Citizens' Jury in Brazil Says No to GE Seeds

Citizens' Jury in Brazil Says No to GE Seeds

The seeds of revolt Citizens' jury delivers 'no' verdict to GM crops in Brazil
Jamie Wilson / The Guardian (UK) 23 may01

Antonio Lopez runs the community seedbank, a collection of five oil drums
stored in a ramshackle outbuilding of the one-room house where he lives with
his wife and seven children. Antonio cultivates 40 hectares of arid outback
land in the state of Ceara in north-east Brazil. For the farmers and their
families who live in the remote community, the seeds he stores - safe from
mice and damp - mean life. Without them, they cannot plant crops, there
will be no harvest, they will have no food to eat and nothing to sell at the
local market.

It is hardly surprising that he and the other peasant farmers of the region
take the subject of seeds seriously. And seeds - particularly the
genetically modified variety - are a hot issue right now throughout the

Brazil is Europe's last major source of GM-free soya; supermarkets
in Britain, including Tesco and Asda, rely on it to supply increasingly
GM-sceptical consumers in the UK.

The US and Argentina, the two other main soya exporters to the EU, have
switched much of their production to GM crops, and Brazil is now a key
target for the powerful GM companies who are seeking to dominate the
world soya market. If they have their way, Brazil will soon join the GM club
and European importers seeking GM-free products will have nowhere left to

But for the subsistence farmers of Brazil, it is about more than food
choices on the supermarket shelf. If they cannot afford GM seeds they
will be outstripped by bigger producers, putting at risk traditions passed
on through generations for saving and exchanging seeds, choosing pesticides
and harvesting methods.

It was in this confrontational atmosphere that a groundbreaking citizens'
jury - during which GM crops were put on trial - took place in the
north-eastern Brazilian city of Fortaleza last month. The aim of the
exercise, run by the charity ActionAid, was to bring to the GM debate the
voice of the poor and marginalised farmers who are likely to bear the brunt
of the change.

Citizens' juries are not a new concept; they can be traced back at least as
far as Gloucestershire and Worcestershire during the 18th century, when
bread was regularly put on trial if the price in the market climbed too
high. But if ActionAid has its way, they will be at the forefront of a
campaign to galvanize the peasants of Brazil into becoming involved in the
GM debate.

Eleven farmers and urban consumers, all of whom were unaware of the GM
debate, were randomly selected to hear arguments for and against transgenic
crops from a host of experts, including some of the country's leading
biotech scientists. During two days of combative argument, the farmers heard
six witnesses tell them of the benefits they would see from GM seeds and six
witnesses explaining the potential downside. The result was unanimous: a
resounding 'no' to GM.

But many people in Brazil fear that the battle against GM may already have
been partially lost. Rio Grande do Sol - the main soya producing area, where
the leftwing government is in the frontline of trying to keep Brazil GM
free - is heavily contaminated by GM seed that has been smuggled over the
border from Argentina, where 75% of the crop is genetically modified.
Meanwhile, Monsanto, the world's largest biotech company, has bought up
60% of the country's maize seed suppliers, presumably in anticipation of the
day when Brazil relinquishes its GM-free status. It has also begun building a
£35m plant for making pesticides, to go with its genetically modified seeds,
in the state of Bahia.

Farmers unions and other anti-GM pressure groups have accused the Brazilian
federal government of being in the pocket of the multinational companies by
investing £90m in the Monsanto plant and by unconstitutionally trying to
change Brazil's biosafety laws. The government was challenged in the federal
court by IDEC, the Brazilian consumer protection organisation, and by
Greenpeace, on the grounds that no environmental impact study had been
carried out. They won the case, ensuring that, for the time being at least,
Brazil remains mostly GM free.

But there are fears that the day when GM arrives in force in Brazil may not
be too far away. David Hathaway, an American GM expert who has spent
the last 25 years living in Brazil, says: "The government is trying to ride
roughshod over the laws. It may already be too late; you can no longer
guarantee GM-free soya in the south of the country and nobody really knows
what GM tests are being done elsewhere."

In the "sentence" the citizens' jury passed, they demanded that "there
should be nothing hidden from workers and peasants".

Critics of Monsanto and the federal government claim both have been relying
on farmers' lack of knowledge and information to railroad GM through. It was
telling that Monsanto, despite numerous invitations from the organizers to
take part in the jury trial, refused to participate.

ActionAid plans to hold four more citizens' juries - from Amazonia to
Brasilia - on GM in Brazil in the next 12 months in an attempt to open up
the argument even further and to make sure that if Brazil does adopt GM
crops it will not be because of the ignorance of the farmers.

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