GM Soy Found 'Guilty' by People's Court in Brazil (12/3/2004)

AGRICULTURE-BRAZIL: Transgenic Soy Found 'Guilty' by People's Court
Mario Osava

RIO DE JANEIRO, Mar 11 (IPS) - Transgenic soy was ''found guilty'' Thursday in the southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre by an 'International People's Tribunal', organised by more than 40 social movements and non-governmental organisations.

The accused -- the U.S. biotech giant Monsanto, which holds the patent to the genetically engineered RoundUp Ready (RR) soy, and the Federation of Agriculture of the southern Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul -- were found ''guilty of illegally disseminating transgenic seeds'' in this South American country.

They thus ''endangered the environment, biodiversity, human health, the country's agricultural genetic wealth, and the Brazilian economy,'' according to the sentence read by the president of the 'People's Tribunal', José Felipe Ledur, a Brazilian labour court judge.

Monsanto must explain ''the genetic modifications contained in the seeds that it sold to Argentina since 1995,'' and must especially clarify what kind of genes were inserted into the seeds.

The sentence -- which is clearly non-binding and has no real legal meaning -- also states that not enough research has been carried out yet to ensure that genetically engineered (GE) crops and food pose no environmental or health risks. It insisted that many more independent studies are needed.

The ''jury'' ruled that Brazilian state agencies share responsibility for the irregularities involving transgenic soy that have occurred in the country.

The cultivation of RR soy, which is resistant to Monsanto's RoundUp Ready herbicide, whose active ingredient is glyphosate, has been at the centre of controversy from the start in Brazil, where it was banned by a court ruling in 1999.

The court decision demanded a prior environmental impact study, in compliance with a clause in the country's constitution, before transgenic soy could be legalised.

But thanks to seeds smuggled over the border from Argentina, transgenic soy now accounts for 80 percent of all soy planted in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, and has spread to other states, reflecting the lack of controls and the failure of authorities to enforce the ban.

In the face of that reality, the government of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva granted a one-time after-the-fact authorisation last year for the cultivation and sale of the illegally planted GE soy beans.

That permission was extended this year, and farmers have also been allowed to plant the GE seeds that they saved from the last harvest, which they are not, however, permitted to sell.

But the authorities decided to seek definitive regulations for GE soy, and introduced a bill in Congress, which is currently under debate in the Senate, after making its through the Chamber of Deputies in February.

With their ''lax enforcement,'' the authorities allowed a total of 250 truckloads of seeds to be smuggled in from Argentina, according to ''witnesses'' who testified before the 'People's Tribunal', Argentine agronomist Walter Pengue, a researcher with the university of Buenos Aires and a member of the ''jury'', told IPS.

He voted to condemn the accused, ''based on testimony that demonstrated the illegality of the crop,'' as well as the environmental and health risks and socioeconomic effects of transgenic soy, which requires large-scale planting and thus hurts small farmers, he said.

In addition, the boom in soy cultivation, which has also been encouraged by government policies, has led to the invasion of native Brazilian ecosystems like the ''cerrado'' -- the savannah of central Brazil -- and to a reduction in crop diversity, said Pengue.

The aim of the ''people's trial'', which lasted 12 hours, and in which over 2,000 people took part, was to bring the debate on GE foods to society, and denounce those who were responsible for the illegal cultivation of RR soy in Brazil, said the organisers.

The ''prosecution'' was led by an actual prosecutor, Aurelio Veiga Ríos, who holds the post of assistant chief prosecutor of Brazil.

Ríos said Rio Grande do Sul had become a ''laboratory'' for a ''dangerous'' experiment in biotechnology, and added that those who are guilty of disseminating smuggled seeds should be held accountable for the damages caused by an uncertified product.

The prosecutor warned that Monsanto and ''pseudo-scientists'' were pressing for the total deregulation of GE crops, but he said there were many researchers opposed to such a move, ''because they are aware of the risks of the cross-species transfer of genes.''

The governor of the southern state of Parana, Roberto Requiao, sent videotaped ''testimony'' in which he criticised the introduction of transgenic soy in Brazil ''as an attempt to submit Brazilian agriculture to the interests of U.S. agribusiness.''

Parana is attempting to gain recognition as a ''transgenic-free zone'' in order to escape dependence on new technologies, but the Agriculture Ministry has stood in the way of its efforts, Alvir Jacob, an agronomist with the Secretariat of Agriculture of the state of Parana, and one of the ''witnesses'' who testified Thursday, commented to IPS.

Pengue said he believed that GE soy was there to stay in his country, Argentina, where 95 percent of all soy is transgenic. A return to conventional soy would only be possible ''if the markets reject transgenics,'' in which case Argentina ''would lose one or two years'' of harvests because it would not have any seeds to plant, he said.

Argentina and the United States account for 84 percent of the total 67.7 million hectares planted in GE soy worldwide.

In Argentina, farmers have turned en masse to soy, which now represents more than half of all agricultural output, despite the economic and environmental risks posed by the GE monoculture crop. (END/2004)  


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