist governor
Olivio Dutra is opposed
to the seeds for political as much as environmental reasons. With his
thick moustache and radical
talk, Dutra is almost a caricature of the traditional `gaucho' cowboy of
Rio Grande do Sul.

`We have a very clear objective and {monsanto} has a very clear objective
so it's like a war,' says
Jose Hermeto Hoffman, Rio Grande do Sul's agriculture secretary. He cites
the farmer's loss of
autonomy - he will have to buy all seeds from Monsanto - and the reliance
on herbicides as
reasons for keeping the state GM free. `We were trying to make our
agriculture more sustainable
and then {the multinationals} came along with this bomb.'

Rio Grande do Sul has tried to legalistically outmanoevre the leaders in
Brasilia. Dutra managed
to ban the current test sites by passing a decree that requires growers to
show the state a certain
amount of information such as an environmental study that the test sites
did not have. It also has
a more complete law banning GM crops passing through the state
legislature. If that is not
approved, then the idea is to either increase bureaucracy to not make it
worth farmers' while or by
introducing a GM tax. Eleven other states have similar plans.

Hoffman will use any means possible to thwart Monsanto because he believes
that Monsanto is
already moving quickly into production. When Hoffman was told earlier in
the year that the
previous administration had granted test licences to 79 areas in the
state, he discovered that all of
the sites were of only a few hectares, apart from the one planted by
Monsanto which was 435
hectares.

`No one says they are just doing research for an area of 435 hectares.
With {the seeds harvested}
they could have planted 18,000 hectares.' In reply Monsanto claim that
they were doing nothing
wrong because they had been given permission for the site.

The financial basis for Rio Grande do Sul's stance is a gamble that there
will be a market for
non-GM soya, even if the price is higher than the modified version. In
April representatives of a
consortium of 10 European supermarkets including Sainsbury and Marks &
Spencer travelled to
Rio Grande do Sul inquiring about buying large amounts of non-GM soya.

Meanwhile, most soya producers are not that interested in the ideological
questions of the
genetics debate. They are more concerned about whether they can retain
competiveness when the
main competitor - Argentina - has reduced its costs by switching to GM.

Andre Barbosa Barretto, vice president of the Rio Grande Federation of
Agro-Cooperatives says
time is running out. `Monsanto was hasty in launching its seeds before the
results of research.
But we don't have much time before the producer loses patience. The
producer doesn't want to
lose productivity.'

In Nao-Me-Toque, at the heart of the soya growing region in the north of
the state, farmers are
excitedly waiting the arrival of the `superseeds' that they have been told
about by Monsanto's field
workers for several years. Alexandre Wiedtheuper, who has 280 hectares of
soya, says there is a
great anticipation. `They have created this idea in people's heads. It's a
form of pressure.'

In the reception of the town's Cotrijal cooperative, there is a poster for
genetically modified soya
seeds. `Made to make the soya farmer's life easier' the slogan reads.
Gelson Melo de Lima,
Cotrijal grains manager, says that it will be very difficult for the
region to stay free from GM -
whatever the politicians decide. `Whenever there is an advance in
technology the producer is
curious,' he says. `It is going to be very difficult to resist what is
going on in the rest of the world.
Do you think we can stay isolated? I don't think you can stop progress.

(Copyright 1999)

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