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GMOs have changed Brazilian agriculture for the worse, says agronomist - part 1

A Brazilian agronomist and member of the country's GMO regulatory body says as evidence of GMO harm grows, companies are getting more secretive

Below is an extract from an extraordinary (and long) interview with the Brazilian agronomist Leonardo Melgarejo, who represents the Ministry of Agrarian Development at the country's GMO regulator, CTNBio. Melgarejo looks at several aspects of GMOs and concludes they have changed Brazilian agriculture for the worse.

This interview is remarkable because it comes from someone in the very midst of Brazilian agricultural policy. And while Brazil is often held up as the great GMO success story, Melgarejo makes clear that the reality is very different.

In the later part of the interview (to follow soon!), Melgarejo deconstructs CTNBio's unscientific approach to GMO approvals and criticises its official dismissal of the Seralini study on GM maize. He also welcomes the Brazilian government's policy to support agroecological and organic agriculture and says it gives reason for optimism for the future.
Transgenics are changing for the worse the Brazilian agricultural reality
Special interview with Leonardo Melgarejo (part 1)
Instituto Humanitas Unisinos (Brazil), Jun 3 2013
Portuguese original:
Google translation into English:
GMWatch edit of Google translation below

"There are contradictory approaches. On one side there is unanimity on the importance of scientific and potential of genetic engineering for the future of humanity. On the other hand, there is a great divide on the results obtained to date," says the agronomist.

After returning from a series of CTNBio meetings on the development of transgenics in Brazil, Leonardo Melgarejo gave the following interview to IHU Online by email. He questions what he calls "polemical decisions" taken by the collegiate that has the purpose of providing technical support to federal government in the formulation, update and implementation of national biosafety policy concerning Genetically Modified Organisms -- GMOs.

According to him, among the topics on the agenda was the confidentiality of information concerning "the agronomic performance of transgenic crops". He explains, "There is an understanding among the majority of members, that even the information about the performance of GM crops should be kept confidential. Moreover, the understanding is that all information obtained in the tests should be secret. Two years ago this was not so. Between then and now, in the opinion of the minority, the evidence of side effects has grown, and, the same time, the fears of companies have grown of the disclosure of these effects.

"Possibly, the marketing campaigns would be harmed by field evidence if it became public knowledge. Thus, some companies ask for secrecy on all or almost all the results of much of their studies. They claim that the registry of new cultivars will only be possible insofar that all information about these cultivars are secret, unknown, completely unpublished."

Melgarejo also draws attention to a new agenda that is being crafted by companies, relating to the introduction of new transgenic species into the market, such as sugarcane, sorghum, orange and eucalyptus. "Currently rules are being created for field testing of these crops, which are necessary steps to commercialization. If we take as examples soybean, corn, and cotton, experience shows that these thousands of experiments performed, especially in the center-south of the country, generated very few data on the potential impacts on the environment and health of these modified plants. Up to now there is no indication that the framework will change for these new species. We regret that the trend will be repeated of generating data of agronomic interest of companies, which however is of little or no use for the analysis of biosafety, which - after all - is the remit of CTNBio," he says.

Leonardo Melgarejo is an agricultural engineer, Master of Rural Economy and Ph.D. in Industrial Engineering from the University of Santa Catarina - UFSC. He is a member of the National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform - INCRA, in Rio Grande do Sul. [GMW note: Dr Melgarejo is also the Representative of the Ministry of Agrarian Development at the Brazilian GMO regulator CTNBio.]

Check out the interview:

IHU On-Line - How have transgenics changed Brazilian agricultural production?

Leonardo Melgarejo - This technology doubtless has its attractiveness. It promises great results in terms of better and more healthy products. It also promises lower environmental impact, greater productivity and profitability for producers large and small, with smaller risks for consumers. And it still plays with very complex hopes: promising drought-resistant plants, plants tolerant to acid soils, plants that cure diseases, among other dreams of humanity. Unfortunately nothing addition has been confirmed. To date, these claims are still restricted to marketing campaigns and demonstrations by supporters of the technology.

It is true that herbicide tolerant crops bring initial technical benefits. They bring simplifications to the management process, which are important and facilitate the work of the farmer. Just as it is true that [GM] insecticidal plants that kill caterpillars trying to chew its leaves allow temporary savings on insecticides and facilitate the control of certain insects. But this has only been shown to be true in the short term. In medium term, what has been observed is the opposite: it becomes necessary to use stronger and more toxic agrochemicals, with greater frequency and greater intensity, expanding the costs and reducing the profitability of crops.

To give you an idea: according to press reports, this season, with the onslaught of [Helicoverpa or corn ear]worms that should be controlled by Bt crops, the cost of soybean production in Bahia went from USD100 to USD200 per hectare. For cotton, spending rose from USD 400 to USD 800 per hectare (Valor Econômico, 3.12.2013). According to press reports, farmers until 2012 used 70 ml of DuPont's Premio insecticide (the product most recommended and used in the region), with the expectation of killing 90% of the population of Helicoverpa caterpillars that should be killed on contact with Bt plants. In this harvest, even using 150 ml, they obtained results of only 70%. The losses in Bahia are estimated at USD 2 billion.

The concrete results show that, of general form, is possible to affirm that transgenics have offered for some [farmers], for some time, easier management, in terms of the homogenization of decision processes related to herbicides and control of some pests. However, this has very severe consequences for those involved. And even for those who benefit in the short term, the results seen in the medium and long term do not allow optimism.

Consider: Brazilian agriculture is faced with the expansion of production costs and has noted a change in the minimum size of the crop area that is technically viable, in corn, soybeans and cotton. Thus, small businesses become unviable, which results in acceleration of the exclusion of small producers. This means that in practice, transgenics have accelerated a kind of topsy-turvy land reform in rural Brazil. The expansion of GM crops also accelerates the simplification of productive regional matrices[?].

Vicious circle

By reducing the number of producers and the range of products offered, the expansion of monoculture and advancement of transgenic crops provoke a vicious circle, that magnifies the difficulties of the permanence of family farms. Note: as it requires economies of scale and is deleterious to the family farm, this technology leads to the reduction of rural population and ultimately impedes the provision of services that are essential for life in the fields. Schools, health centres [sic], the lines of milk collection become unfeasible when the population is sparse. So, we can say that the expansion of GM exacerbates the trend of weakening the social fabric necessary for the permanence of the man in the field.

Besides reinforcing the emptying of the countryside and curbing the progress of policies that invest in rural development processes, as far as concerns the people, transgenics threaten the quality of life of those who remain in the field, by expanding the volume of pesticides used. Brazil has become the country that uses the most agrochemicals in the world. For agribusiness this is not bad: it suggests a higher turnover, allowing a growth in GDP and the sector's contribution to the national economy to be mapped.

But this is not in society's interest from the point of view of the majority of the population. Not just because it goes against common sense, but also because it reinforces a vicious circle. The larger volume of pesticides causes, in addition to health problems, the emergence of herbicide tolerant plants, requiring expanded use of poisons. And not only that: the increased use of poisons is associated with the need for more dangerous poisons. Note: the first GM released in Brazil were resistant to Roundup, a herbicide based on glyphosate, which is classified by ANVISA to be of low toxicity. It is demonstrably associated with the occurrence of some types of cancer, reproductive problems and neurotoxicity, among other effects, but is classified as of low toxicity. But these no longer work well and will be replaced by GMOs currently under evaluation by CTNBio, which are tolerant to 2,4-D. And this is of high toxicity. Possibly, this will soon be applied by plane, perhaps over millions of hectares. Do we expect that this poison will only fall on crops? It is important to note that a plant that does not die when you douse it in a poison with hormonal action, carries with it some of that poison. It will be eaten along with the residues of that poison.

Why are transgenic glyphosate tolerant crops being replaced? Because nature produced plants that do not die when this poison is applied to them.

Transgenics is changing the reality of Brazilian agriculture

In the case of plant insecticides that kill caterpillars that attack their grains, roots, and leaves, something similar is happening. Nature is producing caterpillars that do not die when they eat plants that contain those toxins. The losses in this harvest led the government to decree a phytosanitary state emergency and authorize the import and application of new insecticides. One of them, emamectin benzoate, is condemned by ANVISA. It is a proven neurotoxic product, one which was not previously used in the country, but which now, thanks to transgenics, has become incorporated into the technological packages of Brazilian agribusiness. Anyway, this question is very broad and could be discussed for hours. Maybe in a very simplified way, we can only say that the transgenics are changing for the worse the reality of Brazilian agriculture.

The negative impacts are socioeconomic, structural, and environmental, and relate to health and plant health. Transgenics grow and worsen the framework of agrotoxics use, with impacts on human health and environment. Insect pests that were irrelevant have now become major pests that require new insecticides [to control them]. The biodiversity is reduced. The ecological imbalance increases. Native seeds can be contaminated with transgenes conveyed by pollen that gets everywhere, carried by insects and wind, with impacts relevant to the future of the nation. This extends the rights of the multinational company holding the patents of those transgenes into the stocks of seeds stored for generations by farmers across the country, reducing our perspectives of autonomy, security, and food sovereignty.

IHU On-Line - You can develop agriculture without the use of GMOs?

Leonardo Melgarejo - Yes, there are many examples of this. Embrapa has technologies to solve, with superior results, all the problems that are used as justifications for the expansion of GMOs. Embrapa even has solutions to the problems caused by transgenics - the plants which do not die with the application of herbicides and the insects that attack the Bt crops. But not only Embrapa has such knowledge. Organizations, networks, and markets of ecologically-based producers can be visited in virtually all parts of Brazil. And it is not just small farms, although these predominate. We have vast areas with crops of soybeans, corn, rice, and other crops produced with techniques based on agroecology.

According to the Brazilian Association of Producers of Non Genetically Modified Grain, Abrange, Brazil is the largest producer and exporter of non-GM products. This association maintains that between 2009 and 2011, "clean" soybean production increased from 12 to 14 million tons and that farmers in the Mato Grosso Soja Livre program received last season an additional revenue of 235.3 million Brazilian real. They also saved 47.4 million Brazilian real by not paying royalties to multinationals that control those technologies.

It is important to strengthen the viability of another model of agriculture. Yes, that depends on another technological paradigm, but it also depends on a social basis strengthened in the field. On the other hand, the current situation and the prospects for the near future are increasingly impacted by the effects of climate change, the energy crisis and a growing deterioration of natural resources indicate the non-viability of the current production model. The most serious aspect is that while agribusiness is expanding, the number of hungry and malnourished people in the world is growing. That means not just a threat to the maintenance of sociopolitical and economic conditions, but also to the possibility of recovery of the physical and natural resources that have always sustained agriculture. The threat to biodiversity is life threatening.

IHU On-Line - Given the advance of transgenic plants and the use of pesticides, it is still possible to develop an alternative agriculture?

Leonardo Melgarejo - Yes, there are concrete experiences in this sense, that could be visited, filmed, exposed to general knowledge. Consider as example the case of irrigated rice. The rice crop is a more sophisticated product of gaucho agriculture, one that involves a higher level of technological sophistication and is therefore more difficult to manage and control. It is the front line of gaucho agribusiness, and it has so much power that it prevented the release of a transgenic rice produced by Bayer (in the month in which it was going to be approved by CTNBio) for commercial cultivation in Brazil. As the European market does not accept GM rice, and rice farmers and gauchos did not want to lose access to that market, at that time they held a demonstration that was so effective that Bayer voluntarily withdrew its application for commercial release before the decision of CTNBio, which surely would have approved [Bayer's] application. The largest producer of irrigated rice without use of agrotoxics in Latin America is a group of farmers established in agrarian reform settlements, in Rio Grande do Sul. Only this last harvest they cultivated 3400 hectares and reaped close to 15 thousand tons of rice without the use of agrotoxics. Realize: this is occurring in the more complex type of farming, with greater technical sophistication and in relation to the most powerful group of gaucho agribusiness. Therefore, it is evident that it could be achieved even more easily in activities that are more dependent on labor, such as horticulture, hardwoods, roots, and tubers. It also could be accomplished in big crops of lesser sophistication, like corn and soybeans.

Why does this not occur naturally? Because of the lines of credit, the research achievements, the networks of transport and storage, and agricultural development policy are compromised by lobbying from agrochemical companies. The national agriculture is pushed towards a transition to greater reliance on agrochemicals, preventing the support of situations like the one created by agrarian reform in Rio Grande do Sul. Ali, the organization and coordination of family farmers, with support from the MDA (Ministry of Rural Development), allowed them to overcome limitations that are insurmountable for family farmers acting separately.

So the answer to that question is simple: it is always possible to develop an agriculture alternative to this, which depends on massive external support and capital-intensive inputs, and which would not survive without government support. It is enough that there is availability of credit, research support, and marketing support, so that the advantages of clean agriculture became evident to the whole society. The experience of PAA [Food Acquisition Program] and PNAE [National School Food Program] have shown such impressive results in the short term, expanding the supply of clean products and strengthening family agriculture, which should be taken into account more seriously by the federal, state and municipal governments.

IHU On-Line - Why has GM seed been a choice / commitment of the Brazilian government?

Leonardo Melgarejo - It's a transnational bid conveyed through agribusiness links, not through the government itself. The change of governments has not brought differences in this field. [Brazilian presidents] FHC, Lula and Dilma have allowed and are allowing those interests to assert their objectives. In my view the government ends up being oriented by agribusiness, that defines its strategic choice, and makes it viable through their agents, that operate within and outside government. Whether or not the current government opts for this model from a political-ideological standpoint, the significant presence of Ruralistas in Congress reinforces the game of give and take with an interest in the predominant model of agriculture. A small group of companies holds the technologies, the patents and the channels of seed distribution, for agrotoxics, for agricultural machinery and equipment. These companies work together and their strength prevents the government from taking independent decisions on issues affecting them.

The companies that control the market for agrotoxics also control the seed market, and the seeds transgenic are part of technological packages that would not exist without the pesticides. Perhaps Bt seeds could be seen as an exception. As they contain insecticidal proteins, they do not need the application of insecticides. However, the current crisis of Helicoverpa and the emergence of new pests and pest resistance force us to question that exception.

In the background, something obvious happens: large companies organize themselves to assert their interests. In a representative democracy, it is legitimate … to seek to achieve [one's] interests. Somehow, everyone does it.

But in this case, the interests of the majority result from inadequately addressed. There is an uneven distribution of ability to influence. There is an unequal contest and a distortion in the ability to access information. This explains dismissals at Anvisa for criticism regarding administrative procedures benefiting companies such as lack of re-evaluations of pesticides, such as the distribution of products in Brazil banned elsewhere in the world, the lack of application of labelling of GM products, and the noncompliance with, and tendency towards relaxing, the rules governing biosafety assessments in Brazil, among many examples that seem to indicate that transgenics are the choice of the government. Actually, what happens is that the choices in this field of governance choices seem contaminated by agribusiness, which in turn responds to the interests of large corporations. I don't believe you can talk of a conscious national proposal supporting genetic modification, as the rational choice of the Brazilian government.

IHU On-Line - What are the impacts of the bartering of transgenic seed for the family farm? What changes the perspective of production familiar?

Leonardo Melgarejo - It is something that goes against the interests of the family farm, due to the arguments already presented. Even those farmers who believe in short term benefits will be confronted with problems within a few years. The viability of small family farming will be threatened. The contamination of seeds reserved by farmers for replanting will be inevitable. Once that happens, GM technology holders have the right to charge royalties for the use of those seeds.

In practice, the incorporation of transgenic seeds into a support program for family agriculture compromises this program, placing it the service of opposite interests. It's an inversion where the state becomes the sponsor of the embrittlement of the social fabric of the countryside, and starts to act in a direction opposite to the territorial development policies that emphasize the goal of "rural development, with the people". The result, in medium and long term, is predictable. Expansion will bring a minimum viable area of crops, greater social exclusion, acceleration in the trends of social and environmental erosion, reduction in biodiversity, soil and water, expansion in the use of pesticides, emergencies caused by pests resistant to Bt protein and herbicide-tolerant weeds, emergence of new pests, expansion in production costs, and especially the expansion of multinationals and increased dependency of our economy on their interests.