Update March 2009

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Update from the GM-Free Brazil Campaign
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Brazil, Rio de Janeiro, April 04, 2009


The public hearing on GM rice held on March 18th in Brasilia clearly showed the almost unanimous resistance to introducing Bayer’s transgenic seed into Brazil. Embrapa (the largest state agricultural research company), IRGA (the Rice Research Institute of Rio Grande do Sul, a state responsible for 70% of Brazilian production of rice), Federarroz and Farsul (Rio Grande do Sul’s main producer organizations) officially opposed the release of the Liberty Link rice, genetically modified for tolerance to application of the glufosinate ammonium herbicide, also produced by Bayer.

The reasons presented were both technical and economic. Flávio Breseghello from Embrapa’s rice and bean research centre set out the company’s position “authorized by the presidency.” The researcher emphasized to the hearing that the company is not against transgenic crops (on the contrary, it is undertaking research in this area) nor against genetic modification of rice varieties, but that in this particular case Bayer’s product “will worsen the pre-existing problems.” “We shouldn’t use technologies that will be valid for a few harvests only,” Breseghello argued.

The main technical impediment faced by rice producers is controlling red rice, an ancestral species of commercial rice that competes with the latter. Producers expressed their concern that the transgenic crop would inevitably cross with the red rice variety and generate a transgenic weed resistant to the herbicide. The hearing also learned that red rice, due to its features as a non-domesticated plant, produces seeds with dormancy (which remain stored in the soil for years waiting for the right conditions to germinate).

Discussion also focused on the ClearField technology produced by the German company BASF, already authorized in Brazil. The seed from this type of rice is genetically modified by induced mutations. The result is a plant resistant to the herbicide Only (from the imidazolinones group) produced by BASF.

The producer and agronomist Cláudio Escosteguy from Rio Grande do Sul presented photos of crops of ClearField rice where the herbicide is no longer able to control red rice. The useful life of the technology was no more than three years. At the same time, it leaves behind red rice that has incorporated the resistance to the product and nobody knows how to control.

Breseghello was emphatic in claiming that “contamination is irreversible,” underlining the fact that the areas presenting problems with the ClearField technology are precisely those more disposed to adopt Bayer’s GM rice. 70% of the samples of red rice collected in 2007 in Rio Grande do Sul presented resistance to Only. As red and cultivated rice grow together in the same areas, the combination gives rise to red rice plants resistant to the two different types of herbicide. “A recall” [of the contamination] can’t be made. (…) It’s a food security issue,” Embrapa’s researcher added.

The rice producers expressed their considerable concern over the commercial implications of this contamination. They fear losing their domestic and international markets if the transgenic variety is indeed released. “Given there is no current demand for consumption of GM rice even on the global market, we are not in favour of release at this moment in time,” said Renato Caiaffo Rocha, representing Farsul, Irga and Federarroz.

The criticisms made by the majority of speakers at the hearing seemed to annoy the president of CTNBio (National Technical Commission on Biosafety, linked to the Ministry of Science and Technology), who at one point displayed his indignation at the number of charges being made in relation to transgenic rice, since BASF’s GM crop had been released without testing. The next day during CTNBio’s plenary meeting, president Walter Colli claimed that it was the Commission’s responsibility to assess the biosafety aspects of the rice and that if the producers lost a share of the market, “that’s their problem.”

João Batista Volkman, a producer and agronomist, told the hearing that he harvests 8 tons of rice per hectare based on biodynamic agricultural methods without any use of chemical products. The average productivity of rice in Rio Grande do Sul, the state where Volkman’s property is located, is between 6 and 7 tons. The producer raised the question of contamination: “who will take responsibility if my rice is contaminated and I lose my organic and biodynamic labels of quality?”

To give an idea of the kind of study presented by Bayer to CTNBio, one of the tests intended to prove the product’s food safety was undertaken with chickens. The auditorium burst with laughter when Bayer’s representative was asked why they used chickens in the test if they don’t eat rice.

Sarah Agapito from the department of genetic resources of Santa Catarina Federal University presented a critique of Bayer’s data relating to the molecular description of the genetic modification introduced in the rice. Some of the analyses presented by the company are based on samples taken from a single plant. “Now, sampling from a single plant is not sampling,” Agapito said. In her view, the lack of scientific rigour is abundantly clear and the studies would not be accepted for publication by any scientific journal.

Some claims were made without corroborating laboratorial analyses, such as the number of transgene copies inserted in the plant, which Bayer, on purely theoretical grounds, claims is just one. Agapito also reported that the genetic modification led to the deletion of a nucleotide (which forms amino acids, which form proteins – if one is removed from the sequence, different combinations of amino acids and proteins may be obtained as a result) and that this fact is not cited by the company. Bayer’s representative, president of the company’s internal biosafety commission, was unable to explain this discrepancy in the information provided.

Other speakers emphasized the absence of environmental and health data from studies undertaken in Brazil that could inform CTNBio’s decision-making process.

CTNBio’s president announced that they are waiting for reports from members of the Commission and an analysis of the data presented during the hearing. Society as a whole must pay close attention to CTNBio’s decision. It will be a huge scandal if the entity gives a green light to transgenic rice.


Cotton

On the 19th of March, by 15 votes to 5, CTNBio approved the commercial release of another variety of GM cotton, WideStrike (Bt). This time the company benefitting from the decision was Dow, which according to a report recently published by the Pesticide Action Network (http://www.panna.org/resources/panups/panup_20090226#3) may soon be acquired by DuPont, Syngenta or Bayer, further entrenching the oligopoly found in the agrochemical and transgenic seed market.

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GM-FREE BRAZIL – Published by AS-PTA Assessoria e Serviços a Projetos em Agricultura Alternativa. The GM-Free Brazil Campaign is a collective of Brazilian NGOs, social movements and individuals.

AS-PTA an independent, not-for-profit Brazilian organisation dedicated to promoting the sustainable rural development. Head office: Rua da Candelária, 9/6º andar/ CEP: 20.091-020, Centro, Rio de Janeiro, Brasil. Phone: 0055-21-2253-8317 Fax: 0055-21-2233-363

This article can be found on the AS-PTA website at http://www.aspta.org.br/por-um-brasil-livre-de-transgenicos/updates

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