for Hugh Warwick's excellent article on the Indian farmers' jury on GM crops see: http://members.tripod.com/~ngin/indjury.htm
for ActionAid's report (as pdf) on that project: http://www.actionaid.org/pdf/jury.pdf
for a UK citizens' jury on GM: http://www.geneticsforum.org.uk/future.htm
The seeds of revolt
Citizens' jury delivers 'no' verdict to GM crops in Brazil
Wednesday May 23, 2001
The Guardian (Guardian Society, page 9)
Antonio Lopez runs the community seedbank, a collection of five oil drums stored in a ramshackle outbuilding of the one-room house where he lives with his wife and seven children. Antonio cultivates 40 hectares of arid outback land in the state of Ceara in north-east Brazil. For the farmers and their families who live in the remote community, the seeds he stores - safe from mice and damp - mean life. Without them, they cannot plant crops, there will be no harvest, they will have no food to eat and nothing to sell at the local market.
It is hardly surprising that he and the other peasant farmers of the region take the subject of seeds seriously. And seeds - particularly the genetically modified variety - are a hot issue right now throughout the country.
Brazil is Europe's last major source of GM-free soya; supermarkets in Britain, including Tesco and Asda, rely on it to supply increasingly GM-sceptical consumers in the UK.
The US and Argentina, the two other main soya exporters to the EU, have switched much of their production to GM crops, and Brazil is now a key target for the powerful GM companies who are seeking to dominate the world soya market. If they have their way, Brazil will soon join the GM club and European importers seeking GM-free products will have nowhere left to turn.
But for the subsistence farmers of Brazil, it is about more than food choices on the supermarket shelf. If they cannot afford GM seeds they will be oustripped by bigger producers, putting at risk traditions passed on through generations for saving and exchanging seeds, choosing pesticides and harvesting methods.
It was in this confrontational atmosphere that a groundbreaking citizens' jury - during which GM crops were put on trial - took place in the north-eastern Brazilian city of Fortaleza last month. The aim of the exercise, run by the charity ActionAid, was to bring to the GM debate the voice of the poor and marginalised farmers who are likely to bear the brunt of the change.
Citizens' juries are not a new concept; they can be traced back at least as far as Gloucestershire and Worcestershire during the 18th century, when bread was regularly put on trial if the price in the market climbed too high. But if ActionAid has its way, they will be at the forefront of a campaign to galvanise the peasants of Brazil into becoming involved in the GM debate.
Eleven farmers and urban consumers, all of whom were unaware of the GM debate, were randomly selected to hear arguments for and against transgenic crops from a host of experts, including some of the country's leading biotech scientists. During two days of combative argument, the farmers heard six witnesses tell them of the benefits they would see from GM seeds and six witnesses explaining the potential downside. The result was unanimous: a resounding 'no' to GM.
But many people in Brazil fear that the battle against GM may already have been partially lost. Rio Grande do Sol - the main soya producing area, where the leftwing government is in the frontline of trying to keep Brazil GM free - is heavily contaminated by GM seed that has been smuggled over the border from Argentina, where 75% of the crop is genetically modified.
Meanwhile, Monsanto, the world's largest biotech company, has bought up 60% of the country's maize seed suppliers, presumably in anticipation of the day when Brazil relinquishes its GM-free status. It has also begun building a £35m plant for making pesticides, to go with its genetically modified seeds, in the state of Bahia.
Farmers unions and other anti-GM pressure groups have accused the Brazilian federal government of being in the pocket of the multinational companies by investing £90m in the Monsanto plant and by unconstitutionally trying to change Brazil's biosafety laws. The government was challenged in the federal court by IDEC, the Brazilian consumer protection organisation, and by Greenpeace, on the grounds that no environmental impact study had been carried out. They won the case, ensuring that, for the time being at least, Brazil remains mostly GM free.
But there are fears that the day when GM arrives in force in Brazil may not be too far away. David Hathaway, an American GM expert who has spent the last 25 years living in Brazil, says: "The government is trying to ride roughshod over the laws. It may already be too late; you can no longer guarantee GM-free soya in the south of the country and nobody really knows what GM tests are being done elsewhere."
In the "sentence" the citizens' jury passed, they demanded that "there should be nothing hidden from workers and peasants".
Critics of Monsanto and the federal government claim both have been relying on farmers' lack of knowledge and information to railroad GM through. It was telling that Monsanto, despite numerous invitations from the organisers to take part in the jury trial, refused to participate.
ActonAid plans to hold four more citizens' juries - from Amazonia to Brasilia - on GM in Brazil in the next 12 months in an attempt to open up the argument even further and to make sure that if Brazil does adopt GM crops it will not be because of the ignorance of the farmers.