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.
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.
Nonetheless, the world market for food made from transgenic material - everything from potato chips and microwave popcorn to ketchup and soy sauce - is booming. Sales have skyrocketed from $4 billion in 1997 to an estimated $19 billion in 1999, according to Salomon's Mr. Wilbur.
That has sharpened the debate in Brazil over the future of the country's agriculture industry. In the past year, federal courts here have intervened twice to overturn government approvals for Monsanto to sell transgenic soybeans, and two state governors have vowed to make their areas "transgenic free."
Blocking GM crops
Rio Grande do Sul Gov. Olivia Dutra recently halted transgenic seed production at 79 experimental sites, claiming the farms lacked proper environmental-impact studies. Rio Grande do Sul is Brazil's third-largest soybean producing state.
In Mato Grosso, Brazil's second-leading soy producer, state congressman Gilney Viana has called for an official investigation into transgenic products. Next door in Mato Grosso do Sul, a state with 42 experimental corn plots, Gov. Jos Orcinio dos Santos is pressing for a five-year moratorium.
The press has also questioned Monsanto's right to patent its seeds. A recent editorial in the influential Rio daily Jornal do Brasil criticized Monsanto for forcing US farmers to sign patent agreements not to save seeds from one harvest to the next.
"Transgenic soybeans would be economically disastrous, harnessing the most important sector of our agricultural exports to one or two suppliers with a world monopoly on seeds," it warned.
Some producers believe there may be economic dividends in rejecting transgenic beans, given the reluctance of many consumers worldwide to eat food made from GMOs. That reluctance is especially strong in Europe, Brazil's biggest market for soybean oil. In Britain, for instance, such products have been dubbed "Frankenstein foods."
"Each week, we exchange information with Europeans who tell us stories about mad cow disease and tainted Coca-Cola," says Antnio Wustin, president of the 6,500-member Cotrimaio Agricultural Cooperative in Rio Grande do Sul. "They are afraid of transgenic products."
While Britain's 1997 hysteria over mad cow disease and this year's problems at three Coca-Cola bottling plants in Belgium and France were unrelated to the GM food debate, they have heightened public concerns about product safety in Europe.
"Brazil has the historic opportunity to become the world's largest producer of conventional soybeans," says Rio Grande do Sul Agriculture Secretary Jos Hermeto Hoffman. "That would give us a captive market" prepared to pay a premium price.
Monsanto fights back
Meanwhile, open warfare has broken out between Monsanto and Brazil's environmentalist state governors. The US company has gone on the offensive, with newspaper ads attacking "intolerance" and "incorrect and deceitful information" against biotechnology products. Monsanto also has appealed Judge Souza Prudente's ruling and still hopes to sell Roundup Ready seeds for the 1999/2000 planting season.
Farmers here are so anxious to plant transgenic seeds, says Falco, that they are buying them from door-to-door salesmen from neighboring Argentina, where they are legal. He says his neighbors have already planted 30 percent of the state's crop with contraband seeds.
"If the authorities insist on banning this," he says, "they will have to build a Berlin Wall around our borders."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society