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Unsavory soy
José Pedro Martins
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Lula and environmentalists divided over transgenic products.

Environmental groups and even government officials have strongly rejected the promulgation by President Inácio Lula da Silva’s government of a provisional measure that temporarily legalizes the cultivation and sale of genetically-modified (GM) soy in Brazil.

Provisional Measure 131/30 – the so-called MP of transgenic crops – was signed Sept. 25 by Vice President Jose Alencar, acting as president while Lula da Silva was traveling to the United States.

Marina Silva, Minister of the Environment and a member of the official Workers Party, strongly rejected the measure. In 1999, Silva had presented a bill in the Federal Senate that established a moratorium on the planting and sale of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) in Brazil until 2004.

Lula‘s government said it was forced to take a position contrary to the party’s long-standing resistance to GM crops due to a "fait accompli": the illegal planting of GM soy seeds in Rio Grande do Sul.

In March, Lula authorized the sale of the 2003 harvest of GM soy — prohibited under Brazilian law (LP, Oct. 16, 2000) — arguing that the measure sought to prevent heavy economic losses to farmers (LP, May 7, 2003). In fact, Lula’s government said it made the decision to avoid the destruction of 6 million metric tonnes of GM expected at harvest time.

Analysts estimate that 30 percent of the soy cultivated in Brazil comes from genetically modified seeds imported into the country as contraband and in the case of Rio Grande do Sul –where most of the country’s soy is planted – it is as high as 70 percent. The illegal cultivation of GM soy in this state comes from seeds brought in as contraband from Argentina, which together with the United States has the highest volume of GM soy planted in the world.

MP 131/03 authorized the sale of the 2003 harvest of GM soy until December 31, 2004. After this date, the remainder of the crop must be burned. The measure prohibits transporting the seeds across states lines. It also establishes that farmers who planted transgenic seeds would have to sign a statement assuming responsibility for any damage produced to the environment or crops of third parties.

The measure also bans the cultivation of GM soy near nature reserves and in indigenous lands.

The Agriculture Ministry — led by Roberto Rodrigues, one of the strongest defenders of transgenic crops in Lula’s government — created on Oct. 9 a Commission of Biosecurity related to GMOs. The goal of the commission is to supervise the planting and all procedures related to GMOs, in accordance with MP 131/03.

One of the main complaints of environmentalists is that MP 131/03 does not require, in contrast with Brazilian legislation, an Environmental Impact Study and Report related to the cultivation of GMOs. This led a group of organizations like the National Confederation of Agricultural Workers (CONTAG), which represents more than 15 million rural workers, small farmers and 3,000 rural unions, to file a lawsuit asking that the MP 131/03 be declared unconstitutional.

The Green Party and even the Attorney General, Cláudio Fonteles, also took an action seeking to declare the measure unconstitutional, arguing that MP 131/03 violates the principle of precaution contained in Article 225 of the Constitution, which guarantees a health and balanced environment.

One of the most active critics of the GMOs in the country is the director of Institution of Biology of the University of Campinas (UNICAMP), Mohamed Habib, who cites several existing studies in the United States, Canada and Europe confirming the health risks of GM products.

"Genetically modified products were withdrawn from U.S and British markets because they supposedly caused allergies in consumers," Habib said.

Another of Habib’s concerns, confirmed in the international seminar Trangenics: Current Attacks" held Oct. 7 in the Federal Senate, in Brasilia, relates to the possible loss of international markets by Brazilian farmers if the products were to become widespread.

According to the Statistics Office of the European Union, soy exports from the United States to the EU declined from more than 9 million metric tonnes in 1996 to less than 7 million metric tonnes in 2000. The same thing happened to Argentine soy, which fell from 1.3 million metric tonnes in 1996 to less than 400,000 metric tonnes in 2000. In the same period, the export of non-transgenic soy from Brazil to the EU doubled from 3.1 million metric tonnes to 6.3 million metric tonnes.

Last year, Brazil exported 36.7 million metric tonnes of soy and derivatives, becoming the world’s second largest producer of the grain after the United States. Brazilian soy production generates income of more $12 billion annually.

Yves Griot, a farmer and president of the Conference consumer network, said that beginning in 2004 new EU regulations for labeling will take effect, which will likely favor consumer associations opposed to transgenic products.

The Conference network alone buys 300,000 metric tonnes of non-transgenic soy from Brazil, which gives an idea of the volume of sales that the Brazilian farmers could lose if GMOs were to become widespread.


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