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Brazil: NGOs challenge production of transgenic soya

by Mario Osava

Rio de Janeiro, 26 Jul 2001 (IPS) - Environmental and consumer rights organisations protested Thursday in the Brazilian capital against the government’s intent to authorise the commercial production of the genetically modified soya, RoundupReady, produced by the US-based transnational Monsanto.

The demonstration came in reaction to the announcement by Agriculture minister, Marcus Pratini Moraes, that the government on Monday will formalise the release of Roundup Ready (RR) soya beans that have been genetically manipulated to resist herbicides, which are also produced by Monsanto.

Also on Monday, officials are to establish the norms for transgenic seed production, added the minister.

Pratini de Moraes cannot authorise the planting of RR soya “because he lacks the authority and the competence to do so,” as it also requires approval by the ministries of Health and of Environment, Andrea Salazar, attorney for the Brazilian Consumer Defence Institute (IDEC), told IPS.

The Ministry of Agriculture can, at most, accept the registration of Monsanto’s transgenic soya, but cannot authorise its production, maintained Salazar, who was one of the organisers of the Brasilia protest. She pointed out that the production of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is banned under a legal ruling that requires previous studies on environmental impacts.

The non-governmental organisations (NGOs) involved in the protest are up against an intense offensive by the Fernando Henrique Cardoso government to open Brazil’s doors to the commercial production of GMOs.

Brazil is the only one of three leading soya-exporting nations that has not approved production of genetically modified varieties. The two others, Argentina and the US, are already producing RR soya in large quantities - as much as 80% of their total soya yields.

This has proven to be a trade advantage for Brazil because Europe, the country’s number-one market, generally rejects GMOs.

“If the Agriculture minister is not concerned about the risks for human health, he should at least respond to the country’s economic interests,” said Salazar, referring to the possibility that Brazil could lose markets if it accepts this form of biotech farming.

But it was opinions from several sectors that prompted the government to follow this route.

The National Technical Commission on Biosecurity (CTNBio), associated with the Ministry of Science and Technology, came out in favour of the planting and marketing of transgenic crops, ruling out the health and environmental concerns that the NGOs have highlighted.

The Brazilian Agricultural Research Enterprise, an entity of the Agriculture Ministry, took the same stance. The Ministry has 40 research centres whose contributions have been decisive in Brazil’s progress in the farming sector. The research institutions also produce their own transgenic seeds.

Furthermore, a declaration from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), in its latest Human Development Report, asserts that genetically modified crops could contribute to reducing world hunger.

“That was a regrettable opinion, based on supposed benefits without scientific backing, and it serves to fortify the interests of the United States government and transnational corporations,” charged Salazar.

The Cardoso government this year has stepped up efforts towards the release of the new transgenic crops - which include soya, maize, wheat and cotton, among others. A decree from President Cardoso entrusted the CTNBio with the authority to conduct the definitive assessments on biotech safety, in an apparent bid to bypass criticism from NGOs.

Another decree, announced on 19 July, established the labelling rules for products that contain transgenic ingredients.

But this information would only be required for foods in which the presence of genetically modified ingredients surpasses 4%.

The measure, which is to enter into force on 31 December, caused an uproar among the NGOs participating in the campaign “For a Transgenic-Free Brazil”, begun in 1999 and coordinated by IDEC, the international environmental watchdog Greenpeace, and Esplar, a group promoting alternative and sustainable farming practices.

“It is a violation of the Consumer Defence Code because in practice it means not requiring information” on the presence of GMOs in foods, charged IDEC director Marilena Lazzarini. In most products, the genetically modified ingredients do not reach 4%, she said.

Lazzarini announced that her organisation would petition the courts to annul the decree.

In Europe, labelling is required on products containing more than 1% of transgenic ingredients. Japan is more lax, having set the limit at 5%.

Minister Pratini de Moraes had fought for Brazil’s labelling limit to be the same as Japan’s, but accepted the 4%. Anything lower, he said, would drive up production costs and food prices.

The government’s decision comes in response to pressure from the food industry.  The Cardoso government had to make a choice due to the proliferation of laws at the state level throughout Brazil, said Edmundo Klotz, president of a business association for the sector.

In some states, such as the southern Rio Grande do Sul, laws have been passed that explicitly ban the cultivation of genetically modified crops.

The national government’s recent moves indicate that it is moving quickly  towards full approval of transgenic production, clashing with the policies of  several states and the demands of NGOs, landless peasant organizations and  family farmers. – SUN4946

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