Brazil: Fighting GMOs
AS-PTA is a Brazilian non-governmental organisation which since the mid-1980s has been promoting an alternative model of agriculture, based on agro-ecology and in the strengthening of family farming. It works with local farmers in three regions of the country.
At the turn of the century, it led a long and courageous campaign to prevent GMOs being authorised in Brazil. Pitted against the powerful biotechnology company, Monsanto, in a David and Goliath struggle, AS-PTA and the other anti-GMO campaigners eventually lost in 2005, when the cultivation of transgenic soya was finally authorised during the Lula government.
Gabriel B. Fernandes is an agronomist and technical adviser to AS-PTA. He gave this interview to LAB.
LAB: All the mobilisation to prevent the entry of GM soya into Brazil was inspirational and it succeeded against the odds for several years. But in the end it failed, partly because of the tactics used by Monsanto. How do you view this campaign now?
AS-PTA: GM soya was authorised in 2005 after an agreement between the government and Congress, which led to the approval of the law of bio-safety. The mobilisation that we began in 1999 was very important because it brought the debate about GMOs to the public in Brazil. Today the topic is no longer an unknown as it was 10 or 15 years ago. The focus of our present campaign is to monitor biosafety policies in the country and to encourage debate about the rights of small farmers who run the risk of no longer being able to plant and save the seeds of local varieties of crops as they are in great risk of being contaminated by GMOs.
LAB: We know that because of the dousing of the land with glyphosate, some weeds are becoming resistant to glyphosate, the herbicide to which GM soya has been made resistant. In other words, the whole basis on which GM soya has been built is crumbling. So the corporations are developing new types of GM soya, which are resistant to more toxic herbicides. What kind of problems will this create for small farmers?
AS-PTA: Between 2003 and 2010 the use of glyphosate increased fivefold. This was the period in which the cultivation of Roundup Ready soya [the GM soya produced by Monsanto that is resistant to glyphosate] was expanding. In 2008 Brazil became the world’s largest consumer pesticides. The two things clearly went together. The new kinds of GM soya that the biotech companies are launching have been made to be used with both ammonium glufosinate, which is being phased out in the European Union [as the result of legislation passed in January 2009] because of its high toxicity, and 2,4-D in the case of the new GM soya being produced by Dow Agrochemcials. It is an enormous step backwards from the point of view of the environment and health. Beside the harm it will cause to farmers who will be directly exposed to these dangerous products, consumers will be eating food containing ever larger amounts of toxic residues. It is a totally unsustainable vicious circle that only benefits the corporations.
LAB: How many GM crops are currently cultivated in Brazil?
AS-PTA: Five traits of soya, 18 of corn (maize), nine of cotton and one of feijão (beans). Most of these have been developed to be used with herbicides, with some of them the result of stacking that is, the crossing of two or more single GMOs so that in the end the seed carries two or more genetic modifications.
Despite all hype the advertising and the many promises made by the industry, the technique of recombinant DNA, which lies behind the creation of GMOs, has its limitations. So much so that the products available on the market today are the result of the manipulation of only one gene.
LAB: So what about all the promises of producing drought-resistant GMOs?
AS-PTA: GMOs that are resistant to drought or to acid soils require complex characteristics that are controlled by various genes that operate in a network and it is very difficult to manipulate these genes in the way that the companies can manipulate simple genes like Bt cotton [that is, a type of GM cotton that is resistant to bollworm] and the kinds of GMOs that are resistant to herbicides [like Monsanto’s Roundup Ready soya]. It is likely that the corporations will go on making promises while, in practice, they are only interested in controling the seed market and developing GM seeds resistant to herbicides.
LAB: Are the corporations developing other GMOs?
AS-PTA: Besides the crops already mentioned, the industry is carrying out field trials with GM sugar-cane and transgenic eucalyptus.
LAB: It seems that Dilma’s government is continuing with Lula’s policies and strongly promoting agribusiness and the industrialisation of agriculture. Many of us in the so-called ‘developed world’ are worried that this kind of agriculture is destroying Brazil’s enormous biodiversity, changing the climate and will eventually lead to a cul-de-sac.. How do you see the future of agriculture in Brazil?
AS-PTA: We are betting that sooner or later Brazil will have to move towards a model of farming based on family farming and agroecology. It has already been demonstrated on a local level that this kind of farming is viable. The challenge now is to promote the necessary transformations in public policies to permit an increase in the scale of production.
LAB: Do you think agroecology is gaining more support among the small farmers?
AS-PTA: It is difficult to be precise and the situation differs from region to region. In the northeast, for instance, agroecology is growing rapidly, closely linked to the need to learn how to farm successfully in a semi-arid region. Here the powerful mobilization of civil society in the region has played a big role. In the South and Southeast, it’s been more difficult, perhaps because credit for small farmers has grown a lot and it has become easier for them to get loans, provided they adopt the dominant agro-chemical model. On the other hand, there are some government programmes that are encouraging agro-ecology, such as the decision to buy crops from family farms for the Zero Hunger programme [a flagship programme to end hunger] and the policy decision that at least 30% of the food going to school meals must come from family farms, preferably from those practicing agroecology.
LAB: Are there any signs that the Dilma government will give more support to agro-ecology? Or will that only happen when popular pressure grows?
AS-PTA: With an eye on Rio+20, Dilma called on civil society to draw up a national policy for agroecology and organic production to be announced at the event. There is a broad discussion happening at the moment and the challenge is to produce a policy that really works, that is, that really will have the instruments necessary for the State to support another model of agriculture.
Even so, to judge from her first year in government, President Dilma is less open to dialogue with civil society than Lula was. As a result, pressure is likely to grow, as it becomes increasingly clear that the government must interact with the movements.