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Biotech bean battle: Brazil is deciding whether to lift its ban and risk losing EU sales

(Friday, Sept. 5, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Kevin G. Hall, Knight Ridder News Service: PONTA PORA, Brazil -- Brazil, the world's second-biggest soybean producer, is gaining on the United States and now faces wrenching debate over whether Brazil's farmers can plant the same genetically modified seeds as their American competitors.

Soy planting begins in September and October, so Brazil's new president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, must decide soon whether to lift a ban on gene-modified soybean seeds. His decision carries consequences for U.S. exporters, importers in Europe, farmers as far away as Africa and consumers everywhere.

Brazil's 2002-03 soybean harvest totaled about nearly 53 million tons, compared to an estimated 74 million tons for U.S. growers. Farmers from each country sell heavily to China and the European Union, the biggest importers of soybeans.

To catch up, Brazil's farmers say they need Roundup Ready soybean seed patented by Monsanto Inc. of St. Louis, Mo. It's now widely used in the United States and Canada and next door in Argentina.

Whether Roundup Ready seed produces bigger crop yields is debated. There's agreement, however, that it can save farmers money by reducing weeds and requiring less pesticide. That's the point of the genetic modification, which involves the addition of a protein that makes the seed less sensitive to glyphosphate, an active ingredient in the company's Roundup herbicide.

Brazil's decision on whether to go beyond current limited use of Roundup Ready seeds comes as the United States and Europe battle over a related issue. The 15-nation European Union in July ended a five-year ban on genetically modified foods, but replaced the prohibition with strict new labeling requirements and productspecific risk assessments.

The E.U.'s restrictions have prompted some fertile African nations such as Zambia and South Africa to frown on gene-modified seeds and have Brazil wondering whether it might be profitable to do the same.

The United States, Canada and Argentina -- the three biggest users of gene-modified seeds -- on Aug. 18 demanded that the Geneva-based World Trade Organization strike down the new E.U. requirements, saying they will only serve as propaganda to scare consumers. U.S. farmers claim to lose $300 million in sales annually because of restrictions on gene-modified foods.

While Brazilian farmers are after productivity gains, some in Brazil's government fear inadequate regulatory controls could actually jeopardize exports.

The idea driving genetic modification of seeds -- Monsanto also modifies soy, corn, cotton and canola seeds -- is simple enough. The genetic structure is altered to make the plants more resistant to pests and disease. Monsanto and its competitors like Dow Chemical and Dupont, say developing nations can benefit from biotechnology because greater certainty in crop yields would help fight hunger.

Opponents like the environmental group Greenpeace, however, warn that tinkering with Mother Nature could lead to "Franken-foods": foods that appear OK now but may cause long-term consumer health or environmental problems.

Opponents and the industry argue endlessly over the adequacy of studies affirming safety. Groups opposing gene-modified seeds also warn that a single multinational corporation like Monsanto could effectively control the fate of a top foreign-exchange earner for Brazil, and limit biodiversity by suppressing other strains of soybeans.

Scientists working in biotechnology counter that failure by Brazil to apply advances in genetic engineering will doom its farmers over the long run.

"It's extremely important for competitiveness and this could leave Brazil behind, it could leave Brazil very much behind," said Fernando Reinach, a molecular biologist at the University of Sao Paulo.

Agriculture and related businesses account for more than a third of Brazil's economy, said Reinach, and the debate over soy is just the opening act of a broader debate that will include gene-modified corn, cotton and other products.

Luiz Fernando Furlan, Brazil's secretary of commerce and development, told Knight Ridder that foes of the gene-modified seeds are like those who opposed Galileo's discovery that the world was round not flat.

"I think that we pragmatically accept that progress in science has benefited productivity," said Furlan, who is also owner of Sadia, a giant Brazilian frozen foods company.

Furlan sides with Brazil's agriculture minister, Roberto Rodrigues, in favor of allowing gene-modified soybean crops.

Tugging at the president's ear in opposition to any liberalization is Marina Silva, Brazil's acclaimed environment minister, who insists there is not enough information about the potential environmental consequences.

"This is a sensitive issue," said an Agriculture Ministry spokesman, noting that da Silva will make the final decision himself. Da Silva ordered his cabinet chief to referee an internal debate and produce a report before taking a final verdict.

Farmers want a decision quickly, said Leo Goncalves da Silva, head of Jotabasso Sementes, the largest seed company in the heavily agricultural state of Mato Grosso do Sul and a licensed Monsanto supplier. Their preference, he said from his office in Ponta Pora, a farm town along the border with Paraguay, is an option to grow both traditional and gene-modified soybeans. That would give them two markets, one for soybeans that are cheaper to grow and the other for traditional soybeans that, in time, may command a premium price.