Brazil: South seeks to block transgenic soya

by Mario Osava

Rio de Janeiro, March 23 -- Resistance to transgenic soya in Brazil has been concentrated in Rio Grande do Sul, whose Workers Party government is trying to make the southern state an area free of genetically modified products.

The Secretariat of Agriculture of Rio Grande do Sul prohibited the US transnational corporation Monsanto from planting transgenic soya on five hectares, based on the state government's failure to authorise the biotechnology giant to experiment with soya resistant to its own Round-Up Ready weedicide.

On Monday, the legislative assembly of Rio Grande do Sul organised a seminar, with participation of environmentalists, to discuss a draft law to ban the planting and marketing of transgenic products in the state.

Rio Grande do Sul is the biggest producer of soya in Brazil, which in turn is one of the world's top producers, second only to the United States.

The executive director of Greenpeace Brazil, Roberto Kishimani, expressed his support for the proposed ban on transgenic products, and called for better assessment of the consequences of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) before their use is permitted in agriculture. There is no scientific evidence that such products do not harm the environment and human health, argued Greenpeace, which is heading a campaign against Monsanto's transgenic soya in Brazil and other countries.

The National Technical Commission on Biosafety, a government body set up to study such questions, gave the green light not only to experimental, but also to commercial, planting of Round-Up Ready Soya in Brazil.

The public sector Brazilian Company of Agricultural Research also supported the introduction of the product into the country. The chairman of the agency, Alberto Portugal, defended transgenic soya as an important contribution to national production that he said should coexist with traditional soya, which draws a better price.

But the recently named Minister of the Environment, Jose Sarney Filho, is opposed to the introduction of the product.

While the Ministry of Agriculture has been delaying registration of the product, however, Deputy Minister Benedito Rosa announced that it would be approved as soon as Monsanto satisfied the ministry's formal requirements.

As well as environmental and health concerns, authorities in Rio Grande do Sul raise the spectre of commercial losses due to widespread opposition to transgenic products in Europe, the biggest market for Brazil's soya.

The same fear has led another important farming state in the south, Parana, to maintain its ban against the commercial planting of genetically altered plants, and to oversee experiments with the new technology.

The chairman of the National Technical Commission on Biosafety, Luiz Barreto de Castro, pooh-poohed the objections raised by environmentalists, who he said were unaware of the security measures taken in the development of GMOs. He also hinted that the campaign against GMOs could be based on commercial interests, arguing that Europe's big chemical industry had no interest in applied biotechnology in agriculture, as it could diminish the need for agrochemicals.

Roberto Lopes de Almeida, director of Corporate Affairs in Monsanto, maintained that Round-Up Ready Soya posed no risks to the environment or human health, arguing that millions of people already consumed the product without any negative effects.

Resistance to GMOs in Rio Grande do Sul has taken on a political dimension, involving opposition to the central government and its scientific and agricultural authorities. Since January the state has been governed by Olivio Dutra of the leftist Workers Party.

The Landless Movement (MST), renowned worldwide for its occupations of land and public offices and mass demonstrations in favour of agrarian reform, has joined the protests against GMOs. The Rio Grande do Sul branch of the MST promotes organic agriculture, which allows costs to be cut as it does not use chemicals, while obtaining better prices in markets abroad, especially Europe.

The above article by the Inter Press Service appeared in the South- North Development Monitor (SUNS).