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Brazilian geneticist favors slow approach on genetically modified crops

By Robert Schubert
CropChoice editor

(May 1, 2002 – CropChoice news) – Rubens Nodari hopes that his country’s moratorium on genetically engineered crops will continue, for it forces a go-slow approach on agricultural biotechnology.

The main problem with the crop varieties that multinational biotechnology corporations genetically modified to resist insects and herbicides is the lack of testing for agro-ecological and human health risks, says Nodari, a Brazilian plant geneticist.

"[Monsanto] is afraid that if they find something wrong with the transgenic plants then they’ll have to stop with this variety," says the University of Catarina professor, noting that Monsanto has resisted environmental tests of its Roundup Ready soybeans – so named for their resistance to the herbicide Roundup (glyphosate). The company line has been that tests it performed in the United States showed the transgenic beans to be no riskier than non-genetically modified varieties.

One Monsanto study consisted of feeding the Roundup Ready beans to rats for four weeks. That is insufficient time to judge the effects of this technology, he says.

(Please note the story about flawed tests of genetically modified corn in the United Kingdom – http://www.cropchoice.com/leadstry.asp?RecID=689.)

On a recent visit to farms in southern Brazil and Argentina, Nodari verified that the stems of Roundup Ready soybean plants, not their conventional counterparts, were splitting. This is but one of the side effects of gene insertion.

Speaking from an agro-ecological perspective, Nodari is concerned about what could go wrong with genetically modified crops and with the practice of sowing corn, soybeans and other commodity crops on thousands and thousands of acres. For example, he speaks of a type of insect that inhabits the leaves of soybean plants in Brazil, but does not feed on the plants or inhibit their growth. If however, policymakers allow the continued clearing of rainforests and other ecosystems to plant soybeans and then spray herbicides to kill all vegetation except the plants engineered to resist them, then those insects might develop an appetite for soybean plants.

"Are we as a society prepared to use the precautionary principle to decide about the release of new [genetically modified] varieties," Nodari wonders. "The Convention on Biological Diversity states that ‘where there is a threat of significant reduction or loss of biological diversity, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing measures to avoid or minimize such a threat.’"

Brazilian government officials who favor the commercialization of transgenic crops are working in opposition to this idea. "First," he says, "they accept the data generated by the company, approve the release for cropping and consumption, and then ask for monitoring. Instead of postponing the commercial release of GM crops to avoid possible contamination, they do not want to look to the scientific uncertainty, which is present in these products."

Thus his desire that the moratorium on transgenic crops, which the country’s judiciary established in 1998 because of concerns over the dearth of risk assessment, remain in force. A federal tribunal, composed of three judges, is considering whether to lift the ban.

Politics have affected the degree to which state and federal officials have enforced the moratorium. Technicians and regulators in the state of Rio Grande do Sul have over the past two years cut back on enforcement because of pressure from state legislators, the majority of whom favor transgenic crops, Nodari says. Many large-scale farmers in the state oppose the moratorium, while the small farmers and the Workers Party support it. At the federal level, the pressure is on to abandon all risk assessment and enforcement of the ban, as well.

Meanwhile, the political climate in Santa Catarina and Parana states is more conducive to inspectors’ efforts to eradicate transgenic crops, he says. In Santa Catarina, inspectors found Roundup Ready soybeans plants growing on 5 to 30 hectares on 20 farms. In Parana, they found 60 farms where the modified varieties were growing. State and federal justice authorities are holding plants that inspectors did not destroy.

Editor’s note: In 2000, The New York Times and other media began reporting that 30 percent or more of the soybean plants in Rio Grande do Sul were Roundup Ready. At that time, state government inspections found that the figure was more in the range of 3 percent. Now of course, the media have reported increased violations of the moratorium. No doubt the proponents of biotechnology have used these stories to argue that the ban is ineffective and should be lifted.

Monsanto representatives do not speak with CropChoice and so did not comment on this story.

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