Brazil’s agribusiness lobby is using the cover provided by the Rousseff administration scandal to push a Terminator seed amendment through Congress
EXCERPT: If approved, this amendment would make Brazil the first country in the world to legislate in favor of the commercial cultivation of crops with built-in sterility.
Brazil poised to break global moratorium on GM Terminator seeds
Mongabay, 20 October 2015
* Brazil’s agribusiness lobby is using the cover provided by the Rousseff administration scandal as cover to rapidly push a Terminator seed amendment through Congress.
* Terminator seeds are controlled exclusively by biotech multinationals, such as Monsanto, and the company is said to have written the text of the Brazilian amendment.
* Environmentalists worry that that there is insufficient data to prove that Terminators won’t contaminate other crops and plants. Terminators would also be expensive and significantly increase costs for “seed saving” farmers.
Government disarray often offers opportunities for lobby groups, and Brazil is no exception. With President Dilma Rousseff fighting for her political survival, as opposition politicians threaten to impeach her, the agribusiness lobby in the Brazilian Congress is moving to push through an amendment to the country’s Biosafety Law.
That amendment would permit exemptions to the ban on Terminator seeds. If approved, this amendment would make Brazil the first country in the world to legislate in favor of the commercial cultivation of crops with built-in sterility.
Some environmentalists and activists fear that the amendment, which is being pushed through Congress with very little public discussion, could represent one of the most serious threats ever to Brazil’s biodiversity.
What the agribusiness lobby wants is not new. Ever since the country’s Biosecurity Law (no. 11,105) was passed in 2005, the agribusiness lobby has been trying to amend it to allow the cultivation of Terminator plants.
It nearly succeeded in 2009, and was stopped only after a national and international campaign, which included the signing of a petition by some 70,000 people. What is different this time — the third time that the lobby has pushed such an amendment — is that it may well get its way.
Political chaos in Brazil
President Rousseff, from the left-of-center Workers’ Party (PT), was re-elected by a small margin in last year’s general elections, but the right — particularly the agribusiness lobby — greatly increased its representation in Congress. Today half of Brazil’s 594 lawmakers identify themselves with the agribusiness lobby, and agricultural and food companies contributed a quarter of Rousseff’s electoral funding. Now the agenda in Congress is skewed to promote the interests of large industry groups, particularly farmers.
One well-known leftwing commentator said that the rightists had built up “the most notable hegemonic apparatus ever constructed by the Brazilian elites”. Ultra-conservative politicians have demanded huge concessions from Rousseff in return for their support, getting her recently to reshuffle her cabinet to give them greater representation. However, there have been growing signs that this in not enough to placate them, and they intend to impeach the President.
This turmoil is playing havoc with party alliances. The right-of-center Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) is formally part of the ruling coalition, but it frequently sabotages the ruling PT’s policies, particularly with respect to rural matters. Kátia Abreu, from the PMDB, who made the first attempt to change the Biosafety Law back in 2005, is now Minister of Agriculture, and her son heads the Chamber of Deputies’ Agriculture Commission. And it is another PMDB politician, Alceu Moreira, who has put forward the amendment (PL 1117) to the biosafety law in the Agriculture Commission.
These conservative politicians believe that the modernization of Brazilian farming is key to the country’s economic future. Brazil is currently the word’s third largest exporter of agricultural goods, and agriculture is the country’s most important economic sector.
Moreira justified the amendment that he is presenting to the Chamber of Deputies’ Agriculture Commission by declaring that “without research into, and development of, new technological processes it will not be possible to increase the productivity of our crops”.
If the amendment is approved by the Agricultural Commission, which is probable, it will likely face little opposition in Congress and could soon become law. Gerson Teixiera, a leading agricultural expert and a fierce critic of the power of the agribusiness lobby, sees little that could obstruct passage of the amendment, commenting that agribusiness lobbyists “face a clear blue sky”.
Ending Brazil’s ban on Terminator seeds?
This third amendment, which is very similar to the earlier two, will introduce exceptions to Brazil’s ban on Genetic Use Restriction Technologies (GURTs), popularly known as Terminator seeds. These are genetically modified (GM) seeds that have been engineered to be sterile in the second generation. Large biotechnology multinationals, led by Monsanto, justify the need for Terminator seeds as a means of “genetically containing” GM seeds so that they will not destroy a country’s genetic heritage. In other words, they are presented as a “safe option”, a way of protecting a country’s biodiversity.
The two exceptions included in the amendment where Terminator seeds would be allowed are for “bioreactor” crops and “vegetatively propagated” crops. Bioreactor crops include any genetically engineered crop that meets the needs of industry (such as those used to produce pharmaceuticals or biomass for use as a fuel). Vegetatively propagated crops are those that reproduce asexually, with new plants growing from parts of the parent plant.
These exceptions will allow the use of new Terminator species in the cultivation of some of Brazil’s primary crops, such as sugar cane, (largely grown to produce ethanol for vehicles), and eucalyptus (grown to produce pulp for paper).
Moreover, the exemption will extend to ANY plant that is considered “beneficial for biosafety”. This vague language introduces a huge legal loophole and hands over great power to the National Technical Biosafety Commission (CTNBio), over which the agribusiness lobby exercises great influence. It would be the CTNBio that decides what is “beneficial for biosafety”.
Environmentalists sound the alarm
The agriculture minister, Kátia Abreu, has long been an enthusiastic supporter of GURTs, describing them as “a tool for genetic improvement”. Advocates argue that “GURTS are enormously useful in the development of bioreactors … because they can prevent the expression of these characteristics in inappropriate conditions or even prevent their dissemination”. For this reason, they say GURTs are inherently safe.
However, environmentalists are not reassured. They point out that there is widespread scientific uncertainty about Terminator seeds, and fear that they will not behave as intended.