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Brazil seed industry chief criticizes country's new biotech bean policy

(Thursday, Oct. 2, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Mario Osava, IPS, 10/01/03: -- RIO DE JANEIRO: The Brazilian government's decision to temporarily allow farmers to plant genetically modified soya seed that was smuggled into the country "is our death sentence," says Narciso Barisn Neto, head of a seed producers' association in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul.

The seed industry, however, is not opposed to genetically modified (GM) crops, and even defends their widespread use if the transgenic seed can be produced in Brazil and farmers are free to choose among seed varieties.

But the seed producers are suffering the immediate effects of the confusion created by the government's failure to clearly define policies on GM crops, the lawsuits pending in Brazilian courts and the contraband of transgenic seeds from Argentina.

Cultivation of GM seeds is banned in Brazil according to a 1999 court decision, but the area planted with transgenic soya has expanded steadily since 1997, especially in Rio Grande do Sul. There, 70 percent of soya planted last year had originated from seed smuggled in from Argentina, according to the state's seed producers' association APASSUL.

The situation of the companies producing certified -- legal -- soya seed, already "desperate", became "life-or-death", Barisn Neto told IPS. "We had hoped to maintain 19 percent of the local soya market, but now we are losing 100 percent."

The APASSUL leader says this will be the outcome of the "provisional measure", a presidential decree subject to parliamentary approval within 60 days, issued late Thursday, authorizing the planting of the genetically modified soya that farmers had stored for that purpose.

The measure includes restrictions. Farmers will only be able to sell their harvests of GM soya until Dec. 31, 2004. The rest is to be destroyed. The measure bans any sales of the transgenic seeds and prohibits planting in or near environmentally protected areas.

Furthermore, the farmers who plant transgenic soya will assume responsibility for any potential harm the crop causes the environment or human health.

But "nobody respects the law in agriculture," after so many cases of impunity, said Barisn Neto, explaining that the government has tolerated seed smuggling and announced in March what was to be a one-time authorization to harvest the illegal soya crops, and now is allowing another planting season.

The Brazilian seed industry, which helped the country to double its agricultural output since 1990 while cultivated land increased just 15 percent, is also threatened in other states, he said.

In Paran , also in southern Brazil, an estimated 15 percent of the soya grown is genetically modified, and there are signs of its expansion in central-west and northeast Brazil as well.

Agriculture minister Roberto Rodrigues justified the provisional measure as an emergency response to prevent "civil disobedience" by farmers, given their need to plant the seeds that they have and the government's inability to offer an alternative.

The Luiz In cio Lula da Silva government is nearing consensus on the issue and in October should finalise draft legislation, says the minister. Once Congress has approved it there would be no need for new provisional measures, he adds.

Scientists are divided when it comes to GM crops, but the nearly 700 biosafety experts from around the world, who gathered last week for the third Latin American Symposium on Transgenic Products, backed Brazil's National Biosafety Technical Commission, which in 1998 stated that Roundup Ready genetically modified soya is not harmful to the environment and human health.

Barisn Neto said that if GM crops are given the green light, the future remains grim for the seed companies, because they need three years to produce enough seed to meet demand. "And how would we survive in the meantime?"

In Rio Grande do Sul, soya crops cover an estimated 3.5 million hectares, planted by more than 150,000 farmers.

At risk is the future of Brazilian agriculture because contraband can introduce diseases and reduce productivity, given that seeds are used "without monitoring or follow-up" and their illegality precludes contribution to scientific knowledge, said the APASSUL leader.

Already in Rio Grande do Sul, which borders Argentina and Uruguay, five weeds have been identified that have developed resistance to glyphosate, the main ingredient in Roundup, the herbicide used with RR soya, both produced by the agribusiness transnational Monsanto.

RR soya, which as at the root of the transgenics controversy, was developed by Monsanto to be resistant to glyphosate, facilitating cultivation and harvest -- and reducing production costs.

But glyphosate will be the target of a lawsuit announced by the Brazilian Consumer Defence Institute (IDEC), adding new factors to the agriculture debate.

The use of this herbicide on soya stalks and leaves is not authorized by the government's regulatory agencies, IDEC technical consultant Sezifredo Paz told IPS.

The institute, which filed the legal complaint that led to the 1999 ban on cultivation of GM crops in Brazil without conducting environmental impact studies beforehand, will now focus on mitigating the effects of the government's provisional measure that "authorized illegal activity", said Paz.

IDEC will demand a ban on the illegal application of glyphosate herbicide on soya crops and a "detailed plan" on how the government will comply with its new provisional measure and inspect the country's soya crops.

The measure "unnecessarily endangers the health of consumers" because it "legalizes a product of unknown origins and obtained illegally," inducing farmers to continue to commit crimes, charges IDEC in a communique.