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Brazilians boil over ban on altered beans

Monsanto is appealing a ruling on transgenic seeds as the global debate

By Jack EpsteinSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / August 25, 1999


When Humberto Falco, a soybean farmer from the southern Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul, heard about the gene-altered seeds that were resistant to bugs, weeds, and fungus, he wanted them in the worst way.

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But he won't get the chance to plant them anytime soon. At least, not legally.

In June, a federal judge here banned sales of US-based Monsanto Corp.'s Roundup Ready soybean seeds until the Brazilian government has set biosafety rules.

"I believe that the irresponsible haste in introducing the advances of genetic engineering is inspired by the greed of economic globalization," wrote the judge in his decision.

In few other countries are the stakes so high in the debate over genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Brazil is the second-largest soybean producer in the world, after the United States.

While the ruling enraged some farmers here, others see an emerging advantage. Earlier this month, Japan announced it would require labels on GM food, following in the path of several European nations. In addition, Singapore has set up screening guidelines for the import of genetically altered agricultural goods, while Australia's health minister announced plans Aug. 22 to begin regulating commercial GM products.

All this has prompted speculation among grain traders that non-GM crops could rise in value.

Soybeans mean big business for Brazil, which sold $4.7 billion worth of soy products worldwide last year, according to official figures. For farmers like Mr. Falco, who believes ample testing has proved transgenic seeds to be safe for the environment and consumers, the restrictions seem unfair. "In a democracy, we should have the right to choose new technology," says Falco, who also serves as vice president for the Association of Rio Grande do Sul State Seed Producers.

James Wilbur, who follows Monsanto for Salomon Smith Barney in New York, calculates that licensing transgenic soybean seeds to Brazilian farmers would earn the St. Louis based multinational $1 billion a year in added sales if it captured 50 percent of the soybean market. And that would be just the beginning. Monsanto has plans to introduce 10 more modified crops - including corn and cotton - into Brazil, already its biggest export market.

Only three countries - the United States, Canada, and Argentina - grow transgenic soybeans commercially, with comparatively little public debate. These nations are Brazil's biggest competitors, and farmers like Falco say they need the new seeds to boost yields and sharpen their competitiveness.

Attack of the 'super weeds'?

But critics say the seeds manufactured by Monsanto, the world's second-largest seed and third-largest agrochemical company, could accelerate the evolution of resistant insects. They say that the spread of new genes to weeds via windblown pollen could also lead to the inadvertent creation of "super weeds" that won't die when sprayed. Roundup Ready seeds are designed to be resistant to Monsanto's popular Roundup herbicide.

Elsewhere in the world, studies are still under way on the long-term environmental and health effects of GMOs. In May, the European Commission, the European Union's ruling body, postponed field tests of Monsanto's gene-altered corn after laboratory studies at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., found that pollen from the corn, when eaten by larvae of Monarch butterflies, killed nearly half and stunted the rest.