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A time to reap

The Brazilian government's compromise on GM soya has sowed conflict and confusion.

John Conroy

Topics Science & Tech

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Brazil’s recent decision to allow planting and harvesting of genetically modified soya could help make it the world’s biggest and most productive agricultural power. Already equalling US soya productivity levels, Brazil is on the verge of overtaking the world’s most developed nation in tonnage, too.

But the decision is instead creating mayhem. Queues of trucks carrying GM seeds are building up at state borders as anti-GM governors refuse to let them cross. Governors disagree about the legality of planting and transporting GM crops, and the federal government is giving no guidance. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of farmers are ignoring the disputes and rushing to plant GM soya. The government has proposed a new federal biotechnology law in an attempt to resolve these disputes – but this only threatens to generate further confusion.

The debacle threatens to stymie the country’s dynamic agricultural sector. It also exposes the absence of leadership and clear policymaking in Brazil’s new Workers’ Party (PT) government, which was installed on 1 January 2003.

Medida Provisória 131 (MP 131), the presidential decree that authorised the planting and harvesting of GM soya for one year was signed on 25 September. It overturned a judicial ban on GM crops in Brazil, that had been won in 1998 by Greenpeace and Idec, the Brazilian consumer defence institute. Far from signalling government support for GM crops, however, MP 131 is a stopgap measure that puts off any long-term decision.

For at least two years, illegal GM soya seeds have been smuggled into Brazil from Argentina and planted in Brazil’s southern states. In March 2003 the Brazilian government – which had made a pre-election commitment to the prohibition of GM crops – authorised harvesting of the illegal 2002/03 GM soya crop. It promised environmentalist supporters that this was a one-off measure. At the same time, the government created an inter-ministerial commission to produce new biotechnology legislation that would prevent such humiliating scenarios in the future. The commission was given 45 days to report.

Yet by late September 2003, with over 100,000 farmers threatening to plant illegal GM soya, the government was still unprepared. In the televised announcement of MP 131, vice-president José Alencar described himself as a ‘poor wretch’. At a safe distance in New York, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva declared that MP 131 only addressed the question of this year’s GM soya crop and not GM technology in general (1).

The fact that the government issued a Medida Provisória (MP) suggests its uncertainty – MPs are not debated by Congress, and are provisional pending later legislation. And the text of MP 131 indicates that, while the government was prepared to authorise the release of GM crops, it was not prepared to shoulder the responsibility – article three requires farmers to sign a ‘declaration of responsibility’ for the impact that the crops may have on the environment and consumers (2).

Environmentalists see MP 131 as a betrayal. Fernando Gabeira, a PT congressman, former president of the Green Party and an important government figure, resigned in protest, arguing that the government was committed to ‘narrow productivism’ to the detriment of the environment (3). He was supported by 500 environmental NGOs in an open letter to the president. But MP 131 was the result of confusion within the government – rather than representing any pro-GM commitment.

The government’s commission on GM has a mixed composition. It includes environment minister Marina Silva, who is opposed to GM technology and presented two proposals for a moratorium on GM crops when she was a senator in 1997 and 1999. Embrapa’s president, Clayton Campanhola, has publicly criticised GM technologies. But the commission also includes agriculture minister Roberto Rodrigues, a GM supporter, representative of agribusiness and himself a large-scale farmer (4).

Opponents of GM, however, have ignored these contradictions and accused the government of capitulating to pressure from Monsanto, the USA and big farmers (5). In fact, far from treating the government as a cipher for its promotion of GM crops, Monsanto all but retreated from the public debate in Brazil. The company has been unable to advertise or sell its GM Roundup Ready soya since 1998, due to the judicial ban won by Greenpeace and Idec. Even after MP 131, Monsanto is reluctant to return to the debate – and it has even said that it will not collect royalties on the Round-up Ready GM soya currently being planted.

Moreover, the USA has as much to lose from Brazil adopting GM technology as it has to gain. US companies such as Monsanto would be able to sell their seeds to a new market, but Brazil could soon win the USA’s markets for its own GM crops. After nearly eight years, US GM soya productivity is declining and US Department of Agriculture predictions for the 2004 harvest are down from 71.92 to 67.18 million tonnes. Brazilian conventional soya productivity now matches that of US GM soya, and revised estimates for Brazil’s 2004 harvest are up from 56 to 60 million tonnes (6).

Brazil’s increased harvest comes from the explosion of GM soya – leading to productivity increases, reduced agrochemical costs and easier crop management (7). The potential advantages have convinced even small farmers from Brazil’s landless movement to sow GM seeds, although its leadership is strongly anti-GM and pro-organic (8). Brazil now has one of the world’s most advanced plant genome programmes; it is also producing its own GM soya, and has 90million hectares of unused arable land at its disposal. This gives Brazil every opportunity to present the USA with a worthy competitor.

Although MP 131 allowed the government to smother internal divisions, it could not resolve the underlying causes of the conflict. Instead, it transferred the problem to the level of national legislation, fomenting division throughout Brazil and threatening the country’s agricultural potential.

Within two weeks of the announcement of MP 131, the main soya-producing states of Paraná and Santa Catarina passed local laws prohibiting GM soya. Fifteen hundred trucks transporting soya to Paraná’s port of Paranágua have been turned back at the border. The state government of Mato Grosso do Sul, the most modernised grain state, is battling in the federal courts to prevent the blocking of its exports. Emboldened by the federal government’s refusal to intervene, the PT governor of the north-eastern state of Piaui has announced that it will become GM-free – and on October 29, the state of Mato Grosso followed suit (9, 10).

The final conclusions of the inter-ministerial commission are now being presented to Congress. They contain another bodged compromise that will create further confusion and conflict. The key source of division within the commission has been the status of the federal government’s biotechnology technical commission, CTNBio. CTNBio was created in 1996 to rule on all GM products, and is comprised of scientists, NGOs, industry and government representatives.

Environment minister Marina Silva and opponents of GM have demanded that CTNBio have only consultative powers, leaving her ministry free to block GM technology. Agriculture minister Roberto Rodrigues has argued that CTNBio should have the last word. In an attempt to compromise, it has been announced that if CTNBio approves a GM crop it will have only consultative authority – but if it opposes GM, that will be the final word. In addition, the number of NGOs in CTNBio has been increased from three to eight, a move welcomed by environmental NGOs who oppose GM technology (11).

When it comes to GM, the Brazilian government seems to have turned cautious pragmatism into official policy. This is a recipe for conflict and confusion – and an obstacle to future social and technological advances.

John Conroy is a television Producer/Director and a Journalist.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Genetics

(1) Globo Television Lunchtime News, 25 September 2003

(2) See Medida Provisória 131

(3) ‘Gabeira says farewell with an attack on Lula’, O Estado de São Paulo, 15 October 2003

(4) President of Embrapa criticises transgenetics, O Estado do Paraná, 05 October 2003

(5) Brazil agrees to grow GM crops, John Vidal, Guardian, 26 September 2003

(6) ‘USDA predicts smaller Soya harvest in USA’, Agricola, O Estado de São Paulo, 15 October 2003; and ‘GM leads to fall in productivity in USA’, Folha de São Paulo, 05 October 2003

(7) Genetically Engineered Crops for Pest Management in U.S. Agriculture, Jorge Fernandez-Cornejo and William McBride, with contributions from Cassandra Klotz-Ingram, Sharon Jans, and Nora Brooks, Agricultural Economics Report No. 786. 28 pp, May 2000; and
‘About turn in the country’, Vladimir Brandão, Globo Rural, N.216, October 2003; and MP 131 intensifies sales of GM seeds, Agência Folha, 20 October 2003

(8) ‘The Landless Movement plants and sells GMOs’, O Pais, O Globo, 13 March 2003

(9) Piaui wishes to be declared a GM crop free zone, 27 October 2003; and ‘Parana finds GM Soya in 14 containers’, O Globo, 25 October 2003

(10) The planting of GM Soya is prohibited in Mato Grosso, O Estado de São Paulo, 29 October 2003

(11) Law proposal defines the CTNBio powers, 27 October 2003; and Marina Silva wins with the new biosafety law, Folha de São Paulo, 29 October 2003

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Topics Science & Tech

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