It seems a long while since a small group of poorly-funded consumers and environmentalists fought a long and tenacious battle in the late 1990s to stop the introduction of Monsanto’s genetically modified soya into Brazil. They were finally defeated in 2003 after President Lula said that so much GM soya had been illegally smuggled in from Argentina that he had no choice but legalise it, at least for one year. It was a cruel irony that this capitulation came at the hands of a progressive government.
Of course, as everyone at the time expected, the temporary authorisation soon became permanent and now Brazil is planting more and more GM crops. “For the fourth consecutive year Brazil was the engine of growth globally, increasing its area of biotech crops by more than any other country – an impressive record increase of 6.3m hectares, up 21 per cent from 2011,” said Clive James, chairman of the strongly pro-GM International Service for the Acquisition of Agro-Biotech Applications. Today Brazil’s GM crops cover over 36 million hectares, which is more than half the area planted in the US, the leading biotech country.
Yet GMOs continue to be controversial in the country. On the one hand, there is considerable squabbling between Brazil’s GM farmers and Monsanto. In 2010 Monsanto, which has become an extremely powerful lobby in Brazil, was granted official approval for trials for Intacta RR2 Pro, a bioengineered soya that is not only resistant to Monsanto’s Roundup pesticide (consisting mainly of glyphosate) but also contains a pesticide that makes it toxic to some pests. This is the first GM seed that Monsanto has developed exclusively for South America.
However, the introduction has not been problem-free. Soya farmers are strongly opposed to the introduction of Intacta RR2 Pro until China, which buys 70% of the country’s soya, gives the go-ahead. This it seems very reluctant to do, largely because of consumer resistance. Soya farmers are also highly suspicious of Monsanto’s promises, based on unpublished studies, that guarantee huge increases in yields, sufficient to justify the whopping increase in royalties that Monsanto plans to impose, up from 2% on RR1 (Roundup Ready 1, its first GM soya, genetically engineered to be resistant to Roundup) to 7.5% on Intacta RR2 Pro.
Monsanto, which had geared up to rolling out its new seed last year, was forced to burn some of the stock it had prepared for commercial sale, after it failed to obtain the expected authorisation. Now it is also quarreling in the courts with farmers’ organisations, which claim that the patent on RR1 has expired and so they should not be charged royalties.
These squabbles are heated but sooner or later they will almost certainly be resolved, because they are tiffs between parties who are on the same side on the crucial question of legitimizing GMOs.
The other opposition that the GM technology companies face is very different. There is a substantial group of agronomists and scientists who are making far more fundamental criticisms of GM technology and whose voice has been growing louder. One member of this group is Leonardo Melgarejo, representative of the Ministry of Agrarian Development on the powerful CTNBio (National Biosecurity Council), which sets Brazil’s biotechnology policies. In an interview with IHU On-Line, he was critical of the promises made by Monsanto for Intacta RR2 Pro. He said that experience showed that the promised gains in productivity and the reduction in pesticide use would be temporary, if they occurred at all: “What usually happens is that the targeted insects gain resistance, and even before that, other insects that were once secondary pests grow in importance, requiring chemical treatment that wasn’t needed before.”
He was also scathing about the way in which the new soya was approved. He says that, even though Monsanto has a built-in majority in CTNBio, there was fierce opposition: “The Ministry of Health, the Ministry of the Environment, the Ministry of Agrarian Development, and the representatives of family farming and consumers were all opposed.” Moreover no independent tests of the new soya were conducted, and the limited tests that were carried out took place in laboratories: “In other words, the tests on RR soya and on all the other GM crops created to survive a dousing of glyphosate were carried out without the presence of glyphosate! These conditions, which would never exist in the field and thus never occur for soya destined for human consumption, are the rule for laboratory tests for food and nutritional safety. Moreover, the tests are short-term, just looking for cases of acute intoxication.”
Gabriel Bianconi Fernandes, from the non-governmental organisation AS-PTA, which is leading the anti-GM campaign, has even more serious concerns. He has pointed out that the use of glyphosate grew fivefold between 2003 and 2009, with the government raising the permitted residue limits to accommodate GM farming. In 2008 Brazil became the world’s biggest consumer of herbicides and pesticides and this has had a serious – but, as yet inadequately studied – impact on the health of the rural population.
Melgarejo was recently part of a group within CTNBio that has protested about the way that the agency has handled the controversy over a study carried out by Professor Gilles-Eric Séralini, professor of molecular biology at Caen University in France. This study, published in a peer-reviewed US journal, Food and Chemical Toxicology, showed that rats, found that rats fed on a diet containing NK603 Roundup tolerant GM maize or given water containing Roundup, at levels permitted in drinking water, developed cancers faster and died earlier than rates fed on a standard diet. They suffered breast cancer and severe liver and kidney damage. Séralini suggested that the results could be explained by the endocrine-disrupting effects of Roundup.
In a report published in October 2012 four pro-GM Brazilian scientists criticised Séralini’s study and then, with the help of Brazil’s Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation, published their report as the view of CNTBio as a whole. This infuriated the small but vociferous group within CNT-Bio which is opposed to GMOs. In March 2013 15 members and former members wrote a detailed counter-report that debunked the earlier report and supported the validity of Séralini’s findings.
Criticism of GMOs is growing but, for the moment at least, it is unlikely to stem the GM momentum. GM maize and GM cotton are all widely used and GM beans (feijão) will be available next year. There have been setbacks: research into GM sugar-cane has been going on for many years but progress has been slow and its approval for commercial use is not imminent. What could change the balance of force are the studies, like the one carried out by Professor Séralini, about the potentially harmful effect of GMOs on human health. With Brazil increasingly integrated into the world economy, health concerns are growing among the public in general.
An excellent video on ther impact of GMOs in Brazil, Argentina and paraguay can be accessed here.