The Brazil Project and Environmental Change and Security Program co-hosted a conference on the debate over genetically modified (GM) agriculture in Brazil.
Michael Rodemeyer, a senior consultant at the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, contextualized the issue with a brief summary of the debate over embracing GM agriculture both worldwide and in Brazil. In the 1990s, when GM technology was first introduced, Argentina, the United States, and Canada, three of the world's largest soy producers, readily embraced the technology with little public outcry over possible negative repercussions. However, a contentious debate developed around the issue in Brazil. This resulted in a government ban on certain GM technologies. In spite of this, illegal GM crops smuggled through Argentina are believed to be grown throughout Brazil. Rodemeyer highlighted the significance of this reality by emphasizing Brazil's important role in the global market of agricultural goods, arguing that the government's decisions to whole-heartedly embrace GM agriculture will have strong domestic and international repercussions.
Professor of political science at Wellesley College, Robert Paarlberg, agreed with Rodemeyer's explanation of the realities of GM agriculture in Brazil and asserted that Brazil's experience over the past seven years has helped to debunk a number of arguments against GM technologies. One such claim is that farmers who grow GM crops lose the option of saving and replanting their own seeds, with multinational corporations monopolizing GM technologies and thus benefiting at the expense of farmers.
According to Paarlberg, since GM technologies in Brazil have been popularized in particular by means of seed saving, rather than by buying new seed each year, and since individual farmers have managed these technologies at the grassroots level, the Brazilian case disproves many claims against GM agriculture. Despite his broad support for GM technologies, Paarlberg closed with a warning that were they to be readily used across the board in Brazil, significant challenges, such as establishing international regulations and facing the global (and especially European and Chinese) demand for non-GM agriculture, must be considered.
Dr. Jose Falck-Zepeda, a research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), spoke about safety, regulation, and innovation in the area of GM herbicide resistant soybeans in Brazil. Falck-Zepeda addressed the need to expand the discussion of GM foods to crops consumed locally, such as corn, beans, and cassava. IFRPI, an organization that stresses the development of cautionary policies for genetically modified food, promotes the use of this technology to benefit not only agribusiness exporters but poor, subsistence farmers as well. Besides the issue of better distributing the payoffs of GM technologies, Falck-Zepeda argued that there are many other significant issues intertwined in the debate over GM agriculture, such as the continuing increase in the global demand for food and threats to national sovereignty.
The history of biosafety in Brazil is composed of two principal regulations: the Biosafety Law passed in 1995 and the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which was first enforced in 2004. Falck-Zepeda pointed out that the first Biosafety Law established a convoluted—and often uncertain—process for moving from the research and development of genetically modified foods to their commercial production. This inefficiency was detrimental to investment in the technology. Because biosafety regulation is often costly, companies risked making decisions based on incomplete information and encountering the so-called "stopping problem" (when taking costly regulatory action is just as costly to reverse). Biosafety regulation is even more difficult for Brazil, a country that relies primarily on the public sector for its research and technology. Most public sector biotechnology research groups are still in the early stages of the lab process, as the public sector lacks the same resources and capital available to the private sector. This is why Brazil has a relatively small number of potential technologies undergoing research—less than half the number in Argentina and one-third of the number of technologies in China.
In Brazil, farmers view herbicide resistant soybeans as profitable. They can easily access probable results by looking to neighboring Argentina to validate their claims. Studies from Argentina have also assessed the environmental impact of herbicides—for example, the introduction of herbicide resistant soybeans in Argentina led to an increase in conservation tillage (a practice which causes less damage to the soil and land). Again, Brazil can be expected to have similar results.
Both public and private sector actors must consider the "cost of compliance," or rather, the balance between a country-defined acceptable level of safety and the necessary cost of achieving it. This means identifying areas that contribute to overall risk and focusing heavy investments in these places. Finally, Falck-Zepeda posed the overall question of "How will developing countries deal with biotechnology research and development and will biosafety regulations effect the research and development of crop of critical importance to Brazil's poor.
Dr. José Geraldo Eugênio de França discussed the meaning of research and development, coupled with agribusiness, in Brazil. As director of EMBRAPA, the largest agricultural research organization in Brazil (encompassing over 58 affiliated centers across the country), he has overseen the development of GM soybeans and their integration into the agricultural economy. Agribusiness is the driving force behind Brazil's economy with soybeans as the main agricultural export. Working within this context, EMBRAPA has taken on the task of both regulating and promoting the use of genetically modified soybean varieties. One of their primary responsibilities is the containment of soybean cultivation, which began in southern Brazil ands is now pounding at the doors of the nation's environmental treasure, the Amazon Rainforest.
According to Dr. Eugênio, increased production of soybeans does not justify their cultivation in Amazonian soil. The rapid spread of the crop up to this point has mainly been due to the evolution of its presence in Brazil. Most GM herbicide resistant soybean seeds were smuggled into the country, allowing unregulated proliferation of the crop. In the next cycle of the evolution, EMBRAPA and GM seed manufacturer Monsanto came together to produce a variety of soybean within Brazil's borders. Currently, in what has been labeled the generation of "conventional breeding," the soybean is being produced in adherence with the new biosafety regulations and in a more symbiotic relationship with Brazil's environment.
The introduction of GM soybeans and its technology into Brazilian agribusiness has enforced collaboration between the public and private sectors—as well as national and international companies—in the development of a GM soybean adapted specifically to the Brazilian environment. It has also led to collaboration between Brazilian institutions and Biotechnology companies, a reduction in soybean production costs, and the negotiation of a new Biosafety law. However, as Paarlberg pointed out, Eugênio pointed out that GM soybeans initially produced negative effects, such as the agribusiness' dependence on a technology controlled by only a few companies and the destructive environmental footprint of the early "smuggled seeds." While the government has succeeded in passing newer and stricter safety laws—which stimulate scientific advance as well enforce protection and precaution—the country itself has not invested in the type of crops that will help solve environmental limitations, such as drought and high temperatures.
In the discussion portion of the talk, Professor Paarlberg noted that while the cultivation of soybeans is not directly threatening to the Amazon, the expansion of agribusiness does lead to the displacement of smaller actors who in turn often move to the Amazon and engage in environmentally destructive behavior as they try to recreate their agricultural livelihood. He also echoed Falck-Zepeda's concerns by arguing that soy beans are not a "pro-poor technology" and that in order for Brazil to address poverty, technology for crops like rice, beans, and bananas must be considered alongside increased export earnings.
Written by Daniel Budny.
- Senior Consultant, Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology
- Associate Professor of Political Science, Wellesley College
- Research Fellow, International Food Policy Research Institute
- Director, EMBRAPA (Brazilian Ministry of Agriculture)