Risky business - Brazil's corporate-connected scientists (24/11/2005)

very useful article

Risky business

To influence the choice of scientists slated to make up the National Technical Biosafety Commission, several organizations, under the guise of promoting science, but funded and supported by the sector's leading multinationals, have been busy lobbying in Brasilia. This article will introduce you to a few of them.

by Jean Marc von der Weid*

Ever since July 2005 a group of Brazilian civil-society organizations (mainly consumers, environmentalists and rural social movements) concerned about the federal government's internal process to draft the Decree that will detail regulations for the new Biosafety Law, has been asking for an audience with the President's all-powerful Cabinet Minister, Dilma Rousseff, but to no avail. Meanwhile, the Minister has met with a group of scientists who went to pressure for the immediate publication of the regulatory decree, couched of course in terms that would expedite the official commercial release of any number of transgenic products and organisms.

The scientists' caravan was organized by Dr. Aluizio Borem, a professor at the Federal University of Vicosa (UFV, in Minas Gerais) and a member of the Biotechnology Information Council (CIB, funded by multinational biotechnology companies). Who paid for the tickets and expenses? Was it the University? Did the scientists pay from their own pockets? The answer is important, because what is at stake is the decree that will write the rules for those scientists' own research with genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) as well as establish the composition of the commission that will implement those rules, the CTNBio (National Technical Biosafety Commission).

Events like that meeting with Minister Rousseff and the activities of such "scientific" organizations raise suspicions about which scientists will be chosen to sit on the Commission that will assess the safety of GMOs, and about how they will be selected.

Several organizations, under the guise of promoting science, but funded and supported by the sector's leading multinationals (Monsanto, et al) have been working for years to expedite the release of GMOs in Brazil. They were successful in approving the new watered-down Biosafety Law in Congress in early 2005 and they continue to lobby the executive branch hard over the regulatory decree. The CIB was founded and is financed directly by a number of multinational corporations, including Monsanto and Syngenta. The ANBIO (National Biosafety Association) has corporate and institutional members such as Monsanto, Cargill, Pioneer Seeds (DuPont), Bayer Seeds, and others. Another related lobbying group is an NGO called Pro-Terra, the Brazilian Technology, Environment and Agribusiness Association, which boasts Monsanto as a member, and Professor Borem as its communications coordinator and newsletter editor.

Until very recently, one of the CIB's board members was a lawyer best known by his nickname, 'Beto' Vasconcelos. In 1999 he and other lawyers held powers of attorney to defend the interests of Monsanto's São Paulo office. After doing a stint at the Ministry of Justice, Vasconcelos moved just a few months ago to the legal office of the Cabinet Ministry in the Presidency. He has been a very active interlocutor in drafting the biosafety regulatory decree. The KLA law firm in Sao Paulo, from which he is on leave, is a member of the CIB.

Vasconcelos works directly with Caio Bessa Rodrigues, another lawyer in the President's Cabinet, hired from the Regulatory Affairs and Governmental Relations office of Pinheiro Neto Advogados, headquarted in Sao Paulo. That leading traditional, law firm has had Monsanto on its list of clients for years, and been active in many aspects of biosafety regulation in Brazil, from federal court cases filed by consumers and environmentalists to the drafting of environmental licensing rules for GMOs by the CONAMA (National Environment Council) issued in 2002. Rodrigues has also been directly involved in drafting the soon-to-be-published biosafety implementing decree.

Dr. Luiz Antonio Barreto de Castro is another well-known champion of transgenics in Brazil. He is a member of the ANBIO and is the new Secretary of Research and Development Policy and Programs at the Ministry of Science and Technology. The Ministry's website does not include in his bio the time he put in as the first chairman of the CTNBio beginning in 1997, and during whose mandate the decision was rushed through - against the scientific advice of two renowned experts called in the CTNBio itself - to release Monsanto's RR soybeans in 1998. It is expected that he will have a heavy hand in the selection process, to be coordinated by his Ministry, of the scientists who will sit on the CTNBio under the new Decree.

It is worth recalling in this context the warning from another GE enthusiast, Canadian geneticist David Suzuki: "What bothers me is we have governments that are supposed to be looking out for our health, for the safety of our environment, and they're acting like cheerleaders for this technology, which ... is in its infancy and we have no idea what the technology is going to do. … Anyone that says 'Oh, we know that this is perfectly safe,' I say is either unbelievably stupid or deliberately lying. The reality is we don't know. The experiments simply haven't been done and we now have become the guinea pigs." (April 26, 2005, in an interview in The Leader-Post, Canada).

These are some of the reasons for apprehension over the deference shown to the delegation of scientists by the President's Cabinet Minister. Brazilian journalist Claudio Humberto, in his syndicated column on February 29, 2004, was already giving warnings about the makeup of the federal biosafety authority, when he said that "the CTNBio, at the Ministry of Science and Technology, has so many of its private-sector representatives and scientists on the payroll of multinationals like Monsanto, that it has earned a nickname among independent researchers: CTNBingo!"

*Brazilian-born Jean Marc von der Weid (MA in Agricultural Economy) coordinates the Public Policy Program at the Brazilian NGO, Consultants in Alternative Agriculture Projects, AS-PTA, in Rio de Janeiro. [email protected]


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