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Monday, 23 April, 2001, 18:21 GMT 19:21 UK
Brazil court battle for GM soya
Asda has been forging links with Brazilian soya growers
Many European retailers buy GM-free crops from Brazil
By Tom Gibb in Sao Paulo

Consumer and environmental groups are fighting a rearguard action in the Brazilian courts to try to prevent the government legalising the cultivation of genetically modified soya

Brazil is the last large-scale producer of soy beans not to introduce GM varieties - making many European retailers, which want to remain GM-free, come here to buy.


If they legalise GM soya, it will be very bad for Brazil

Cezar Colussi, agronomist
At the same time, the Brazilian Government is funding a multi-million dollar research programme to use genetic modification on a wide variety of tropical crops, which it says could be of benefit to developing countries around the world.

The government, lobbied by multinationals like the GM giant Monsanto, which wants to sell in Brazil, tried to legalise GM soya.

But consumer organisations successfully blocked this in the courts when a federal judge ruled that the necessary tests and studies had not been carried out to make sure the crop was not harmful to consumers or the environment.

The pro-GM lobby is this month appealing against the ruling.

Organic exports

The issue has divided scientists and farmers - many of whom do not feel they have enough knowledge to make correct decisions.

Many crops are grown in Parana's fertile valleys
Smuggling of GM crops already happens across Brazil's borders
Like most small farmers in the fertile valleys of Parana, close to the border of Argentina and Paraguay, Duilio Chomulera's family came here from Europe only a generation ago.

They brought with them the traditional farming techniques which Duilio's grandfather once used in Italy.

Today he and his son grow a variety of crops on their 15 hectares (90 acres) of land, as well as keeping enough cows, pigs and chickens for their own needs.

He is one of 300 farmers in the region who recently switched to growing entirely organic crops for export to Europe.

His soy beans are turned into oil to be sold to the British cosmetics chain The Body Shop.

He has been told by agronomists working on the "Terra Preservada" or "Protected Earth" project that GM crops are bad.

"I've heard," he said, "that they have been modified to produce a poison which kills everything except the soya. I believe that some of that poison must stay in the plant and be bad for both people and animals - not to mention the environment."

Smuggling

Already, however, GM soya, which is legal across the border in Argentina, is being smuggled into Brazil to be sold and planted.

Every trailer load brought into the Terra Preservada plant to be processed has to be tested to make sure it is GM-free.


We can show that (GM crops) are safer than conventional crops, requiring less pesticides and fertilisers. Half of the world's population does not reach full human development because they do not have enough food. That is a crime which we have the power to prevent.

Dr Crodowaldo Pavan, genetic scientist
If GM crops become legal in Brazil, the costs of keeping produce GM-free and organic will become much higher.

All machinery and trailers will have to be used exclusively for non-GM crops. With produce like maize, preventing cross pollination from neighbouring fields will be almost impossible.

"If they legalise GM soya it will be very bad for Brazil," said Terra Preservada agronomist Cezar Colussi.

"They are promising that it will solve the hunger of the world, but this is not what is needed."

Research

Dr Crodowaldo Pavan, a top Brazilian genetics scientist and honorary President of the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science, disagrees vehemently, dismissing opposition as based on superstition or ignorance.

"I passionately believe that they should be legalised," he said.

"We can show that they are safer than conventional crops, requiring less pesticides and fertilisers. Half of the world's population does not reach full human development because they do not have enough food. That is a crime which we have the power to prevent."

He is currently working on developing bacteria which will produce nitrates in the soil, avoiding the use of fertilisers which end up contaminating water supplies.

It is one of many such government sponsored research projects in Brazil, which has developed produce from disease-resistant citrus fruits and papaya to multi-coloured sunflowers.

Brazil is also the first developing country to clone a sheep.

Dr Pavan believes the issue has aroused so much opposition because it has become confused with that of multinationals patenting genes to control the market.

"I do not believe that people should be allowed to patent genes," he said.

"And of course there have to be checks against whatever kind of thing multinationals want to do. But just because something can be used in the wrong way - it is absurd to ban it altogether."

Arrogance

Other farmers organisations, like the Brazilian Rural Society, also favour making GM crops legal - but Luiz Hafers, the society's president, believes "while the discussion may be technical, the decision is political," and can only be made by public opinion of consumers.

He criticises the "arrogance" of Monsanto and others developing GM crops for the way they have tried to introduce products without winning over public opinion.

The decision will ultimately now be made by the Brazilian courts - which some fear could take years. That could lead to the worst solution all round - a growth of smuggling GM seeds and products in Brazil with no proper regulation for their use.

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See also:

27 Jan 01 | Americas
Brazilian protesters raid GM farm
26 Jan 01 | UK
Asda plans to go GM free
04 Aug 00 | Sci/Tech
GM rice patents given away
12 Oct 99 | Americas
Brazil battle over GM soya
18 May 99 | Americas
Brazil allows GM soya
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