Why Brazil shouldn’t be ‘GM free’

When it comes to GM food, the Brazilian authorities should put their people's needs before environmentalists' concerns.

John Conroy

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Topics Science & Tech

The commercial cultivation of GM food has been prohibited in Brazil, after the Brazilian authorities capitulated to demands from NGOs and others to put precaution before scientific development.

As a result, many impoverished Brazilian farmers are missing out on new technologies that could potentially reduce their dependence on traditional forms of agriculture, increase their productivity, and improve their standards of living.

Today’s opposition to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has little to do with objective scientific evaluations of the risks posed by GM. It more stems from a prejudice that says man should avoid interfering with nature.

We need to challenge today’s risk-averse climate and put the case for scientific development that puts potential human benefits centre stage, as well as considering human and environmental safety.

Two court decisions are now pending that will decide whether Brazil introduces genetically modified (GM) crops: a new ruling by three judges on the Brazilian Consumers Defence Institute (IDEC) and Greenpeace’s successful civil injunction against Monsanto planting GM Soya; and the vote by Congress and the Senate on the Brazilian legislation on GM safety and the powers of the government’s regulatory body on biotechnology, CTNBio.

Greenpeace and other non-governmental organisations vehemently oppose the introduction of any GM plant in Brazil. The federal government is now moving quickly to legitimise CTNBio in what appears to be a clear message that Brazil will shift to GM in the near future, thereby joining India as a major GM grain-producing country in the developing world.

The future of the new wave of agricultural biotechnology (agbio) – the introduction of genetically engineered organisms (GMOs) – is being called into question in Brazil.

The commercial cultivation of GMOs is prohibited in Brazil, and many agbio scientists, researchers, manufacturers and farmers are reviewing their commitment to the technology. The development and application of agbio is being delayed, and there is a real danger that its potential benefits will be lost.

Agbio is being rejected by a powerful lobby of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), institutions and politicians, including: Greenpeace, Assessoria e Servicos a Projetos em Agricultura Alternative (AS-PTA/Alternative Agriculture Assistance and Services), Movimento Sem Terra (MST/Landless Movement), Action Aid, sections of the Workers’ Party, and Instituto Brasileiro de Defesa do Consumidor (Idec/Consumer Defence Institute).

But these groups reject agbio more because of their own ideological and political prejudice, than because of any scientific evidence that agbio poses a risk to human health and the environment. Their opposition is driven by a pessimistic sense that agbio is the latest example of how modern society has transgressed natural limits. And such ideas have a big impact in a society that has embraced caution and has become fearful of taking risks.

The precautionary principle

Marijane Lisboa of Greenpeace Brazil argues that, ‘At the present stage of the development of modern technology, in which the long-term and large-scale negative consequences are unpredictable and in many cases irreversible, the correct question should be: “What proof does the proponent of genetically modified organisms have that [GMOs] will not cause any damage to the environment or human health?”‘ (1).

But then Greenpeace says there can never be proof for the safety of agbio, as there is no such thing as absolute proof or zero risk. When Lord Melchett, then director of Greenpeace UK, was asked whether Greenpeace’s opposition to the release of GMOs into the environment might possibly be altered by a scientific investigation into the safety of GM technology, he replied: ‘It is a permanent and definite and complete opposition based on the view that there will always be major uncertainties. It is the nature of the technology, indeed it is the nature of science, that there will not be any absolute proof.’ (3)

This emphasis on potential risk – also known as the ‘precautionary principle’ – has become widespread in recent years. As Professor Anthony J Trewavas of the Institute of Cell and Molecular Biology at the University of Edinburgh told me, the precautionary principle can be seriously detrimental to scientific investigation, effectively meaning that: ‘Whenever it is acknowledged that a practice (or substance) could cause harm even without conclusive scientific proof that it has caused harm or does cause harm, the practice or emissions of the substance should be prevented and eliminated.’ (4) The Brazilian government has effectively adopted the precautionary principle in its regulation of agbio.

But what would the NGO critics of GMOs say to the scientists at Brazil’s agricultural research and development agency, Embrapa-Cenargen, who are producing a strain of black bean (feijao) that is resistant to the golden mosaic virus transmitted by the white fly? Feijao is a staple crop for small farmers and a main source of protein for Brazilians – and the new strain could help hundreds of thousands of farmers whose crops are damaged by the golden mosaic virus every year. Also, because the virus could previously only be treated with an insecticide that killed the white fly, the new strain will lower exposure levels to agrochemicals (which, presumably, is something that anti-GM campaigners would approve of).

Movimento Sem Terra (MST) and Greenpeace claim they are pro-science and pro-technology. But how can science and technology be developed if we adopt the precautionary principle and demand zero risk?

Greenpeace Brazil’s website claims that: ‘Science is not able to predict the effects of transgenes (GMOs). And the problems that nobody imagined have already begun to happen. Most seriously is the fact that the impact of transgenes in nature is irreversible, there is no way back.’ (5) This underestimates the capacity of scientists to understand and use genes for human benefit – because, in reality, we know a great deal about agbio and its impact on the environment.

The arguments against agbio

Let’s take the arguments against agbio in turn. Opponents argue that agbio can lead to a high threat of allergies in human beings when genes are transferred from one organism to another. This is true, and was illustrated when a Brazil nut gene was inserted into a soybean plant, creating an agbio product that contained the allergen found in the Brazil nut. When this was discovered in tests, production was cancelled.

However, our ability to use agbio to identify and engineer allergens is now being used to prevent allergens being expressed in both agbio and non-agbio plants. The US Department for Agriculture recently discovered the allergen in non-agbio soybeans that affects some babies, and eliminated it. Chimeraplasty – a new and very precise method of genetic modification – could be used to halt the expression of allergen in peanuts. Not only has agbio helped us to recognise allergens in plants – we can now use this knowledge to produce benefits in new and previously unforeseen ways.

Another argument put forward by anti-GMO campaigners is that the use of antibiotic markers in agbio plants could reduce our resistance to antibiotics, therefore increasing the spread of disease. Scientists are aware of this potential problem and are busy developing other ways of identifying engineered plants that do not rely on antibiotics, such as through the use of fluorescent markers.

Opponents also raise the problem of horizontal gene transfer and the creation of ‘super weeds’ and ‘super pests’. Again, scientists are aware that horizontal gene transfer occurs and that it could cause problems if genes from agbio crops jump to weedy relatives (although there is no evidence to date that any ‘super weeds’ or ‘super pests’ have been created). For gene transfer between plants to occur there must be wild relatives nearby, there must be a degree of sexual compatibility between the plants, they must be close enough for the pollen to reach the relative, and they must be flowering or fertile at the same time – a complex set of circumstances, but not an impossibility.

But even if horizontal gene transfer happens, the resultant ‘super weed’ may well die in the wild, as a gene that may help a crop could be detrimental for a weed. And if we did need to control the spread of genes from a plant, we could always employ ‘Terminator’ technology – making plants that the carry the problematic genes infertile.

The claim, by anti-GMO campaigners, that genetically engineered Bt Corn posed a threat to the Monarch butterfly in the USA was used as evidence that agbio would diminish Brazilian biodiversity (6). But on 11 September 2001, six extensive independent field studies on this subject were published in the US Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. They concluded that Bt Corn would affect fewer than one in 100,000 larvae – a negligible risk (7). Two of the researchers who raised the original doubts about the larvae, John Losey and John Obrycki, were authors of the paper.

Many of the alternatives to Bt are broad-spectrum insecticides, which kill large numbers of insects and are infinitely more threatening to insect populations. To guard against the development of insects that are resistant to agbio insecticides, the US government has created refuges to ensure that populations of non-resistant insects survive and mate with resistant ones. The insect refuges are areas situated away from GM crops, and they allow insects that may develop a resistance to the anti-pesticide qualities of GM crops to mate with insects in the refuges that have had no contact with GM crops, and that cannot have developed any resistance, so assuring a constant supply of non-resistant insects.

It should be remembered that within nature itself, plant DNA elements jump around all the time, between species and particularly between plants and bacteria. Each time this happens it can have unexpected results. But the danger of unexpected results from genetic engineering is negligible compared to how genes naturally jump from species to species.

Inserting genes into a plant is akin to taking sand to a beach. We don’t exactly know where a gene lands in a chromosome, but genomes are constantly rearranging themselves anyway and successive crop breeding eliminates most of the useless or risky placements of genes in the chromosomes. We absorb millions of genes every day, but nature’s species safeguards prevent us from turning into mutant, half-human/half-what-I-ate-for-breakfast monsters. After all, humans share 98 percent of our genes with chimpanzees, 95 percent with pigs and about 30 percent with tomatoes – and still we are very distinct.

Agbio can even increase biodiversity. As it has developed, agriculture in general has diminished biodiversity – yet today in the USA, agbio has led to the creation of more Soya varieties than existed before.

Evidence for the benefits of agbio is sometimes simply ignored by those who oppose the new technology. On 27 July 2001 the New Zealand government concluded its year-long Royal Commission researched and written by independent scientists to determine whether New Zealand should be ‘agbio-free’, under pressure from Greenpeace and other environmental organisations (8). When the commission found no scientific evidence to support banning agbio, Greenpeace simply ignored the findings and carried on calling for a ban in New Zealand.

Such evidence can be ignored, because opponents of agbio do not judge GM technology according to objective scientific data. Instead, their opposition is driven by an ideological belief that nature is too complex for us to understand and interfere with. As Professor Mae Wan Ho of Greenpeace says, ‘there will always be an unexpected and unpredictable effect from a foreign gene introduced into another organism’ (9).

Holism v reductionism

The conceptual and theoretical framework for this deeply pessimistic view of agbio and modern science is holism. Greenpeace, MST and others believe in a holistic conceptualisation of man’s relationship to nature. They see nature as a complex network of reciprocal interrelated connections of which man is just one equal part – so man must respect and adapt to his environment. They counterpose their views with the views of many modern scientists – who dissect nature in an attempt to isolate and understand its workings.

But holism is a poor substitute for reductionism. We cannot use holism to understand nature because it cannot be tested. That’s because it is, in fact, an idealised description of nature that expresses the idea that man is unable to understand, and therefore should not radically alter, his natural surroundings.

Holism espouses human adaptation to nature’s complexity. Where reductionism is about changing nature to produce benefits for man, holism preaches passivity and inactivity. Reductionism, by contrast, is the best tool we have for making nature work for us – and agbio is the best tool we have for understanding the complexity of nature at a genetic level, in order to use that knowledge for human benefit.

Reductionism in the form of genetics has enabled a profound understanding of nature and the molecular sciences, allowing us now to ‘work our way backwards’ and rebuild the puzzle to human design. By contrast, holism refutes the need, efficacy and morality of such comprehension and possible changes.

Reductionism has brought us great benefits. Danish scientists have developed a Cassava plant – a staple for 400million people – that has reduced quantities of Cyanogenic glycosides that cause Goitre and Konzo (paralysis of the lower limbs) if the plant is not cooked properly. Should such a development have been halted in the name of holism?

So what about the opponents’ other arguments – including their claim that agbio cannot solve the problems of hunger and poverty around the world? They criticise agbio for being offered up as a technical solution to what is a social problem. In their view, because abgio is, in most cases, produced by multinationals, it is inherently dangerous and unable to solve social problems. Their alternative to agbio is ‘agroecology’.

Agroecology

Dr Miguel A Altieri from the Department of Environmental Sciences, University of California, says on the Greenpeace website:

‘In general the majority of the proponents of sustainable [development], motivated by technological determinism do not understand the relationship between degradation between the environment and capitalist agriculture. In this way, by accepting contemporary socioeconomic and political structures of agriculture, they do not try to develop an agriculture that challenges such structures.’ (10)

He goes on to say: ‘[T]he tendency for a reductionist vision of nature and agriculture, stimulated by contemporary biotechnology, should be opposed in the search for a more holistic vision of agriculture, to guarantee that agroecological alternatives are not sidelined and that not only a few ecological aspects of biotechnology be researched and developed.’ (11)

However, it is the opponents of agbio who think that social problems can be fixed by a technical solution – because they understand social problems from the perspective that views man’s attempts to make nature part of his social world as a problem.

Take the case of Golden Rice. This rice contains the precursor to Vitamin A, which could be of great assistance in the battle against Vitamin A deficiency (VAD). Although VAD appears to be a problem of nature’s design, it is ultimately a result of Asia’s historical economic problems, where millions are dependent on rice, a poor food. Of course Golden Rice cannot solve social and economic problems in Asia and scientists don’t claim that it can. But it could help some of the 400million Indians who suffer from VAD and the 250,000 people who lose their sight as a result of VAD in the developing world each year.

Anti-agbio groups argue that proponents of Golden Rice ignore the social causes of hunger and poverty. Yet their proposed solution to VAD and other problems caused by reliance on rice is based on agroecology. In short, what they would like to see in the developing world is a form of organic farming – hardly a challenge to the social causes of poverty.

But agroecology does have a social dimension. Agroecology is necessarily labour intensive, as it substitutes chemicals for human labour. So it demands that more of the world’s population spends more of its time farming. This view is often accompanied by a romanticised notion of rural life and communities – and farm labour. Proponents tend to idealise organic farming methods in the developing world, when in fact they are merely the enforced consequence of poverty and subsequent inability of farmers to buy chemicals.

What a disaster it would be if agroecology was applied across the world. Liberal estimates suggest that organic methods could feed about three billion of the world’s population – but this would demand a huge increase in mechanical means or human labour to clear weeds; we would have to deforest and bring every available piece of land into production to grow the crops; and we would also need to increase the grazing land for the animals that would supply the main fertiliser – manure – at the expense of crops for direct human consumption (12).

What about organic food’s much-lauded nutritional advantage? A report published by the organic food-supporting Soil Association in August 2001 had to admit the ‘perception that organic food “is better for you” appears to have been largely based on intuition rather than conclusive evidence’ (13). Coming from a report written by organic farming advocates in Europe – the world’s largest market for organic food – this is not a good advert for organic food

Organic food is produced with seeds that are created using conventional agbio: mutations produced by the use of radiation and chemicals, and cross-fertilisation. Agbio is an advance on these methods, which are highly imprecise compared to the new technology. The International Atomic Agency lists 2252 crop types created by radiation-induced mutation. Traditional plant breeding has been done at the empirical level – and as a consequence thousands of unknown genes have crossed without us knowing what they do. Nor have we known their genetic composition. These processes are far more uncertain than new methods of genetic manipulation.

All agriculture, including organic crops, has accelerated the civilisation of weeds to act like crops for our benefit. Agbio is the latest advance of our control over nature, and one that now allows us to understand the genetic composition of organisms. But all of this is conveniently ignored because it doesn’t fit into a holistic, agroecological vision for Brazil. But how would a holistic vision really benefit Brazilian people?

The ramifications of a holistic approach to crop growing and food production in Brazil would be disastrous. It would leave no labour time or human energy for industry, manufacture, science, modern medicine, education or art. And it would be impossible to produce enough food to feed Brazil’s largely urban population.

We do not need agbio to feed current population levels and probably won’t need it to do so in the near future. But it might be necessary in the distant future, and there are only two ways to ensure that it happens: by increasing the amount of land used for farming, or by increasing productivity through technology.

Multinationals

A basic indicator of human progress is increasing productivity, where people are released from the burden of physical toil that machines can do instead, and allowed to use their mental creativity and imagination for other things. Why should people in Brazil be denied this kind of life? Joao Pedro Stedile, a leader of the Brazilian landless movement, explains how important the agbio debate is for Brazil: ‘It is a symbol of the technological standard of a new agricultural and economic model.’ (14)

Yet MST argues that agbio will worsen the concentration of wealth and land in Brazil. Failing to separate the social causes of inequality in the market economy from their physical manifestation in terms of products, MST ends up identifying the wrong enemy. It is of course true that mechanisation displaces labour, and that powerful multinationals have the capital and market power to destroy companies and buy up land. But the causes of these problems are found at the heart of market system – the private accumulation of capital for profit and market competition.

However, there are useful by-products created by the capitalist system – including agbio. In comparable planting conditions, Monsanto Round-Up Ready (RR) resistant Soya seeds are more productive and cost-effective than conventional ones – on less land you can produce more Soya with less input. Critics may oppose Monsanto’s market power, but that doesn’t make its seed any less productive – and some Brazilian farmers are risking legal action by planting these seeds in Brazil’s southern states.

The Brazilian agricultural research and development agency Embrapa has signed a contract with Monsanto to utilise its RR technology. Embrapa produces 60 percent of all Soya seeds in Brazil. It is now in a position to combine RR technology with its 65 existing Soya seed varieties, including varieties for all soil types and with special characteristics such as increased protein content, improved oil production, and a variety of Soya that will be used to produce vaccines and other health products as part of the Soya Health Programme. One Soya variety produces Iso Flavonoide, a chemical element used in the treatment of breast cancer. Embrapa will have complete intellectual control over these seeds, although the price will include a Monsanto tax (15).

The usefulness of the RR seeds cannot be denied. The market system, for all its flaws, has helped to raise industrial and agricultural productivity. It has produced great advances, and we should embrace them while recognising the system’s limits.

All companies, from multinationals to local organic cooperatives, operate in the market and therefore have to produce a profit. For companies at the cutting edge of technology, to keep ahead of competition investment is a necessity – and agbio companies have to ensure that they get a return on their investment. So they patent their products, which have to be novel and cannot be simply a discovery – that is, simply a bit of nature. Patents are an essential component of the market system.

Opponents of agbio criticise patents that are put upon genetic knowledge, claiming that genetics are ‘the stuff of life’ and should be above petty market concerns. But who can say what the ‘stuff of life’ really is? Digital technologies, computers, modes of transport and communications, medical advances, education, culture and art are all essential to our modern way of life, and are all supplied by the market system. Most people in the developed world see food as fuel that enables them to do more interesting and creative things. Does that make food the ‘stuff of life’?

Unfortunately, in the developing world subsistence is the norm for many, and food production takes up most of people’s lives, consuming their daily existence. This severely limits human potential. But we should not deduce from this experience that food should be treated differently from any other product. Rather, we should argue for all of the other wonderful modern products like computers and cars to be available in the developing world.

If social problems are what anti-agbio groups are really concerned about, why not campaign for a national development of agbio in Brazil? Why not argue that Brazil should have the best agbio technology in the world, and should use it to assist small- and large-scale farming units to improve production? Why not argue for state or popular control of all agriculture? In other developing countries, like Cuba (sugar cane and fish), South Africa and Argentina (Bt resistant crops), and Kenya (protein-enhanced sweet potatoes) the state is directly involved in pushing agbio – although in many cases the state desperately lacks funds.

If agbio opponents are really concerned about multinationals’ domination of food production and supply, why did the campaign for a GM-Free Rio Grande do Sul State send emissaries to Europe to court giants like Tesco (Bon Marche in Brazil) in the search for a market for non-agbio Soya? If food production is so key, why is Monsanto suddenly worse than the much-larger Unilever and Nestle?

The reason the anti-agbio campaigners can oppose useful products, can sidestep campaigns for publicly controlled GM technology, and can be selective about their opposition to multinationals and patents is because they believe that man’s relationship with the environment should be our main concern. They interpret just about every problem, including real social problems, through this perspective. To their minds, the market is not the main problem – it is the power of its technological advances to change our environment. So patents per se are not the problem – but attempts to patent nature or indigenous people’s knowledge of nature are definitely out.

Where do these ideas come from? And why do so many people tend to sympathise with such ideas today?

Social pessimism

Anti-agbio groups’ thinking is a product of our age: a period of deep disillusionment and dissatisfaction in almost every area of human life, where risk-obsession, anxiety and fear of change reign supreme.

Environmental groups like Greenpeace play a central role in exacerbating anxieties today – but they can’t take all the credit. Their tradition began in the developed world in the 1960s, although it is only fairly recently that deep pessimism about human activity has left the margins and been absorbed by almost every sector of society. The precautionary principle has almost become official policy.

Many agbio proponents worry that Greenpeace and its ilk are excellent propagandists capable of changing minds by destroying agbio test sites or dressing up as corn. But it’s not that simple. Greenpeace doesn’t need to try very hard – every day we are bombarded with books, news items and films that reinforce the idea that we live in a threatening and risky world. Hollywood has done its bit to present genetic engineering and artificial life as inherently malevolent, with films like AI, Gattaca, Virus, 12 Monkeys, The Island of Dr Moreau, Jurassic Park, and others.

For the past 30 years, environmentalists have told us that we are destroying the planet – through water pollution, air pollution, nuclear power, chemical pollution, global warming, erosion of the ozone layer, deforestation, and so on. But the erosion of optimism in humanity is broader in both source and scope.

In Europe and the USA, all news is bad news: the media is often full of health scares, food panics and potential lifestyle risks, which join in people’s minds, creating a powerful sense that we live in an evermore dangerous world. This inspires caution, regulation and a litigation-crazy climate. Many of these same fears also exist in Brazil, as well as other fears around social cohesion, crime and drugs.

But why so many gloomy stories? It is not just that we have scare stories today, but we respond to them differently now than we did in the past. Something has changed – and this change has transformed scare stories into panics into irrational reactions, often out of proportion to any potential risk. The end result is that we not only feel frightened – we often feel unable to respond, and feel powerless and impotent as individuals.

These changes are critical to understanding why innovations like agbio have attracted such suspicion and hostility. Commentators claim that there has always been opposition to scientific breakthroughs, whether these be electricity, the car, vaccines, pasteurisation, chlorination of water, or contraceptives. This may be true, but today’s opposition to agbio is of a qualitatively different order.

During past scientific breakthroughs and innovations, human society was guided by a sense of optimism about the future. There was a sense of looking forward, driven by dynamic social projects – the industrial revolution, political emancipation, Liberalism, Marxism. Political institutions and parties tried to make sense of the world, and even talked about changing it. Scientific innovations may have polarised opinion and sparked a debate – but at least this illustrated a lively clash of opinions and alternative ways of seeing and potentially changing our world.

Today, alternative social projects are notable by their absence, and strong ideological views about the world are few and far between. We are more individualised than ever before, and consequently less social. We feel threatened by change – seeing it as something that happens to us not, rather than something we make happen. Today, we are passive objects who fear our surroundings, rather than active subjects who determine the future.

In Brazil, these trends seem to have hit the urban middle classes more than any other section of society – because well-off urbanites are the most sensitised and exposed to changes in political life, while the rest of society is largely excluded from involvement in politics. The misery that millions of Brazilians live in also alters how the masses consider issues of technologies – technologies they will never own or use.

Governments are not immune to today’s fearful climate. The collapse of alternatives and the lack of social, political and economic dynamism mean they find it increasingly difficult to connect to people. Governments are often hypersensitive to their irrelevance to many people’s lives, and tend to follow rather than lead. So when confronted with an issue like agbio, some governments found themselves caught in a dilemma – between their roles as arbiters of capital, of their nations’ best economic interests, and wanting to ensure that they didn’t miss out on the new technology.

At the same time, the media and NGO outcry about agbio rocked the authorities. Ultimately, European governments fudged the issue and operated a de facto moratorium on GM crops. Those who support the moratorium seem to think that, instead of winning the hard arguments for agbio technology, they can just raise the issue of better labelling and traceability of agbio products to appease critics and calm people’s fears. But labelling agbio products with agbio warnings at a time when there is great hostility is like stamping a poison label on the packaging.

The choice for Brazil

In Brazil, the government has completely botched the introduction of agbio. From the creation of the federal biotechnology safety commission to public inter-ministerial disagreements over release and safety, from the illegal release of Monsanto Soya to allowing illegal entry of products apparently made from agbio – the Brazilian government has been indecisive at every stage. This confusion has been created by similar conditions as those in Europe, but with some specific differences. The Brazilian government has had to consider Brazil’s dependency on agricultural exports, the opinion and strength of foreign markets and companies over its economy, and the loss of potential investment and often-contradictory interests of its own companies and agriculture.

The Brazilian authorities have not felt particularly pressurised by public opinion, since the masses are highly depoliticised and the political world is now largely restricted to Congress in Brasilia. Nevertheless, Brazil’s government feels vulnerable in the face of criticism from foreign NGOs, some of which are members of the GM-Free Brazil Campaign, such as Action-Aid and Greenpeace. This vulnerability in the face of NGO demands is now a common feature of Brazilian political life – and foreign NGOs, particularly environmental ones, are firmly embedded in Brazilian politics. This raises interesting questions over sovereignty and Brazil’s ability to make decisions free from foreign pressure.

And here in Brazil, too, Greenpeace and others exaggerate the involvement of the public in agbio debates. Recent polls claiming to show that 74 percent of Brazilians reject agbio are questionable, considering the level of public information on the issue. Greenpeace Brasil paid for an opinion poll in 2001 that, while showing that 74 percent of Brazilians do not want GMOs, also revealed that 82 percent of low income Brazilians – the vast majority – had never heard of the term GMO in their lives! As in Europe and the USA, the agbio debate in Brazil is largely restricted to the media, politicians, judges and NGOs.

In this context of passivity and absence of leadership, Greenpeace and co have exploited the Brazilian government’s incompetence, and agbio has been prohibited on the basis of regulatory faults. There has been no public debate over its merits and risks. The environmentalists’ pessimism and misanthropic thinking have passed without challenge, and may condemn the introduction of agbio to further delay.

Greenpeace Brasil says: ‘The further the genes are isolated from their natural source the greater control the scientist has over life. They can create their own forms of life that never occurred naturally, industry is trying to direct the course of evolution itself.’ (16)

What is science for if not to manipulate nature in order to gain greater control over life? We should argue for the separation of politics and science – to prevent ideological prejudices, like those promoted by anti-agbio groups, from being used to obstruct human development. Objective scientific research and experimentation must be left free from interference. Agbio should be regulated as rigorously as our knowledge of genetics allows and as exhaustively as necessary, in the context of the level of human needs at any specific moment. All aspects of safety for human health and the environment must be considered, as well as each product’s potential benefits for humans.

We have a choice: we can either pursue a pro-humanistic science, based on humanity being superior to all other beasts and having a unique capacity for reason and self-awareness – or we can enter a new dark ages, stimulated by the collapse of belief in humanity’s ability to change the world, where we are reduced to passive and humble objects of nature.

A genetically modified mosquito resistant to malaria is currently being bred, in the hope that it will breed the malarial mosquito out of existence (17). Should we proceed? We certainly need to carry out extensive tests in the field and laboratory to ensure that there is a minimal risk to human health and the environment. In early 2002, Rio de Janeiro state suffered from a dengue disease epidemic – apparently due to the failure of the government to do the annual anti-mosquito spraying. But we have to consider the urgency to end human suffering. Five hundred thousand children die from malaria every year, and the controversial pesticide DDT is currently the most effective solution. Opponents of DDT, including MST and Greenpeace, would without doubt campaign against the new GM mosquito – but what would they replace DDT with?

If the opponents of agbio have their way, Brazil and other countries that desperately need such scientific advances will never be allowed to make up their own minds. If we argue for a debate based on reason and a balanced view of agbio’s benefits, Brazilians just might be able to choose for themselves whether they want this new technology.

John Conroy is a television producer and director.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Genetics

(1) ‘Alimentos transgenicos: protecao ao consumidor e riscos para o meio ambiente’ (Transgenic Foods: consumer protection and risks to the environment in Transgenic Foods), Marijane Lisboa, Greenpeace/Brasil in Alimentos Transgenicos: Alianca International pela Moratoria, RJ, 2000, produced by the Brazilian campaign for a GM-free Brazil (signed by IDEC, Greenpeace, AS-PTA, IBASE) and the Heinrich Boll Institute

(2) Response to Question 105, Proceedings of the House of Lords Select Committee on the European Community, Second Report: EC Regulation of Genetic Modification in Agriculture

(3) Response to Question 107, Proceedings of the House of Lords Select Committee on the European Community, Second Report: EC Regulation of Genetic Modification in Agriculture

(4) Email communication from Professor Anthony J Trewavas, Institute of Cell and Molecular Biology, University of Edinburgh

(5) See the Greenpeace/Brasil website

(6) Agricultura Dependente, Saude e meio ambiente em risco: Os Transgenicos Sao Tudo Isso (Dependent Agriculture, Health and environment at risk: GMOs Are All of This) CAPA, Centro Ecologico, CETAP with assistance from AS-PTA, CEPAGRI, FUNDEP-DER, IAF, RURECO and VIANEI; and

Alimentos Transgenicos. Nao Engula Essa! (Transgenic Foods, Don’t swallow it!) IDEC with assistance from NOVIB and GTTransgenicos; and

‘A tecnologia genetica na Europa’, by Svend Ulmer in Transgenic Foods, International Moratorium Alliance, RJ, 2000, produced by the Brazilian campaign for a GM-free Brazil (signed by IDEC, Greenpeace, AS-PTA, IBASE et al) and the Heinrich Boll Institute

(7) ‘Impact of Bt Corn Pollen on Monarch Butterfly Populations: a risk assessment’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 11 September 2001

(8) Report of the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification

(9) Professor Mae Wan Ho, Open University, UK, Greenpeace/Brasil website

(10) Os Mitos da Biotecnologia Agricola: Algumas Questoes Eticas, (The Myths of Agricultural Biotechnology: Some Ethical Questions), Dr Miguel A Altieri, Department of Environmental Sciences, University of California, USA for the Greenpeace/Brasil website

(11) Os Mitos da Biotecnologia Agricola: Algumas Questoes Eticas, (The Myths of Agricultural Biotechnology: Some Ethical Questions), Dr Miguel A Altieri, Department of Environmental Sciences, University of California, USA for the Greenpeace/Brasil website

(12) ‘Foods from Genetically Modified Crops’, , San Diego Center for Molecular Agriculture, January 2001

(13) Unearthing the truth about organic food, Alex Avery and Dennis Avery

(14) ‘Agricultura e seguranca alimentar’, Joao Pedro Stedile in Alimentos Transgenicos: Alianca International pela Moratoria, RJ, 2000, produced by the Brazilian campaign for a GM-free Brazil (signed by IDEC, Greenpeace, AS-PTA, IBASE) and the Heinrich Boll Institute

(15) Telephone and email communication with Paulo Galerani, chief of communication and Business at Embrapa-Soja, April 2001

(16) Greenpeace/Brasil website

(17) ‘Cientista consegue criar um mosquito resistente a malaria’, Martin Enserink, from ‘Science Now’ in the Folha de Sao Paulo: Folha Ciencia, 25 September 2001

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