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[RIO DE JANEIRO] Broad-ranging legislation approved by Brazil's Chamber of Deputies — but still awaiting approval by the country's Senate before passing into law — has provoked strong protests from sectors of the Brazilian scientific community.

The so-called Biosafety Bill seeks to regulate both GM crops and human cloning, and to design a new structure for regulating and supervising research on and the commercial use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

The Bill was approved last month in the lower house of Brazil's National Congress after intense discussions involving scientists, government officials, environmentalists, farmer representatives, and Protestant and Catholic groups (who are highly influential in the political arena). These groups are now preparing for the second round of debates that will take place at the Senate, although a date for the final vote has not yet been fixed.

One of the more controversial items in the proposed legislation is the prohibition of all research on embryonic stem cells, including that which is aimed at treating human disease, rather than reproducing complete human beings.

Such a move is being strongly promoted by Catholic and Protestant church groups and their individual representatives. However many Brazilian scientists disagree with this stance, and hope to convince legislators in the Senate that the proposed ban would be excessive.

"The total prohibition [of research on human embryos] is reminiscent of the age of Gailileo, and could delay research that may lead to an improvement in the quality of human life," says Lygia Pereira, a geneticist at São Paulo University, in an article published in Jornal da Ciência.

Mayana Zatz, another geneticist at the same university, says that researchers do not themselves intend to 'grow' the embryos to be used in their research, although adds that "we may use those that are surplus to the needs of fertilisation clinics". Everyone agrees, however, that the new law must forbid reproductive cloning.

To avoid an endless debate, the government may side step the issue entirely. "There is a possibility that all references to cloning and related issues could end up being deleted by the government, and a new bill sent to the Federal Chamber of Representatives," says physicist Ennio Candotti, president of the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science, which, along the Brazilian Academy of Sciences, has been representing the scientific community in these debates.

Another point of disagreement over the legislation lies in a section of the draft law that says the final word on decisions about the commercial growing or use of GMOs should be left to a new National Council of Biosafety (NCS), which would be made up of 15 ministers (or their political equivalents).

Concerned that decisions might be taken on political rather than scientific grounds, members of the scientific community are trying to persuade legislators to specify in the final text that instead the National Technical Commission of Biotechnology (CNTBio) takes such decisions. This currently has 16 scientists among its 36 members, and has, up to now, been responsible for giving permission for any research or commercial use of GMOs.

Supporters of GM crops in the Chamber of Deputies have already obtained a partial victory. The Biosafety Bill extends permission for the planting and commercialisation of transgenic soybean – currently grown illegally in the country – for a further year, to the 2005 seasonal harvest (see Brazil agrees to cultivation of GM soya – for now). 

Brazil's legislative system only allows minor alterations to a bill once it has been approved by the Chamber of Deputies. If more significant changes are made, the bill must go back to the Chamber to face a new round of debates and decisions.