Published on Tuesday, June 27, 2000 in the Washington Post
Brazil Battles Over Genetically-Modified Soybeans
by Stephen Buckley
PASSO FUNDO, Brazil Antonio is a third-generation Brazilian planter with 1,200 acres and one pit bull.
The dog is not for bandits or trespassers. It is for government officials who might want to inspect Antonio's fields, particularly the 250 acres he will use to grow illegal genetically modified soybeans.
Nearly a year has passed since a federal judge ruled that Brazilian farmers could not grow genetically modified crops--at least not until there was more scientific investigation. But time has hardly dampened objections to the decision among thousands of farmers here in the breadbasket of Latin America's largest and most populous country.
On the surface, the debate in Brazil over genetically modified foods focuses on health and safety issues as it does in other parts of the world. But on another level, it involves the question whether developing countries, clawing to fortify their place in the world economy, can afford to turn their backs on rich global markets to preserve other goals, such as health guarantees or small-scale agricultural production.
Hostility toward globalization suffuses the debate over genetically modified soybeans in Brazil, which is second only to the United States in the production of the crop. An opinion poll conducted on the Internet and released last week by Gazeta Mercantil, Brazil's leading business newspaper, found that 60 percent of respondents oppose bioengineered crops, including 23 percent who believe such products primarily benefit multinational corporations.
In addition, small-scale farmers say that if the government legalizes genetically modified seeds, they would go bankrupt. They say that medium- and large-scale farmers would have an overwhelming advantage because they could more easily afford to buy the seeds, which are more expensive than their conventional counterparts.
But larger growers recall a Brazil that lost ground in the 1970s and 1980s in key areas such as computers, largely because of protectionist policies, and they want to avoid making similar mistakes with bioengineered crops. They also wonder whether this country can shun a technology that its main soybean competitors--neighboring Argentina and the United States--have welcomed.
"I just don't think we can avoid this kind of technology," said Efraim Fischmann, president of the seed producers' association in Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil's southernmost state. "That's what we did when we decided to make our own computers, and it put us behind by 10 years."
It is difficult to overstate the stakes in Brazil, Latin America's largest agricultural producer. Last year its farmers grew 30 million tons of soybeans, and sold an estimated $5 billion worth of them and related products worldwide.
As in other countries, the debate over genetically modified crops is a highly emotional one in Brazil. More moderate opponents say the benefits--mainly, increased yields, greater resistance to weeds and lower pesticide costs--are overblown. Radical opponents spin rumors that the crops could cause AIDS. Proponents call opponents communists.
Rio Grande do Sul ranks third in national production of soybeans, but in recent years it has taken the lead in opposing the use of genetically modified soybeans. A telephone hot line takes reports about farmers who are allegedly breaking the law. Brightly colored posters warn: "Transgenics. Don't Plant the Idea." The government created a $5 million fund to pay farmers to turn over their bioengineered seeds; no one did.
State Agriculture Secretary Jose Hermeto Hoffman said the government fears the impact of the seeds on human beings and the environment, and it wants to keep small farmers in business.
Until December, when the state legislature outlawed government monitoring, agriculture officials checked farms for bioengineered soybeans, generating enormous resentment among medium- and large-scale growers.
Antonio, 56, relishes talking about the day in November when Hoffman inspected his warehouse but failed to discover the genetically modified soybeans growing on his land. "After that, I moved the soybeans way, way back in the fields," he said. Because he is defying authorities, Antonio asked that his last name not be published.
Rio Grande do Sul officials said less than 1 percent of the state's soy crop will include genetically modified beans this year. But farmers said the real figure could be significantly higher. About 8 percent of Brazil's soybean crop last year was found to be genetically modified.
Farmers such as Antonio Wunsch, who leads a cooperative of small growers in the north of the state, say they could not afford to make the annual payments for modified soybean seeds. Monsanto Co., the biochemical giant that has developed the most popular genetically modified soybean, has said that for patent reasons, planters must buy new seeds each year.
"Monsanto has made it clear that they want us to be dependent on them for the rest of our lives," said Wunsch, 45. "And we don't think that would be good."
State agriculture officials and small-scale farmers also hope that the market for conventional soybeans will blossom as many European countries, and other countries such as Japan, continue to place restrictions on bioengineered crops and products.
The resistance to the Brazilian federal court ban on these crops has been strongest in areas such as Passo Fundo, 843 miles south of Rio de Janeiro. The 172-year-old city is dominated by descendants of European immigrants, many of whom arrived in Rio Grande do Sul as farmers a century ago. Many of the city's 160,000 residents who own farmland possess thousands of acres. And most of the farmers are not fond of the state's left-leaning Workers' Party government.
As a sign that Brazil cannot escape genetically modified crops, some farmers point to a study released last week by the environmental group Greenpeace and a Brazilian consumers' organization. It showed that of 41 supermarket products tested--both domestic and imported brands--11 contained genetically modified ingredients.
"We just want the same opportunities that the Americans have and the Argentines have," said Humberto Falcao, who owns 6,175 acres in two states. "If we don't use this technology, Brazil is going to end up losing a lot of ground."
Falcao, 39, said he does not grow genetically modified soybeans. But farmers such as Antonio do, and they are hardly ashamed of it.
Antonio, a tall man with enormous hands, said he first bought genetically modified seeds in 1998 from a door-to-door salesman who brought them from Argentina. The seeds were nearly 10 times the cost of conventional seeds. Antonio said he now produces his own modified seeds.
He said he was not concerned about health effects of genetically modified soybeans because, "if the farmers in the United States are using it, how could it be so bad? You think the Americans are going to let their people use something that'll kill them?"
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