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Brazil's hot debate over genetically modified foods
by Paula Gobbi
November 13, 2000


Delegates from consumer organizations in 119 countries opened a conference in Dhurban, South Africa, today. Near the top of their agenda is the controversy over genetically modified food. Now, you may find that rather surprising, considering the rather muted debate about genetically altered foods in this country. But in much of the rest of the world, it is a hot issue. From Rio de Janeiro, The World's Paula Gobbi sends us part 2 of our series on GM foods.


Farmer Almir Rebello digs around in the dirt on his 247-acre farm. He holds up a fistful of soil full of worms and tiny organisms. Rabello says his soil is rich because his crop is genetically modified soybean, which is banned in Brazil. If the authorities discover it, they'll burn it.

Rebello (in Portuguese with voice over translation): We defend planting GM soybeans because we know they are better. They require 50% less herbicides than conventional soybean. This reduces the production cost and preserves the soil.

Rebello gets his high tech soybeans smuggled in from Argentina, where genetically modified crops are legal.

Rebello: Both Argentines and Americans are smart. They eat genetically modified foods. And we will continue to plant them because we know GM soybean is healthier. The proof can be seen right here on our fields.

Almir Rebello is also an environmentalist. He runs a local organization that's trying to preserve older, more earth- friendly planting practices. But his group now finds itself on the front line of the GM food controversy because it supports genetically modified soybean. That view is at odds with many environmentalists in Brazil.

(Sound of supermarket, with Greenpeace volunteer talking to passerby)

Outside a supermarket in the coastal city of Porto Alegre, activists from the environmental group Greenpeace warn shoppers about the risks of eating GM foods. Brazil's ban only extends to growing GM soybean. It doesn't affect selling food imports that contain GM ingredients.

(Voice of store customer, speaking Portuguese)

It's outrageous, says this passerby, the products have no labeling. We should have information about what we are eating. Soon there will be so much garbage in our food and we won't even know it.

Like most countries, including the United States, Brazil does not require food labels to say if the ingredients are through genetic modification. This supermarket carries Knorr soups, Nestle baby food, and Pringles potato chips ­ products Greenpeace says have GM ingredients.

Mariana Paoli is with Greenpeace.

Paoli: They can cause more allergies to human beings and they can cause harm if someone is treated for an illness and for the environment. We know that we cannot fix the risks afterwards because they are living organisms, so they reproduce inside of the nature.

The standoff in Brazil over genetically modified foods started two years ago when the government approved the planting of GM soybean produced by the giant biotech company, Monsanto. But a consumer group challenged it in federal court, and won. Since then a ban has been in place on growing GM soybeans until further risks can be assessed. Lena Mendonça is a member of the Brazilian Biosafety Commission that initially approved the use of GM soybean.

Mendonca (in Portuguese with voice over translation): We found no evidence that Monsanto GM soybean provokes any harmful effect on human or animal health or causes environmental problems in Brazil. But one cannot generalize. Each genetically modified product has to be analyzed separately, on a case by case basis.

In the case of soybeans, the decision will have enormous implications for Brazil. The country is one of the world's top three producers of soybean. The other two, the United States and Argentina, have already used GM soybean. Brazil has a ready market in Europe, which is fiercely anti-GM, but Fernando Arauto, who represents Brazilian agribusiness, says Brazilian farmers will still lose out.

Arauto (in Portuguese with voice over translation): We are against the ban because we cannot compete with Argentina and the US, who produce GM soybeans and sell it at the same price as ours. They have a lower production cost with less need of herbicides, so we are victims of unequal competition.

The decision about whether to lift the ban on genetically modified soybean is not expected to happen soon. But it may not matter. Despite the ban, agricultural experts estimate that up to 30% of Brazil's soybean crop is genetically modified. The country is simply too vast to enforce it.

For the World Paula Gobbi in Rio de Janeiro.


copyright Exploratorium 2001