RIO DE JANEIRO - After 10 years of debate, Brazil approved in February the commercialisation of two varieties of genetically modified corn, a highly contentious decision in the country that has become linked to concerns about seed patenting by multinational companies. Now, sale of GM corn in the country may be further delayed.
The Brazilian National Biosafety Council approved Bayer's 'Liberty Link' variety, which is resistant to the glufosinate ammonium herbicide and a Monsanto corn called 'Mon 810,' which is resistant to insects.
'The delay is because of a variety of structural reasons: rural poverty, inequalities in the possession of the land, rural conflicts in controversy with agrobusiness, and others' said Jose Maria da Silveira, an agroeconomist from the Unicamp University, in Sao Paulo State. According to him, all of these factors contributed to the view that modernisation of agriculture is really only due to an interest in capital rather than benefit to society.
The issue has enlivened a discussion about the impact of seed patenting on society.
The Brazilian National Biosafety Council consists of 11 ministers who must analyse social-economics aspects before approval. The two corn varietals received seven favourable votes from the science and technology minister and his colleagues in the agriculture, foreign affairs, development, defence and justice ministries as well as the secretary of the state. Those opposed included the ministers of health, environment, agricultural development, and aquaculture and fisheries.
But despite the approval to commercialise genetically modified (GM) corn in the country, the issue remains under debate. The health ministry and its branch, the National Health Surveillance Agency (Anvisa), announced that the food with GM corn in its composition will only be sold if Anvisa has considered the security of society. So, although the Biosafety Council won the battle, the discussion goes on.
Researcher Ricardo Abramovay of Sao Paulo University said, 'The science and the market [are] better and no worse with the controversy.' To him it is important that all points of view be considered in order to offer society the opportunity to discuss the subject and have a solid basis upon which to take a decision.
Questions remain about the acceptance and usefulness of GM food. An opinion survey conducted in 2004 showed that 74 percent of Brazilians prefer non-transgenic food. 'Brazilian agriculture does not need GM seeds,' said agronomist Gabriel Fernandes. He cited the case of soybeans as an example.
'We did not have an increase in productivity, as the GM soybean does not contribute to the reduction of cost, nor to a reduction in the use of defensive chemicals,' he told Intellectual Property Watch. 'The only thing that changed was the growth of difficulties for those who do not want to plant GM soybeans. The provision of seeds fell.'
Around 23 countries in all the world use biotechnology in agriculture, and Brazil is the third in use of GM crops (after the United States and Argentina). According Jose Maria, GM varieties are planted on approximately 100 million hectares around the world, with varieties of corn, soybean, cotton, girasol (sunflower), and canola.
Specialists estimated that the area in Brazil is about 15 million hectares with soybean and cotton GM crops. In 2007, the area had expanded 30 percent from 2005, two-and-a-half times the world average.
Jose Maria da Silveira projected the growth of GM use in a short period. In the future, papaya, tomato and bean crops will be resistant to virus, which is crucial to small farmers and consumers, he said in an interview. In his view, anti-GM groups only forecast catastrophe because sometimes they confuse control of technology with 'militancy against imperialism.' The real aim is to minimise planting risks, reduce use of chemical products and improve agriculture agricultural production, he said.
Costs associated with patents on GM seeds also are an issue. Economist Antonio Marcio Buainain of Unicamp University, said the costs are unclear, in part because there are so many different royalties to be paid. But, he said, 'The problem is the lower investment in science and technology - a strategy area for us. In recent years, we had favourable conditions to assume the leadership, but we lost it.' This includes in its government institution on seed research.
While Monsanto does not answer questions about royalties on its corn patents or profits, in a recent press release, the company showed two studies. One of them is entitled, 'GM crops: the first 10 years - social impacts, global economic and environmental,' from Graham Brookes and Peter Barfoot, economists from UK consultancy PG Economics. This study is qualitative and one of the first that debated the impact of the biotechnology, between 1996 and 2006. According the authors, genetically modified Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) corn was responsible for the reduction of seven thousand tons of agricultural pesticides.
Monsanto said that the study proves that Bt corn reduces pesticide use and contributes to environmental preservation and to a reduction in health risks to farmers and rural workers. The second study, 'Benefits of the use of corn with YieldGard technology in the various segments of the production chain in Brazil,' by Luis Antonio Fancelli of USP, demonstrated that this GM variety could contribute some $1 billion to the Brazilian economy per year.
Regardless of Monsanto’s data, Gabriel Fernandes cautioned that the commercialisation of GMs is a risk for who want to continue planting crops without it. The contamination, such as through pollination, is inevitable. Also, GM seeds are patentable and the farmer whose production has been contaminated is exposed to legal proceedings for patent infringement, as has been the case in Canada and the United States.
Fernandes is concerned about the monopoly on seeds through patents, because, he said, it is strategy to control the food chain. 'Patentable seeds prohibit a fundamental principle of agricultural production: the plant, the harvest and the new cycle in the next years,' he said. For him, GMs prevent the perfect functioning of life.
Claudia Jurberg may be reached at [email protected]
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