Brazil's Lula urged to resist pressure on GM crops

By Peter Blackburn

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil, Dec 12 (Reuters) - Brazilian environmental groups are urging President-elect Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to stand firm against what they say is pressure to relax a ban on transgenic crops in return for food aid.

They allege that a recent offer by former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Otto Reich to support Lula's campaign to eradicate hunger in Brazil may have secret strings attached, following lobbying from U.S. companies.

"It's an ingenuous attempt by U.S. multinationals to get GM (genetically modified) foods accepted in Brazil," said Mariana Paoli, a genetic engineering campaigner at Greenpeace.

For years, bioscience-seed companies like Monsanto Co have been trying to persuade Brazil to authorize commercial use of its GM seeds that produce more herbicide resistant and higher yielding crops.

However, Monsanto has denied it is leveraging aid for Lula's "Zero Hunger" program for access to Brazil's vast market.

"There's no link between Zero Hunger and transgenic crops," said Lucio Mocsanyi, Monsanto Brazil's Sao Paulo-based communications director.

Mocsanyi said that although Monsanto had met members of Lula's Workers' Party, the meeting took place in early October, three weeks before the launch of the Zero Hunger campaign, and had nothing to do with it.

As one of the world's largest commodities producers, the potential to reap profits in Brazil is huge for companies like Monsanto.

But even though the current government is in favor of allowing farmers to plant GM crops, local consumer and environmental groups have obtained court injunctions blocking sales.

Brazil is the last major agricultural producer to ban GM crops.

BUSH SUPPORTS BRAZIL PROGRAM

After meeting U.S. President George W. Bush in the White House on Tuesday, Lula told reporters that he raised Zero Hunger, which he has made a priority for his first year of office.

"...Bush's solidarity and support for Zero Hunger was clear," Lula was quoted in the Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper as saying.

The U.S. ambassador to Brazil, Donna Hrinak, was quoted saying that Zero Hunger and poverty took up most time during the meeting, though the United States promised no specific aid.

However, Hrinak said that the United States could offer assistance in the distribution of food coupons.

The campaign was inspired by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's program during the Great Depression of the 1930s, that introduced food stamps for the poor and aimed to boost food production.

The Workers' Party estimates that there are some 10 million families, or about 46 million people out of a total population of 170 million, who go hungry daily.

"The PT (Workers' Party) is against transgenics but is ready to talk about ways of combating hunger. It will also listen to what they (the U.S.) say about risks to health and to the environment," said a PT spokesman.

U.S. officials in Brazil declined comment on a possible trade-off between support for Zero Hunger and ending the GM ban.

Brazilian columnist Washington Novaes said in the Estado de Sao Paulo newspaper that in Africa, Zambia had refused U.S. food aid in the form of GM products but Zimbabwe and Mozambique had accepted.

 

FOOD NOT FOR BARTER

Private aid groups and environmental campaigners are concerned about the potential environmental and consumer health risks from transgenic crops although farmers are attracted by the financial rewards from high yielding GM seeds.

However, influential farmers said linking the Zero Hunger program to an approval of transgenics was wrong.

"I back GMOs but they won't help Zero Hunger in the short term and shouldn't take a ride on the back of it," said coffee and livestock farmer Luiz Hafers, a former president of the Brazilian Rural Society.

Greenpeace's Paoli agreed, saying that planting GM crops is not a solution to hunger, which in Brazil is a social problem linked to unequal distribution of income.

Adriano Campolina of Action Aid, a U.K.-based independent aid group fighting world poverty, said he received a pledge from Lula's Zero Hunger campaign coordinator, Jose Graziano da Silva, that the new government will not barter food aid for approval of transgenic grains.

Speaking after a meeting in Brasilia last week with Graziano and Marina Silva, who will become Environment Minister once Lula takes office, Campolino said, "We were very worried but I'm more reassured now.

"The message we received was that the new government will remain cautious and seek more risk studies," he added.

Analysts said that although outgoing President Fernando Henrique Cardoso's government -- notably Agriculture Minister Marcus Vinicius Pratini de Moraes -- favoured approval of GM crops it was unable to break the legal deadlock.

Monsanto is still seeking approval to sell Brazilian farmers soybeans that have been bioengineered to resist the company's Roundup Ready herbicide.

Brazil is the world's No.2 soy exporter after the United States but ahead of Argentina, which both plant GM soy. It is also the world's No. 1 coffee, sugar and orange juice producer as well as a leading corn and meat producer.