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[RIO DE JANEIRO] The Brazilian government has decided to allow the country's farmers to grow genetically modified (GM) soya for at least another year.

The announcement, which has sparked a storm of protest from environmental groups, comes after the government decided provisionally earlier this year to allow farmers that had illegally grown GM soya to sell their crops — but only until January 2004 (see Brazil to allow sale of illegally grown GM food)

The new legislation allows farmers who have GM seeds in stock to grow GM soya for the 2003/2004 harvest. The farmers will then be allow to sell GM soya until December 2004, after which any remaining GM produce will have to be destroyed. The legislation also makes farmers responsible for any health or environmental damage that occurs as a result of the planting or consumption of GM crops.

The Brazilian government has been divided on the issue, reflecting strong views within the Brazilian public. Vice-president José Alencar, for example, who is standing in for President Luiz Inácio 'Lula' da Silva while he attends a UN meeting in the United States, initially refused to approve the legislation, saying that it was illegal.

However after a long telephone call with the President, Alencar is reported to have agreed to sign the legislation, despite protests from the minister of environment Marina Silva, the agricultural development minister Miguel Rossetto, and several other government representatives.

The decision immediately triggered demonstrations throughout the country. Brazil's general procurator, Cláudio Fonteles, said that it could be the subject of a legal challenge. And the Association of Federal Judges (Ajufe) in Brazil announced that it will seek to have the decision overturned by a federal court.

A recent survey by the Brazilian Institute of Public and Statistical Opinion showed that 70 per cent of Brazilians would prefer to consume products that are free of genetic modification (see Brazilian public unaware of GM foods).