Science in Society Archive

Keeping Brazil GM-free

Another World is Possible

Outrageous as it may seem, the federal government of Brazil has joined up with Monsanto to appeal again and again for Brazil's moratorium on commercial growing of GM crops, imposed since 1999, to be lifted. So, what is keeping Brazil GM-free? The answer: a strong, independent judiciary, who take their independence very seriously. Dr. Mae-Wan Ho reports from her recent visit to the World Social Forum.

Other necessary ingredients are seven non-government organisations, among them Brazil's powerful consumer association, IDEC, and Greenpeace, several state governments, chief among them Rio Grande do Sul, the first state to impose the moratorium, and a sprinkling of scientists.

"We have an extraordinarily good judiciary set up since the end of the military dictatorship, as people never want another dictatorship again," said Marijane Lisboa, Executive Director of Greenpeace Brazil, a firebrand with a striking head of red hair. She has debated pro-biotech scientists from the start, and when they tried to dismiss her by telling her she did not understand the science, she retorted that they had better make sure she understood, because the rest of the people were just like her.

The federal government wants to approve GMOs and has introduced a bill in congress to do so. A commission has been appointed to study the pros and cons and will produce an official report. Three states, Rio Grande do Sul, Para and Mato Grosso are legislating for a moratorium, quite independently of the federal government.

Meanwhile, GMOs are still forbidden by the federal court until the requisite studies on environmental and health risks have been carried out. Monsanto and the federal government are appealing and a new judgement is due towards the end of February. There is strong optimism that the judgement will go against Monsanto.

"We have a strong biodiversity law", said Flavia Londres, campaigner for GM-free Brazil on behalf of AS-PTA, a ngo working for alternative agriculture. "Fortunately for us, in 1988, the new constitution gave special power to the Public Prosecutor, who is separate from the government, and can bring cases against the government on behalf of civil society. Aurelio Rios has brought the case against the National Biosafety Committee's approval of GM crops on behalf of the ngos."

I met Aurelio Rios in 1999, when I was invited to speak in the very first public seminar organised by the judiciary, on Biodiversity Law. The organisers had expected perhaps 50 people to turn up. In the event, 1200 did, and overflowed the auditorium's capacity of 800.

I remember being very pleasantly surprised. Finding such a lively, socially responsible gaggle of judges is like discovering that one's local football team is a secret society of theoretical physicists.

If judges could be different, why not scientists?

I shared a platform with Dr. Rubens Onofre Nodari in a seminar organised by the GM-Free Brazil campaign at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, the motto of which is, "Another World is Possible".

Nodari is Professor of Genetics at the Federal University of Santa Catarina, specialising in crop science. He is highly critical of the EMBRAPA, Brazil's publicly funded agricultural research institute that has 30 centres around the country. There are three of them in Rio Grande do Sul. Its official position is pro-biotech.

"Researchers are not allowed to criticise biotech in public," said Nodari. Monsanto gave the scientists in EMBRAPA the herbicide resistant GM construct to do research, and there is agreement at the highest level, between Monsanto and the President of EMBRAPA. The researchers themselves have no say.

"Some researchers are privately fearful about the future," Nodari said, and believe that the release of GMO is premature. But, they basically believe in the technology.

Nodari first got involved in the GM debate in 1997 within the Brazilian Academy, of which he is a member, and went public in 1998.

"It is not a matter of for or against GM", he said. "We must look at the products, and for every one of these, there is an alternative." That is important, because Brazil's Biodiversity Law is strongly precautionary, and alternatives must be considered in every case.

Nodari is one among the 20 or so scientists in Brazil who hold the same view. Although he has been granted considerable freedom to speak, and has not lost his job as in too many cases in Britain and the United States, he believes it has cost him some major grants.

Nodari walks a fine line, but at least open debate is not out of the question. He has even been invited to sit on the Soy Bean Research Centre Consultative Committee for two years to consider the their transgenic research. He laments the commercialisation of science and the demise of social responsibility, but remains hopeful.

In fact, that was the predominant feeling I came away with, as the World Social forum ended with spontaneous singing and dancing in the huge auditorium, spilling out into the hall and onto the streets. There's hope and a joyful primal energy untainted by cynicism, in the sincere belief that people can make a difference, or maybe even bring another world into being.

Article first published 22/02/02

Got something to say about this page? Comment

Comment on this article

Comments may be published. All comments are moderated. Name and email details are required.

Email address:
Your comments:
Anti spam question:
How many legs on a cat?