E-mail this article to
yourself or a friend.
Enter address:


Hard realities: Brazil drops resistance to genetically altered crops

(Monday, Sept. 29, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Larry Rohter, NY Times, 09/27/03: In barely 36 hours, Brazil's left-leaning government first announced that it would allow farmers to plant genetically altered soybean seeds, then reversed course, before changing yet again, late on Thursday.

The result is that Brazil, a bastion of global opposition to genetically modified organisms, has given in.

From the time President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva founded the Workers' Party more than 20 years ago, environmentalists have been an important constituency and their programs part of the party's platform.

Those commitments, though, have had to give way to the hard realities of politics and to Brazil's drive to increase exports. The country wants to become an agricultural superpower.

Brazil is the world's second largest producer of soybeans, but it is expected to surpass the United States to become the largest soybean producer as early as the coming harvest. The Southern Hemisphere's planting season is just starting, and the government has faced mounting pressure from agribusiness interests to ignore court injunctions, requirements for environmental impact studies and other regulations.

The issue has proved so contentious that Brazil's 175 million people have been treated this week to the spectacle of a public exchange between Mr. da Silva, who was in New York for United Nations meetings, and his vice president, José Alencar. After Mr. Alencar had second thoughts and said he would not approve the measure, Mr. da Silva warned from the United States that the vice president "knows what he has to do, and he will do it."

As recently as June, Mr. da Silva's chief of staff, José Dirceu, promised that Brazil would not allow the planting of genetically modified crops, which opponents contend can present risks to human health, the environment and biodiversity. "The law will be obeyed because that is the determination of the president," he said then at a seminar in São Paulo.

The Brazilian press has speculated that Mr. Dirceu engineered the timing of the announcement of the measure so it would occur when his boss was out of the country and Mr. Alencar was the acting president, as provided for in the Constitution. That way, the vice president, who is not a member of the governing party, and not Mr. da Silva, would have to bear the political onus of making so unpopular a decision.

But Mr. Alencar initially surprised everyone by saying the measure "goes against existing Brazilian legislation" and calling an emergency cabinet meeting. "The next time, I'm going to be the one who travels," Mr. Alencar said Thursday night, after backing off and finally signing the decree.

The "provisional decree" that the government announced applies only until the end of next year and contains several other restrictions. Farmers cannot plant genetically modified soybeans near nature reserves and watersheds or transport seeds across state lines and must also sign a document agreeing to pay an indemnity for any damage to the environment or consumers' health.

Nevertheless, the decision is a significant victory for large biotechnology companies like Monsanto, which stands to gain the most from the policy change. Since the mid-1990's, Greenpeace and other international and local consumer and environmental groups have been battling in Brazilian courts and the corridors of Congress to prevent Brazil from following the path of Argentina and other large agricultural producers that have already legalized the genetically modified crops.

In addition, Brazil, which in years when it has bumper crops often ranks as the largest exporter of agricultural products after the United States, has traditionally banned genetically modified foodstuffs from the shelves of grocery stores here and prohibited the use of genetically modified animal feed and grain. That has given it a certain commercial advantage over its rivals in markets like Europe, where opposition to such products remains strong.

On Thursday, the Brazilian chapter of Greenpeace accused the government of betraying its principles, selling out to big business and "disrespecting a commitment" made during last year's presidential campaign. The group vowed to challenge the decree in court and was joined in its criticisms by the national association of judges, which said the measure was "juridically absurd and flagrantly unconstitutional."

The government's about-face is also likely to provoke tensions in the warm relations between Mr. da Silva and his allies and admirers in the Green movement in Europe. His Workers' Party has been the main sponsor of the annual World Social Forum in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, which has emerged as a magnet for antiglobalization groups, whose agenda includes strong opposition to the genetically modified foods.

But many small farmers affiliated with the landless movement have also been clandestinely planting their own fields with genetically modified soy seeds smuggled across the border from Argentina. They justify that contradiction by arguing that they have lower production costs with these seeds and have complained that they will be driven into bankruptcy if the Brazilian government continues to ban them.

Monsanto has tried unsuccessfully to collect royalties from Brazilian soy producers using its genetically modified seeds. The government decision includes a provision that requires farmers planting such seeds to acknowledge that they, and not the government, are responsible for any such payments.

Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2003/09/28/international/americas/28BRAZ.html