Brazil's golden opportunity: staying GE-free

Too much to lose if Monsanto's GE crops are legalised in Brazil

Feature story - 12 February, 2003
The commercial growing of genetically engineered (GE) crops in Brazil has been blocked by legal injunctions for several years now. Crucial decisions about these injunctions might be made in the few next weeks. Agrochemical giant Monsanto is ready to flood the Brazilian market with its GE seeds if legal approval is granted. Brazil has much to lose by allowing these crops and much to gain by keeping Monsanto out of its fields and remaining the world's major non-GE soya producer.

GE-free soya.

The fight over the introduction of GE soya in Brazil has been going on for five years, since Monsanto first won approval for its Roundup Ready soybeans from the government's biosafety board, CTNBio, in 1998. In the same year, a lawsuit was filed by Greenpeace and the Brazilian Consumer Defense Institute (IDEC) to prevent the commercial release of GE crops. Several preliminary orders and a historic sentence issued by Federal Judge Antonio Prudente in June 2000, ordered the government to introduce standards and carry out complete environmental and health impact studies. Implementation of full traceability and labelling rules by the federal government were requested as a prerequisit of any commercial GMO releases. Current Brazilian labelling rules do not comply with these requests, since the decree issued in July 2001 only requires products with more than 4 percent GE content to be labelled.

The Regional Federal Court headquarted in Brasília first addressed the issue in February 2002, but, as of today only one of a three-strong panel of federal judges has given an opinion. While she favours lifting the injunctions that were imposed in 1998, the two other judges haven't yet voiced their decisions.

With a newly-elected government in place, the political climate in Brazil is becoming less favourable for GE agriculture. The new environment minister, Marina Silva, asked the federal advocate general to suspend the outstanding ruling scheduled for mid February, stating that the new government needed more time to re-examine the issue. No decision on this request has yet been made. Questioned shortly before the elections in October 2002, President Luis Inacio 'Lula' da Silva said he favoured a commercial moratorium as long as there continues to be no scientific consensus on the safety of GE crops and the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety has not been ratified. The Protocol controls the transportation across borders, handling and use of any GE organisms.

Monsanto's GE seeds have already caused some contamination of Brazilian soya. The GE seeds were illegally imported to the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul from neighbouring Argentina. However, the original suspension of Monsanto's GE soybean sales is still in place and the sale of the seeds or the use in food products remains illegal in Brazil.

GE crops: a lose, lose proposition

GE crops pose serious threats to the environment and human and animal health. Genetic contamination through outcrossing or during transport and handling has the potential to be a problem that multiplies as plants grow and reproduce. In addition, there are economic concerns connected with the introduction of these crops.

Brazil has a golden opportunity to take advantage of its status as a top world soya producer that does not allow GE crops. Brazil's non-GE status has already gained the country market shares and premiums because of the increased demand for GE-free food. While Brazil was able to extend its market in Europe in recent years, demand for US and Argentine exports fell sharply since the introduction of GE soya. Brazilian exporters can expect further increases in demand with growing interest from the Asian market, where GE foods are more and more seen as a matter of concern. In Europe, tightened legislation on GE labelling and traceability is coming soon.

If GE crops are legalised in Brazil, in addition to dwindling markets, farmers will suffer because of herbicide resistance problems, increased use of chemicals, and loss of control of seeds. There is a wide gap between the GE-industry's fanfare of promises and the actual realities of decreased yields and increased herbicide use with Roundup Ready soya. Herbicide resistant weeds are another problem that farmers growing GE crops are faced with. The take-over of the seed market by a handful of GE industry giants such as Monsanto, Dupont and Syngenta not only affects the farmers' right to save and exchange seeds, it also considerably reduces agricultural biodiversity since these companies focus on a few high-yielding varieties. Brazilian organisations of small farmers have repeatedly voiced their opposition to GE agriculture. And they have good reason. Farmers in North America have been battling an array of GE induced problems: herbicide tolerant weeds, corporate control and loss of foreign markets.

Consumers will lose if GE crops are legalised in Brazil because of potential health risks of GE food. Current Brazilian labelling laws would not give consumers full information about what they eat. Consumers would not have the right to say "no" to GE products.

A network of seven Brazilian NGOs, including Greenpeace, ActionAid and IDEC, are campaigning for a GE-free Brazil. A recent opinion poll conducted on behalf of the NGO network shows support from a majority of Brazilian consumers: more than 70 percent reject GE foods, 65 percent are in favour of a moratorium on the commercial growing of GE crops.

Prevention: the best solution

The only beneficiaries of GE crops in Brazil would be a handful of transnational agrochemical companies like Monsanto, Syngenta or Bayer. The precautionary approach to stay GE free offers only advantages. Brazil can increase market shares as non-GE produce is increasingly requested, environmental harm is prevented, and farmer and consumer interests are protected. To this end, we are calling on the decision-makers involved to decide in favour Brazil keeping its non-GE status.

Learn more:

The advantages of non-genetically engineered corn and soya for the Brazilian market (pdf)

Monsanto out of our food (pdf)