Frankenfoods Debate Heats Up in Brazil

Inter Press Service
March 12, 2002


By Mario Osava


The Campaign for a Transgenic-Free Brazil, waged by seven
non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and backed by 50 more, has
mobilized activists in response to advances made by those seeking
to liberalize the cultivation and trade of genetically modified crops.
The pro-transgenic groups are a force to be reckoned with. They include the
government, big transnational corporations, large farming associations and
technical agencies like the state-run Brazilian Enterprise for Agricultural
Research (EMBRAPA).

In the Brazilian parliament, deputies began debate on a bill in favor of
lifting restrictions on transgenic products, and in the courts, the legal
wall that has kept Brazil free of genetically modified crops seems to be
crumbling. Three years ago, the Brazilian Consumer Defence Institute and the
international environmental watchdog Greenpeace won a provisional court
ruling that bans the commercial planting of RoundUp Ready (RR) soy, produced
by the transnational Monsanto and resistant to the herbicide RoundUp, also
produced by the company.

According to the arguments the NGOs made before the court, there have not
been sufficient studies carried out to ensure that RR soy does not pose a
threat to human health or the environment.

But a legal claim by Monsanto, backed by the Brazilian government, won a
favorable ruling Feb. 25 in the Federal Regional Court of Brasilia, from
judge Selene Maria de Almeida.

The votes of two other judges will determine in the coming weeks whether RR
soy can be grown on a large scale. If so, it could open the door to other
genetically modified products to be grown in Brazil, such as cotton and

The rallying of pro-transgenic forces has put the environmental movement on
the defensive, one of the Campaign coordinators, Flavia Londres, of the NGO
Alternative Agriculture Consulting and Services, told Tierram rica.
Another blow to the movement was the Mar. 4 resignation of environment
minister Jos Sarney Filho, who disagreed with the government and had given
the ministry's support to the NGOs and their lawsuit.

But Londres hopes the two justices will oppose the vote of Almeida, who
justified her ruling in favor of lifting restrictions on RR soy in "a long
and complex report."

It was an unprecedented opinion, contradicting the numerous rulings on
similar cases, all of which require environmental impact studies to be
carried out under the mandate of the Environment Ministry, said the

The special committee of the Chamber of Deputies that is debating the
related bill is leaning towards loose regulations for transgenics, based on
the histories of the lawmakers involved.

"But the game is just beginning," said Londres. The full lower house and the
Senate must still vote on the matter.

According to opinion polls, most Brazilians are opposed to genetically
modified organisms (GMOs), she pointed out.

The bill in question would allow four percent of food products to consist of
genetically modified material, without having to indicate the fact on labels
or packaging. Londres reckons that this possibility alone could create
public pressure on parliament to vote the bill down.

A broader debate is needed, as well as a social movement to prevent "the
defeats that we are suffering," said Elenar Jos Ferreira, coordinator of
the Production and Environment division for the Landless Workers' Movement
(Movimento dos Sem Terra, MST).

In addition to the environmental and health concerns, the problem is that
some transnationals are setting up monopolies over biotechnology and seeds,
which threatens Brazil's national sovereignty, Ferreira said.
The movement against transgenic products also clashes with the position of
researchers like Luis Antonio Barreto de Castro, head of EMBRAPA's Genetic
Resources and Biotechnology Center.

De Castro believes that opposition to GMOs is holding back Brazil's
scientific development, perpetuates the massive use of agro-chemicals and
puts the country at a disadvantage in competition for international
agricultural markets.

The researcher, along with the National Agriculture Confederation, with
represents the country's large-scale farming operations, say the production
of genetically modified crops has been expanding rapidly in many countries,
with no sign of harm to the environment or to human health.

* Tierram rica is a specialized news service ( produced
by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Program and the
United Nations Environment Program.

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