Albion Monitor /News

Brazil is Testing Ground for Genetically-Altered Foods

by Mario Osava

Genetically modified corn, soybean, cotton, tobacco and sugar already cultivated
(IPS) RIO DE JANEIRO -- Over the objections of environmentalists and others, Brazil is fast becoming a vast testing ground for genetically altered crops.

Genetically modified corn, soybean, cotton, tobacco and sugar cane are already being cultivated in dozens of experimental areas authorized by the National Technical Biosecurity Commission (CTNBio). The objective is to prove the feasibility of commercial production within two years.

Some NGOs have tried to contain the advance or at least broaden national debate on the environmental and health risks involved with the growing and consumption of these foods.

Senator Marina Silva, who represents Acre, an Amazon state with a strong environmental tradition, proposed a moratorium of two years to allow for the issue to be discussed further and for more studies to be carried out in the interest of protecting public health.

As there is still no conclusive proof that genetically modified organisms do not damage human health, there is concern this new technology will become implanted in a country "ill-prepared to carry out follow-up even on more simple things," said Marilena Lazzarini, director of the Brazilian Consumer Defense Institute (IDEC).

Lazzarini was a member of the CTNBio for a year, but she left in early 1997 following various disagreements.

Experimental fields mushrooming throughout Brazil
The CTNBio, linked to the Ministry of Science and Technology, controls and provides authorization for biotechnological projects throughout Brazil. Its members include experts from universities and one consumer representative, now chosen exclusively from an organization in Belem, in the north of the country.

The Commission makes decisions on the basis of specialized and complex scientific knowledge, leaving the "layman" consumer representative in the "delicate situation" of being forced into making decisions without being able to make previous technical consultations, said Lazzarini in explaining her resignation from the commission.

"It was a trick," she said, adding there should be more independent, non-governmental representation from the scientific community and the environmental movement, in order to get greater balance in the Commission.

IDEC supports projects in Congress which seek to oblige the companies to include labels on their products, stating that they are made with genetically altered grains or other plants. This is already done in the European countries and "is a strategy for awakening public attention on the issue," said Lazzarini.

However, when David Hathaway, economist and consultant of an NGO dedicated to promoting agricultural alternatives, was asked about the experimental fields mushrooming throughout Brazil and soon to become commercial products, he said he was "afraid."

He is currently lobbying to raise awareness and stimulate debate on the issue on Brazil, "where the majority of the population, including members of Parliament, are ignorant of the issue," he said.

Greenpeace tried in vain to block the unloading of a cargo of genetically altered soybean in 1997
Hathaway fears for the environmental effects of the genetically altered crops, as the experimental areas barely fulfill "legal formalities," with no concern for safety or evaluation of the risks to human health, he said.

One example of this is that the experimental corn fields are separated from other crops by only a 200 meter strip of land. Genetic improvement experiments demand twice this distance in order to avoid risks, he explained.

The genetic modification of corn, soybean and tobacco is seeking to make the crops more resistant to insects and viruses. The experiments also hope to build tolerance to herbicides, so that certain strong agrotoxics can be used on the crops.

If the genes transfer to other varieties or species of plants, these plants could become immune to their natural predators and thereby become "invaders," causing damage to the environment, said Hathaway.

The international environmental organization Greenpeace tried in vain to block the unloading of a cargo of genetically altered soybean imported for oil production in December 1997.

Greenpeace campaigns against these products as "the effects of these (experiments) are as yet unknown, as all the functions of the genes are not yet known." For instance, cows fed on the experimentally produced soybean produce milk with more fat, an unforeseen outcome, said the group's executive director for Brazil, Roberto Kishinami.

CTNBio president, Luiz Barreto de Castro, said there are no such risks. The Commission follows the decisions of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which it considers sufficiently rigorous, and which has authorized the use of various genetically altered products.

The strongest resistance to these innovations has occurred in Europe, and it is partly this lobbying which has forced transnational companies like Monsanto, AgrEvo (a joint venture between Hoechst and Schering) and Novaritis to expand experiments in Latin America, said Jean Pierre Leroy, head of the Forum of NGO environmentalists of Brazil.

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Albion Monitor February 11, 1998 (

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