RIO DE JANEIRO -- Brazil will permit the sale of genetically modified soy harvested this year in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, even though it was planted illegally. Consumer and environmental groups are outraged.
The "provisional measure", a presidential decree issued last week with immediate -- though temporary -- effect, a decision taken with input from a group of ministers, authorizes the sale of the transgenic grain domestically and internationally until Jan. 31, 2004. After that date, genetically modified soy will be destroyed.
The decision is "very serious", says Marilena Lazzarini, executive director of the Brazilian Consumer Defence Institute (IDEC), because the government "has trampled on a decision of the judiciary" and violated the constitution, which ensures the independence and the balance of the three branches of government.
The authorities behind the move also violated the Consumer Defence Code and created a discriminatory situation by tolerating illegal cultivation of the crop for one year, Lazzarini said in a conversation with IPS.
The ban on genetically modified soy will be reinstated with the next growing season.
IDEC is studying ways to fight the decision in court and will ask President Luiz Incio Lula da Silva to enact special "attention to the consumer" through strict controls and product labelling so that people know what they are buying, said Lazzarini.
The move to lift the GM soy ban caught environmental and consumer defence groups off guard. They had expected that the transgenic grain would be approved for export only.
The commercial cultivation of genetically modified seeds is prohibited under a court ruling of June 2000. That ruling has been appealed and, after a long series of postponements, a decision from the court of second instance is expected soon.
But in spite of the ban, an estimated 70 to 80 percent of the soy grown in Rio Grande do Sul, for a harvest of 8.6 million tons, comes from genetically modified seeds of the U.S.-based transnational Monsanto.
GM soy is predominates in neighboring Argentina's soy market, and the extensive border makes it difficult to maintain strict controls over shipments between that country and the southern Brazilian state.
The origins of the problem date to the "policy of omission" of Brazil's previous government, of Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995- 2003), which tolerated "irregularities" in the agricultural market on this matter, Lazzarini said.
The paradox is that Monsanto's Roundup Ready soy variety became widespread throughout Rio Grande do Sul during a period in which the previous state government (1999-2002) adopted very strict measures to prevent its introduction.
The state even had its own law prohibiting genetically modified seeds in its territory.
A year ago, Silvio Porto, then president of the governmental Companhia de Abastecimento Rio Grande do Sul, told IPS of the intention to make Brazil a "transgenics-free zone", based on the example of that state. That experiment seems to have failed.
But it was nearby Paran state, another major soy producer which shares a border with Argentina, as well as with Paraguay, that was able to contain the planting of contraband seeds. The state government destroyed fields of the illegal crop and set up incentives for farmers to plant conventional soy.
There have been no known attempts to plant transgenic soy in areas farther north in Brazil, probably because the Roundup Ready variety was developed for template climates and would not be suitable for the high temperatures of the central and northern parts of the country.
Lazzarini points out that the Lula administration's decision allows the continuation of the situation created by omissions of the previous administration.
And it "sets a dangerous precedent," because farmers who have engaged in other "irregular" activities could demand the same sort of amnesty, she adds.
Furthermore, says the IDEC chief, "it penalizes honesty," because the farmers who did not plant genetically modified soy will be suspected anyway and will have to obtain certificates to prove that they obeyed the law.
Brazil this year expects an output of 49 million tons of soy, a national yield second only to the United States, where transgenic crops are legal, as they are in Argentina, the third-leading soy producer.
Lula's Cabinet is divided on the question of GM soy, just as the Cardoso government was divided. Agriculture minister Roberto Rodrigues defends transgenics with the same argument wielded by the big farming operations: that they reduce production costs.
The Agriculture Ministry's secretary of production and marketing, Linneu Lima, says transgenic crops cuts production costs by 40 percent and that authorizing their cultivation in Brazil would allow the country to double its grain output in five years, reaching 200 million tons annually.
But Environment minister Marina Silva opposes GM crops, citing the reasons of most environmentalists: sufficient research has not been conducted about their potential threat to ecosystems and human health, particularly in Brazil, which holds some of the world's greatest wealth in terms of biodiversity.
The "precautionary principle" included in some international agreements on the matter recommend waiting for the results of broader investigations, she says.
In terms of international trade, the fact that the European Union -- a major market -- is reluctant to import genetically modified products, weighs heavily on the Brazilian debate.
Lula set up a commission to define an official position on the GM question. The body consists of representatives from nine ministries, including the economic sector. Their task is not an easy one.
In addition to IDEC, the National Forum of Civil Entities in Defence of the Consumer, which unites 20 non-governmental organizations, and much of Brazil's environmental movement reject the commercial planting of any type of genetically modified seeds.
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