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Brazil poised to approve Terminator seeds


Government disarray often offers opportunities for lobby groups, and Brazil is no exception. With President Dilma Rousseff fighting for her political survival, as opposition politicians threaten to impeach her, the agribusiness lobby in the Brazilian Congress is moving to push through an amendment to the country’s Biosafety Law.

That amendment would permit exemptions to the ban on Terminator seeds. If approved, this amendment would make Brazil the first country in the world to legislate in favor of the commercial cultivation of crops with built-in sterility.

Some environmentalists and activists fear that the amendment, which is being pushed through Congress with very little public discussion, could represent one of the most serious threats ever to Brazil’s biodiversity.

What the agribusiness lobby wants is not new. Ever since the country’s Biosecurity Law (no. 11,105) was passed in 2005, the agribusiness lobby has been trying to amend it to allow the cultivation of Terminator plants.

Terminator seeds, if approved, will be costly for small-scale farmers who may be driven out of business because they lack the money to pay for them. Photo by Antônio Cruz/ABr published under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Brazil License

It nearly succeeded in 2009, and was stopped only after a national and international campaign, which included the signing of a petition by some 70,000 people. What is different this time — the third time that the lobby has pushed such an amendment — is that it may well get its way.

Political chaos in Brazil

President Rousseff, from the left-of-center Workers’ Party (PT), was re-elected by a small margin in last year’s general elections, but the right — particularly the agribusiness lobby — greatly increased its representation in Congress. Today half of Brazil’s 594 lawmakers identify themselves with the agribusiness lobby, and agricultural and food companies contributed a quarter of Rousseff’s electoral funding. Now the agenda in Congress is skewed to promote the interests of large industry groups, particularly farmers.

One well-known leftwing commentator said that the rightists had built up “the most notable hegemonic apparatus ever constructed by the Brazilian elites”. Ultra-conservative politicians have demanded huge concessions from Rousseff in return for their support, getting her recently to reshuffle her cabinet to give them greater representation. However, there have been growing signs that this in not enough to placate them, and they intend to impeach the President.

This turmoil is playing havoc with party alliances. The right-of-center Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) is formally part of the ruling coalition, but it frequently sabotages the ruling PT’s policies, particularly with respect to rural matters. Kátia Abreu, from the PMDB, who made the first attempt to change the Biosafety Law back in 2005, is now Minister of Agriculture, and her son heads the Chamber of Deputies’ Agriculture Commission. And it is another PMDB politician, Alceu Moreira, who has put forward the amendment (PL 1117) to the biosafety law in the Agriculture Commission.

The Brazilian corn harvest. Farmers would pay out R$1.17 billion (US$310 million) a year to purchase new corn Terminator seeds, compared with their current outlay of R$162 million (US$43 million), a major financial hardship for small-scale growers. Photo by Valter Campanato/ABr published under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Brazil License

These conservative politicians believe that the modernization of Brazilian farming is key to the country’s economic future. Brazil is currently the word’s third largest exporter of agricultural goods, and agriculture is the country’s most important economic sector.

Moreira justified the amendment that he is presenting to the Chamber of Deputies’ Agriculture Commission by declaring that “without research into, and development of, new technological processes it will not be possible to increase the productivity of our crops”.

If the amendment is approved by the Agricultural Commission, which is probable, it will likely face little opposition in Congress and could soon become law. Gerson Teixiera, a leading agricultural expert and a fierce critic of the power of the agribusiness lobby, sees little that could obstruct passage of the amendment, commenting that agribusiness lobbyists “face a clear blue sky”.

Ending Brazil’s ban on Terminator seeds?

This third amendment, which is very similar to the earlier two, will introduce exceptions to Brazil’s ban on Genetic Use Restriction Technologies (GURTs), popularly known as Terminator seeds. These are genetically modified (GM) seeds that have been engineered to be sterile in the second generation. Large biotechnology multinationals, led by Monsanto, justify the need for Terminator seeds as a means of “genetically containing” GM seeds so that they will not destroy a country’s genetic heritage. In other words, they are presented as a “safe option”, a way of protecting a country’s biodiversity.

Brazilian cotton could be particularly susceptible to contamination by Terminator seeds if introduced through the GM loophole created by the new amendment. Photo by André Koehne licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license

The two exceptions included in the amendment where Terminator seeds would be allowed are for “bioreactor” crops and “vegetatively propagated” crops. Bioreactor crops include any genetically engineered crop that meets the needs of industry (such as those used to produce pharmaceuticals or biomass for use as a fuel). Vegetatively propagated crops are those that reproduce asexually, with new plants growing from parts of the parent plant.

These exceptions will allow the use of new Terminator species in the cultivation of some of Brazil’s primary crops, such as sugar cane, (largely grown to produce ethanol for vehicles), and eucalyptus (grown to produce pulp for paper).

Moreover, the exemption will extend to ANY plant that is considered “beneficial for biosafety”. This vague language introduces a huge legal loophole and hands over great power to the National Technical Biosafety Commission (CTNBio), over which the agribusiness lobby exercises great influence. It would be the CTNBio that decides what is “beneficial for biosafety”.

Environmentalists sound the alarm

The agriculture minister, Kátia Abreu, has long been an enthusiastic supporter of GURTs, describing them as “a tool for genetic improvement”. Advocates argue that “GURTS are enormously useful in the development of bioreactors … because they can prevent the expression of these characteristics in inappropriate conditions or even prevent their dissemination”. For this reason, they say GURTs are inherently safe.

However, environmentalists are not reassured. They point out that there is widespread scientific uncertainty about Terminator seeds, and fear that they will not behave as intended.

Brazil is the world’s largest exporter of sugar, orange juice, coffee, beef, poultry and soybeans. Photo by Deyvid Aleksandr Raffo Setti licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Silvia Ribeiro, the Latin America director of ETC (Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration), an international organization that studies the socio-economic and ecological issues surrounding new technologies, thinks there is a real risk. “There are scientific reports indicating that GURTs will not function as predicted and implicate new and additional risks”, she says.

EcoNexus, a UK-based institution that analyzes developments in science and technology, has been investigating GURTs since 1998 when they were first proposed, and they are not convinced that Terminators will offer a fully reliable system to prevent contamination.

Because GURTs have been genetically engineered to be sterile, the consequences of their uncontrolled introduction into the ecosystem are very concerning. Some of Brazil’s most important crops, such as corn and cotton for example, could be particularly vulnerable to contamination by Terminator seeds. Both corn and cotton are ‘allogamous’ — that is, they can cross-pollinate with plants of different varieties, including, perhaps, Terminator crops.

In the worst case, the Terminator gene could spread uncontrollably throughout Brazil and the Amazon, from one species to another, raising the spectre of the degradation of one of the largest plant gene pools in the world. Teixeira believes that there is a real risk, leading to what he calls the “Armageddon stage” of the modernization of Brazilian agriculture, a process that began in the 1970s.

Since that decade a group of increasingly powerful large-scale farmers has moved rapidly to concentrate land ownership, mechanize production and increase output. Today, as a result, Brazil is the world’s largest exporter of sugar, orange juice, coffee, beef, poultry and soybeans. To achieve that goal, the country has greatly increased its consumption of pesticides, overtaking the U.S. in 2012 to gain the dubious honor of becoming the largest buyer of pesticides in the world. It has also become a significant consumer of pesticides banned in richer countries due to health and environmental risks.

The Paracatu Rver winds through the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, providing irrigation for large-scale agribusiness crops that include soybeans, corn, manioc, beans and rice. Photo courtesy of licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license

The agribusiness elite has become extremely rich and dismissive of warnings that Brazilian farming is excessively subordinated to the biotechnology giants, like Monsanto, and the huge grain trading companies, such as ADM.

Farmers respond to environmentalists’ Terminator seed fears by noting that they were warned about the harmful effect of introducing GMOs in 2005 and, as yet, they have largely seen benefits, particularly a reduction in labor costs.

Blairo Maggi, known as the “King of Soybeans” because he was once Brazil’s largest soybean farmer, asserts that time and again the warnings of ecologists and environmentalists have proved groundless. Although farmers today avoid speaking out on the GURTs controversy, this seems to be their dominant view.

Brazilian farmers could become indebted to biotech multinationals

If the worst were to happen regarding Terminator seeds, there is little doubt that the economic consequences of crops becoming sterile would be dire for Brazilian farmers, particularly those with small holdings.

At present, Brazilian farmers save seeds from almost two-thirds of the different crops they grow to plant in the following year. This reduces costs considerably. Teixeira says that, to take just the single example of corn, Brazilian farmers would have to pay out R$1.17 billion (US$310 million) a year in the purchase of new seeds, compared with their current outlay of R$162 million (US$43 million).

A John Deere cotton harvester in Brazil. Photo by João Felipe C.S licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license

These financial hardships for smaller farmers would, of course, mean much more business for the seed companies. As Darci Frigo, a lawyer from the socio-environmental organization Terra de Direitos has pointed out, this would mean much juicier profits for multinational companies.

“In Brazil, multinationals have bought up practically all the small and medium-sized seed companies,” said Frigo. “Today they dominate the food chain from the production of seeds, fertilizers and pesticides to logistics, transport and exports. Brazil’s commercial farmers are completely subordinated to these multinationals. This is a serious problem for a country that wants to guarantee its own food sovereignty and to provide better conditions for the production of quality food for the population.”

In the GMO sector of Brazilian farming, the dominance of biotech multinationals is total. As Repórter Brasil has pointed out, the Big Six — Monsanto (US), Syngenta (Switzerland), Dupont (US), Basf (Germany), Bayer (Germany) and Dow (US) — have introduced all the GMOs authorized for commercial cultivation in Brazil. The only Brazilian company in the field is the state-owned Embrapa, a company carrying out GMO research.

If the new amendment passes, Terminator seeds would be sold exclusively by multinationals. Monsanto, Syngenta and DuPont have patents on Terminator technology, but all three have previously pledged not to commercialize the technology. Monsanto’s most recent pledge, however, does not include non-food crops.

Terminator seeds, if approved, will be costly for small-scale farmers who may be driven out of business because they lack the money to pay for them. Photo by Antônio Cruz/ABr published under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Brazil License

Multinational Biotech companies driving Terminator seed approval?

Gerson Teixeira believes that multinationals, particularly Monsanto, are behind the drive to get the amendment passed. Living in the federal capital, Brasilia, he has good contacts in the Brazilian Congress, and says that the relationship between the agribusiness lobby and multinationals is very close. “Monsanto employees actually drew up the draft text for each of the three amendments”, he commented.

A Brazilian soy plantation. Agribusiness has been steadily buying up property from small landholders and moving to dominate the nation’s croplands since the 1970s. Photo by Coloradogoias licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

What the companies are after, he explained, is an increase in profits: “The multinationals want to prevent third parties from saving seeds at harvest time and using them in the following year. So they have come up with a kind of ‘biological patent’ which is more difficult to get round than a legal patent.”

Darci Frigo believes that the dangerously close relationship that has developed between politicians and the biotechnology companies stems from the companies’ willingness to provide generous electoral funding for their political allies. “This means that the policies of the biotechnology companies end up becoming part of the logic of Parliament”, he said.

Such dominance by the biotech multinationals has already harmed Brazil, Frigo said, for it has led to a marked decline in food diversity. “These companies have been making us all eat the same [things], with the dominance of just a few products in our diet. Basically, they promote the food crops that are produced with their pesticides and their inputs.”

Many other developing countries have suffered similar negative impacts, as multinationals have systematically bought up local seed companies, and have moved toward taking control of global commercial food production. Monsanto, Syngenta and DuPont already control one-third of the global agrochemical market and 55% of the world’s commercial seeds.

Will Brazil violate the global treaty on GURTS?

In 2000, the 192 signatory nations of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) — an international treaty recognizing that the conservation of biological diversity is “a common concern of humankind” — imposed a moratorium on the Terminator. That decision was ratified by the CBD in 2006, and included Brazil.

Although the decisions taken by the CBD are not binding, Teixeira argues that if Brazil were to break the Terminator moratorium, the nation would lose respect and credibility in future negotiations in other areas, including military, trade or environmental policy. “So it is at the very least not in Brazil’s national interest to vote through this amendment”, he concluded.

There is very little discussion at all in the Brazilian press about the GURTs amendment. This is largely because the political crisis is absorbing so much coverage that there is little room for anything else. Journalists may feel, too, that environmentalists have called wolf once too often. They could be right, but this appears to be just the right moment for the pro-GURTs lobby to move.

Rousseff could, in theory, use her presidential powers to veto the amendment, which would at the very least delay its passage through Congress. But, without popular mobilization around the issue and with Rousseff grappling with far more pressing problems, this is highly unlikely. There is as yet no date for a vote on the amendment in the Commission of Agriculture.

What may make the pro-GURTs lobby think twice and postpone the vote on the amendment is the upcoming UN Conference on Climate Change (COP21), to be held in Paris in December. There Brazil will express justifiable pride in its success in reducing deforestation in the Amazon. The international prestige that it garners from such an achievement, however, could be cancelled out by the international censure it will receive if it becomes the first CBD country in the world to give the go-ahead to GURTs.

One possible strategy: the farm lobby’s representatives may wait until COP21 is over, finding it even easier to push the Terminator seed amendment through Congress in early 2016.

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