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Brazil last week moved a step closer to permitting the planting of genetically-modified (GM) crops - as well as research on human embryos - when a bill that would allow both practices was approved by the country's Senate.

In each case, however, the relevant parts of the bill are amendments to an earlier version approved by the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of the Brazilian parliament, under which neither practice would be permitted (see Brazil delays GM crops and cloning bill).

And the fact that the approval of both legislative houses is required if the bill is to become law means that its future remains uncertain.

The main purpose of the broad-ranging bill is to regulate all biotechnology activities in Brazil. The amendments, which allow the production and the sale of GM soya bean tolerant to the herbicide glyphosate, were drafted following pressure from farmers who had been growing GM crops illegally (see Brazil to allow sale of illegally grown GM food).

According to the document written by senator Ney Suassuna to propose changes to the previous bill "[Brazil is] currently growing genetically modified soya for the 2005 harvest and there is no legal framework on the issue".

The bill also seeks to ban human cloning for reproductive purposes.

The version approved by the chamber of deputies would have banned embryonic stem cell research. But the amended version will allow research on stem cells taken from surplus embryos, left over from in vitro fertilisation procedures and already frozen for three years, so long as permission is obtained from the donors.

Brazil's minister of science and technology, Eduardo Campos, hailed the amended bill as "the first step forward an important victory for the Brazilian science".

According to Campos, consultations between scientists and parliamentarians in recent months had a key role in persuading the change in the legislation.

"This will mean that Brazil has a legal framework [on GM and stem cell research] and will be one of the five countries in the world with the highest international presence in the biotechnology arena," said Campos.

The version of the bill proposed by Suassuna received 53 votes in favour and two against, with three senators abstaining. Before becoming law, the amended bill must be voted on again by the Chamber of Deputies.

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