[RIO DE JANEIRO] Brazil has postponed the creation of a regulatory framework for a range of biological procedures, including human cloning and genetic modification of crops. But Brazilian farmers are saying they plan to plant GM seeds with or without legal approval.
Meanwhile, Brazilian president President Luiz Inácio 'Lula' da Silva is under pressure to grant the country's farmers special permission to plant soya beans.
The controversial 'biosafety' bill has created tensions between Brazilian scientists, environmentalists, farmers and religious groups and has proved too complex for lawmakers to get to grips with, despite approval in March by the chamber of deputies, Brazil's lower house of parliament (see Brazil's quandary on bioethics).
After a hectic week in which senator Ney Suassuna proposed an alternative to the approved text, voting on the amended bill had to be postponed. According to senator Heloísa Helena, the broad-ranging legislation is too controversial and there is no consensus among the senators.
Pro-GM farmers were disappointed by the delay, as Suassuna's proposed changes would allow both the production and sale of GM soya. Suassuna's amendments would also permit farmers to store GM seed from the 2004–2005 harvest for their own future planting, although it would not allow them to be sold. Last year, it was announced that Brazilian farmers had already been growing GM crops illegally (see Brazil to allow sale of illegally grown GM food).
But with or without government approval, farmers in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul — where GM seeds from Argentina have been smuggled — intend to plant GM soya in 2004 for harvest in 2005 and some have already started planting seeds, says Carlos Sperotto, president of the state's Agriculture Federation.
According to Sperotto, about 90 per cent of the 95,000 soya producers in Rio Grande do Sul are growing GM soya. "GM soya is not only limited to Rio do Grande — about 20 per cent of Brazilian soya is transgenic", he says.
Germano Rigotto, state governor of Rio Grande do Sul, announced on 17 September that President da Silva will grant 'special permission' for GM soya to be planted in Brazil. This would be the third case of such an intervention since 2003 and would contradict an earlier statement by the president that no such permission would by granted this time.
"The government is being held hostage by farmers who feel free to do whatever they want," says geneticist Rubens Onofre Nodari, a professor at the Federal University of Santa Catarina who also works in the Environmental Ministry's genetic resources section.
Use of GM seeds is not the only controversial aspect of the proposed law, which Nodari is critical of as a whole.
The bill also seeks to ban human embryonic stem cell research along with reproductive cloning, according to the text approved by the chamber of deputies. Religious leaders were pleased with the prohibition of stem cell research, but scientists were not.
As a compromise, Suassuna proposed an amendment to the bill that would allow only research on stem cells taken from surplus embryos from in vitro fertilisation that have been frozen for three years, so long as permission was obtained from the donors.
Nodari, meanwhile, is critical of the bill's scope, which he sees as too broad to be workable. "The legislation joins different issues: genetically modified organisms, which is about creating biosafety rules; transgenic soya, which is about civil disobedience; and stem cells, which has an ethical nature," he says.
Ingrid Sarti, a policy expert and representative of the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science in the Brazilian parliament, also criticises the way the legislation consolidates different issues. In Sarti's view, it is emblematic of procedures adopted in the Brazilian National Congress.
"A radical polarisation of the arguments with a strong presence of the private interests and a consequent lack of a clarifying debate have led to the present legal deadlock for the GM crops," says Sarti.
Aloizio Mercadante, a government senator, says the Senate will vote on the legislation at the start of October. If Suassuna's amendments are accepted, the text will be sent back to the chamber of deputies for confirmation before being passed into law.
Link to the final text of the legislation approved by the Chamber of Deputies (in Portuguese)