|The UK's most popular
April 17, 2002
Sow resistant:- The battle continues:-
to prevent Brazil, a major soya producer,
caving in to pressure to authorise GM crops.
Brazil is coming under increasing pressure to authorise genetically-modified crops, in the wake of India's decision in late March to open its doors to this technology. For four years, a small group of under-funded Brazilian environmentalists and consumers has succeeded against all the odds in keeping a GM ban in place, but many observers now believe it is only a matter of time before Brazil, too, follows the worldwide trend.
Brazil is a key piece in the global bio-tech jigsaw. The area under GM cultivation throughout the world rose from 1.7m hectares in 1996 to 52.6m hectares in 2001. About two-thirds of this area was planted with a variety of soya beans genetically engineered by the biotechnology multinational, Monsanto, to be resistant to the company's herbicide, Round-Up. Both the US, which is the leading soya producer, and Argentina, which is in third position, have authorised GM crops. Only Brazil, the second producer, is still holding out against GM.
The Brazilian Chamber of Deputies is expected shortly to approve a bill that will authorise the cultivation and consumption of GM products. As a first step, the chamber's special commission on genetically modified foods approved a highly favourable report on GM products in late March. If Brazil gives the go-ahead, it will become increasingly difficult for Europe and Asia to purchase non-GM soya beans at normal prices. They will become a niche product, for which health conscious and environmentally aware consumers will have to pay a hefty premium. The GM crop will be the norm.
Bob Callanan, from the American Soybean Association, which is fervently pro-GM, said last year: "We are hopeful that the last domino will fall shortly. That's why the environmentalists are putting up such a stink in Brazil. They know that, if that goes, it's all gone."
Brazil's stubborn resistance to GM crops took the bio-tech companies by surprise. Four years ago, Monsanto expected Brazil to authorise GM crops on the nod, just as had happened in neighbouring Argentina.
As part of its global strategy, Monsanto had bought up seed companies in Brazil and was poised to dominate bio-tech farming. The Brazilian government had expressed its support for GM crops and was helping to fund a £250m factory that Monsanto was building in the north-east of the country to supply the whole of South America with the raw materials for Round-Up. In early 2000, Monsanto even imported GM seeds to sell to farmers in the following planting season, after the anticipated authorisation.
But Greenpeace and the Brazilian Institute for Consumer Defence (IDEC) had other ideas. They jointly appealed to the courts that the government had no authority to authorise Monsanto to produce GM seeds when the country's environmental legislation demanded that studies must first be carried out into the long-term health and environmental impacts of transgenic crops. In a historic ruling in May 2000, a Brazilian judge found in favour of the plaintiffs. Monsanto immediately appealed, but is still waiting for a final decision, expected shortly.
Until recently, the anti-GM lobby had little support from Brazil's powerful farming community. Enticed by reports of high GM yields and low production costs, farmers in the south of Brazil began to purchase GM seeds smuggled over from Argentina. According to some reports, up to half of the soya planted in Brazil's most southerly state, Rio Grande do Sul, may be transgenic.
Over the last year, however, some of Brazil's farmers have been having second thoughts. A massive soya front has been moving north, taking over first the plains of Mato Grosso and now moving into the Amazon basin. These farmers have been very successful with their non-GM exports, with some soya beans now going directly to Europe through the new port of Itacoatiara on the Amazon river. Over the last two years, Brazil's share of the world soya market has risen from 24% to 30%, while the US slice has declined from 57% to 46%. A farming association recently said that it would be "very foolish" for Brazil to authorise GM crops, for "we would risk throwing away a market we have worked very hard to win".
However, Brazil's agriculture minister, Pratini de Moraes, is a firm advocate of GM crops. On two occasions he tried unsuccessfully to authorise some GM varieties. On a trip to the US last year, he said that Brazil was planning to invest heavily in GM crops. "We must not run the risk of being left behind in the technological race," he added. "We have room for all kinds of crops in our huge country - GM, conventional and organic. That is our good fortune."
Over the last few months, the battle over GM has become more heated. In January, Anthony Harrington, former US ambassador to Brazil and now a lobbyist for Monsanto, held a private meeting with President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, now in his eighth and final year in office. Shortly afterwards, Cardoso called together all ministers involved in the GM debate and imposed what amounted to a gagging order on environment minister Jose Sarney Filho, who had openly aligned himself with the environmentalists. Since then, the minister has resigned, apparently on an unrelated issue.
Attention has now turned to congress. As the chamber of deputies prepares to vote, several Monsanto directors, including chief executive Rodrigo Almeida, have been seen lobbying deputies. Ado Pretto, from the opposition Workers' Party, has spoken of the "enormous pressure" on congress. On three occasions, environmentalists and members of Brazil's Landless Movement (MST) have occupied committee rooms, in protest over the government's refusal to allow a full debate on the issue.
The environmentalists believe that, if they can manage to postpone a final decision for a few more months, the balance of forces could change. Reports from Argentina say that GM soya is not living up to expectations; yields have been disappointing and the use of pesticides has soared, because of the emergence of disease.
"Time is on our side, for the problems with GM crops are becoming much clearer," says Flavia Londres, from the anti-GM umbrella group. "Moreover, this is an election year in Brazil, and unexpected things can happen. No one knows who will be chosen as the next president of Brazil in October's elections. The battle is far from lost."
· Sue Branford was the BBC correspondent in Brazil. Her book, with Jan Rocha, on resistance movements in Latin America will be published later this year.
SocietyGuardian.co.uk © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002
Sue Branford looks behind the scenes of the GM battle currently being waged in Brazil.
Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso has launched an all-out drive to get the cultivation and production of genetically-modified products authorised in his country over the next few weeks. For the past three years a highly successful campaign organised by environmentalists and consumer organisations has blocked the progress of GM food in Brazil. Cardoso, who has been in power since 1994, leaves office in December. It is clearly his intention to sort out this contentious issue before the country gets engulfed in almost certainly acrimonious campaigning for Octobers elections.
Monsanto, the huge biotechnology company that leads
the worlds production of GM seeds, has been lobbying the Brazilian government with growing urgency. The company has long been frustrated by the ban in Brazil of its GM soya beans known as Round-Up Ready. In mid-January Anthony Harrington, who was US ambassador in Brazil until 2001 and is now a Monsanto adviser, flew to Brasilia and held a private meeting with Cardoso. Since then the president has shown uncharacteristically decisive action.
A few days after his Harrington meeting Cardoso called together all the ministers and top government advisers connected with the GM debate, and told them in no uncertain terms that he would no longer tolerate public wrangling over the issue. The main target of this dressing down was Brazils environment minister Jose Sarney Filho. The latter has openly aligned himself with the environmentalists. He has stated that he does not believe GM crops should be planted in Brazil until meticulous studies have been carried out into the impact of these products on the countrys delicate ecosystems and the health of its population. Cardoso imposed what amounted to a gagging order on Sarney Filho, and since the meeting the environment minister has duly refused to talk to the press.
After the crack down on his ministers, Cardoso turned his attention to Brazils Congress. After close consultation with the government, the head of the lower chambers special commission on GM foods federal deputy Confúcio Moura tried to steamroll through his report. The report calls for the immediate authorisation of GM products in Brazil. Moura arranged for the commission to vote on his report on 19 February, the day that Congress resumed after a long Carnival break always the most difficult time of the year for popular movements to get their supporters mobilised. In what was clearly a carefully planned manoeuvre to prevent debate, Moura said that he would not accept any amendments.
Remarkably, the environmentalists are still holding out.
The 19 February vote was postponed for fortuitous technical reasons. A second attempt at a vote on 27 February was also frustrated when a group of vociferous anti-GM demonstrators including members of Brazils militant Landless Movement occupied the public gallery. The protestors made so much noise by blowing whistles and shouting slogans that the session had to be suspended. However, as the commission is packed with government supporters, it seems only a matter of time before Mouras report is finally approved.
That, however, will not necessarily be the end of the matter. Once the report is passed by the commission, it will have to be approved first by a plenary session of the lower chamber and then by the Senate. With their allies in Congress, the campaigners believe they have a chance of getting the final vote delayed until the end of the year. And with a new president taking over in January 2003, the balance of forces may change.
Arcane as the details of this tortuous congressional battle may seem, the outcome is important for the whole world. Brazil, the worlds second largest exporter of soya beans, is the only large producer that can guarantee, at no additional cost, a GM-free product. If Brazil bows to Monsantos pressure and authorises GM products, no country in the world will be able to satisfy the demand of the huge number of ordinary Asian and European consumers for beef from cattle fed on non-GM fodder, and biscuits, soups and cakes made from GM-free soya flour. Of course, non-GM products would still be available but only as a niche market with the consumer paying a sizeable premium for the non-GM product. This is precisely what the multinationals want.
What alarms many Brazilians is Cardosos apparent failure to grasp the huge commercial advantage that his country is already gaining from being the only important producer of non-GM crops. Over the last two years, Brazils share of the world soya market has grown from 24 to 30 per cent, as importers eagerly seek out non-GM product. Simultaneously, the share going to the US, with its largely GM crop, has declined from 57 to 46 per cent. If China, already the main world importer, resists US pressure and continues to demand non-GM crops, Brazils prospects for soya and other non-GM crops are dazzling.
The loser in such a scenario would be Monsanto. Last year the company opened a US$550 million factory in the north east of Brazil to produce Round-Up, a pesticide specially developed for Round Up Ready soya. Monsanto is currently in the absurd situation of supplying Brazilian-sourced Round-Up to soya farmers in Argentina and Paraguay (and possibly to the US planes spraying a special, reinforced version on coca crops in Colombia) without being able to sell it, officially at least, to farmers for use on Round-Up Ready in the country where the pesticide is manufactured.
Sue Branford is a journalist and author. Her new book, Cutting the Wire a history of the landless movement in Brazil, co-authored with Jan Rocha (Latin American bureau) is published this year.
Posted by Roger Lovejoy 27th April, 2002