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Monday, 23 April, 2001, 18:21 GMT 19:21 UK
Brazil court battle for GM soya
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.
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.
The issue has divided scientists and farmers - many of whom do not feel they have enough knowledge to make correct decisions.
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."
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.
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."
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."
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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