Between 8-30% of Brazilian soybeans are biotech, even though they are not
allowed there. Apparently they are pretty popular with farmers.
Newsweek July 31, 2000,
Another Bitter Harvest
By Mac Margolis
Genetically modified crops are banned in Brazil. That pleases Greenpeace
-- and outrages farmers.
Speakers at agricultural seminars don't usually deliver table-thumping
diatribes. They're better at spreading manure than at issuing manifestos.
But early this month at the Forum on Globalization, Family Agriculture and
Democracy, held in the southern Brazilian grain-belt state of Rio Grande
do Sul, the rhetoric hit the fan. "We cannot be the targets of the world's
garbage food!" declared Jose Hermeto Hoffman, the state agricultural
secretary. "People have to go to the streets!"
In fact, they already have--making Brazil the latest, loudest battlefield
in a raging global food-fight. The country is an agricultural powerhouse
and the world's number two producer of soybeans, second only to the United
States. But unlike its rivals, Brazil currently prohibits commercial
planting of genetically modified (GM) crops. The ban delights groups like
Greenpeace, who are fighting to make it permanent and to block imports of
GM foods as well. It also suits Rio Grande do Sul's left-wing government,
which makes political hay by championing small farmers. But bigger
farmers, who produce 70 percent of the soybeans, are determined. Some are
smuggling GM seeds in from Argentina, provoking confrontations with police.
Genetically modified crops have sparked protests in Europe and demands for
labeling in the United States, but in Brazil the two sides are even more
Which leaves Brazilians sitting in a cross-fire. Do the crops pose
ecological and health risks, as Greenpeace contends? Or are they safe, as
many scientists and several U.S. agencies attest? More than a third of
Brazil's soy is exported; would GM soybeans be hard to sell in Europe, or
do the big farmers know best? So far, Brazilians are still wolfing down
GM-rich imports--like Swift Vienna Sausages and Pringles--rather than
boycotting them. But the issue is heating up. Opponents are pressing their
case in the press, the legislature and the courts; a judge barred planting
of GM seeds until the risks could be assessed. Agribusiness argues that
crops engineered for disease and pest resistance are a boon to the planet,
Brazil included. Says Edmundo Klotz, president of the Brazilian
Association of Food Producers: "We have a country to develop."
On that last point, Brasilia doesn't need convincing. Earlier this month
six senior cabinet members declared their support for GM crops. They were
seconded by Brazil's National Academy of Science, which on July 11 joined
scientists around the world in a ringing endorsement of biotech
agriculture. Naturally, the seed companies also oppose the ban. Stung by
protests in Europe, Monsanto, Novartis and their competitors would love to
add Brazil's vast fields to the 100 million acres in the United States,
Canada and Argentina where their soy and corn is cultivated. By one
estimate, the ban is costing Monsanto $100 million a year in lost sales.
But the GM backlash keeps growing. Greenpeace and its allies recently
succeeded in stopping--or at least delaying--six ships from unloading GM
imports at Brazilian harbors.
The farmers aren't backing down either. Last year they planted 8 to 30
percent of Brazil's soybean crop with genetically modified seeds smuggled
from Argentina--much of it in Rio Grande do Sul. The result? A state known
for gently rolling grasslands, rich black soils and cowboy bonhomie is
increasingly noted for flaring tempers.
Last year Olivio Dutra, the governor and Workers' Party leader, dispatched
farm inspectors on GM-crop search-and-destroy missions. Tensions peaked in
December, when dozens of farmers circled their pickups to protect an
illegal soy crop. It took 16 hours of negotiations and the state police to
end the showdown. But the rebel farmers are undaunted. "The government has
to end the ban," says Gentil Rizzatti, standing on the crest of a hill on
his 200-hectare farm, which he soon hopes to carpet with GM soybeans. "Or
else people are going to take things into their own hands."
The farmers insist that GM soybeans are an environmental plus, because
they don't require heavy tilling or heavy doses of pesticides. Monsanto,
whose vigorous defense of GM crops in Europe turned into a PR debacle, is
hoping that Brazil will respond differently. Company executives say they
are still confident that, once the health and environmental impact studies
are in, the Brazilians will lift the ban on biotech agriculture. That may
yet happen, but not until the courts have threshed out a bumper crop of
injunctions. "I guess our message just isn't getting through," says
Monsanto spokesman Gary Barton. So far, that may be the closest thing to a
consensus in Brazil's embattled farm country.
Letters to the Editor
Biotech and safer food
A coalition of seven activist groups is trying to mislead the public,
generate concerns about food modified by biotechnology and pressure
mainstream U.S. food companies to label or eliminate crops produced
through biotechnology ("Biotech Opponents Start a Food Fight," July 20).
Vegetables, fruit, corn and soybeans modified by the new techniques of
biotechnology have been reviewed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration,
the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection
Agency. These agencies found them equivalent to conventional crops in
every regard. Even the prestigious National Academy of Sciences has found
no safety hazard from biotechnology modified foods.
If you believe corn is safe, you can be sure that biotech corn, which
controls insects without the application of insecticides, is also safe.
The only difference is that the biotech crop contains a single new gene
among the many thousands of genes in the plant. In fact, recent work has
found that biotechnology modified corn may be safer than conventional corn
because harmful chemicals (mycotoxins) are produced at a lower level when
there is less insect attack.
Under the guise of protection from allergies, activist groups call for
mandatory labeling of biotech foods. FDA policy has always included a
section on allergens, and labeling is required if an allergen is present.
Furthermore, labeling is mandatory if biotechnology-derived foods differ
significantly in composition, nutritional value or safety from their
Biotechnology has support from the scientific community, including health
professionals and environmentalists. More than 2,700 of the world's
leading food and biology scientists, including three Nobel Prize winners,
have signed a statement in support of biotechnology.
Research indicates most consumers are interested in purchasing foods
modified by biotechnology to require fewer pesticides. Research is ongoing
to produce new foods with direct consumer benefits. Tomatoes and soybeans
are being developed that could reduce the risk of certain cancers.
In the long term, scientists are learning how to remove allergens from
foods such as peanuts, wheat and rice. Consumers can be confident that
these products will be reviewed for human safety and environmental impact
before they reach the supermarket.
CHRISTINE M. BRUHN, Ph.D.
Center for Consumer Research
University of California, Davis