Update, June 7th 2011

Brazilian commission changes its internal statutes to speed up approval of GM crops and hasten the release of modified beans

On May 17th a public hearing was held in Brasilia to discuss an application for commercial release of the first genetically modified bean variety. Beans are part of Brazil’s staple diet, consumed daily by most of the population. The new variety was developed by Embrapa (the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation) for resistance to the golden mosaic virus and is already just waiting for commercial authorization from CTNBio (National Biosafety Technical Commission, the official body responsible for evaluating and authorizing GM crops).

The hearing was held at the head offices of Embrapa itself, the state company making the application. This unprecedented event raised the prospect of CTNBio adopting the procedure of ‘consulting society’ at the premises of all applicant companies, with, who knows, the next hearing being held at Monsanto’s head office. The president of CTNBio, Edilson Paiva, claimed they had been unable to find another auditorium available in Brasilia, hence the choice.

The representative for the NGO Terra de Direitos questioned the confidentiality granted to various sections of Embrapa’s report. CTNBio withheld more information than the areas requested by the company, a fact likely to hinder monitoring of the product’s impacts after its commercial release. In this case access to all the data was denied even to the member of the Commission responsible for reporting on the evaluation process.

Field studies were undertaken in just three localities over a two-year period. Interpreted generously this mean that the environmental impacts of the technology were tested in two biomes at most. Brazil’s legislation requires studies to be undertaken in all biomes where the modified plant might be grown. As the Terra de Direitos representative pointed out, Embrapa is applying for unrestricted release of the new GM bean variety throughout the country, despite the lack of adequate data.

AS-PTA’s representative also questioned the absence of data on the potential impacts of genetic modification on the common bean varieties already consumed in Brazil. All the tests were carried out on a single type of bean, rather than those consumed in the country on a daily basis. At the same time, various parts of Embrapa’s report themselves state that the test results vary according to the type of bean receiving the transgene. Despite these tests not being conducted, the application is for release of the GM variety for subsequent incorporation into other bean plants.

Even more revealingly, only two of the 22 transgenic events generated for resistance to the mosaic virus actually worked. As the evaluation report states, it remains unknown why these produced the expected results while the other 20 events did not. Indeed the report concludes that more studies are needed to understand the transgene in question. In other words, when in doubt, release it. This abandonment of the Precautionary Principle was highlighted at the hearing by AS-PTA.

The representative from CONSEA (the National Nutritional and Food Security Council) stressed that the human right to healthy and adequate food will be achieved through agroecology, not through the development of GM seeds. He cited experiments run by Embrapa over an eight-year period that showed considerable success in controlling the bean plant mosaic virus through organic farming methods and without any loss of productivity.

CTNBio approves changes to rules to speed up commercial releases

The day after the public hearing on the GM bean application, the monthly meeting of CTNBio also began in Brasilia. Opening the plenary session, the Secretary of Research and Development Policies and Programs of the Ministry of Science and Technology, Carlos Nobre, emphasized the importance of the Commission’s work and the need for risk evaluation to be based on the Precautionary Principle, much to the incredulity of many of those listening to him. As soon as the Secretary left the plenary session, the president of CTNBio announced that the vote would be taken on changing the body’s statutes. But after hearing the first question, he immediately announced that the process would be sped up to avoid the ‘obstruction principle.’

The regulations were set to be altered at the meeting following a court ruling that obliged CTNBio to introduce more transparent procedures and allow access to the information received for evaluation, except for data covered confidential business information.

The members of the Commission used the chance to alter the statutes to approve changes to the ritual of the evaluation process. They shortened the evaluation periods, meaning that GMOs releases will be even quicker in practice, reinforcing CTNBio’s image as a rubber-stamping institution that has so far never refused a request for commercial release.

The vote to approve the release of GM beans is set to take place shortly.

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