October 14, 2003
Brazil Legalization of GM Soy Arouses Both Good & Bad Remarks
Brazil's recent decision to legalize production of genetically modified soy has infuriated environmentalists and radicals in the left-leaning government. But it has been very good news among farmers in Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil's southernmost state, where transgenic soy has been planted illegally for years.
Among the celebrants is Rafael Moreno, who for the last four years has been an unlikely but unrepentant outlaw, planting and harvesting genetically engineered soybeans on his 1,000-acre farm.
"Everybody around here was doing it and it made economic sense, so I did it, too," said Moreno.
Before taking office in January, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil commented on his negative view regarding GM crops. Faced with post-election political realities, however, da Silva had to weigh the growing importance of agribusiness, which accounted for a third of the country's gross domestic product and 40% of its exports last year.
Farmers here expect the president's decision to legalize transgenic crops, which will take effect this planting season, to pave the way for more permanent legislation that would put them on an equal footing with key competitors in the United States, Argentina and Canada, where gene-altered crops have been planted for years.
The fallout from da Silva's about-face will affect not only Brazilian farmers, but also American exporters and consumers from Stockholm to Shanghai. "Now we'll be more competitive in everything - not just soy but melons, corn, oranges, cotton," Moreno said. "So far, we've only been catching up, thanks to our favorable climate and soil."
On a national scale, although only about 17% of the soy in Brazil's fields is transgenic, the country's soy production has risen nearly 60% in the last 6 years, closing the gap on the United States, which is expecting a drought-diminished harvest this year.
Santo Angelo farmers say that by planting the genetically modified seeds, their average yield has already risen from around 30-50 bushels an acre, or 0.41 hectare.
"Unlike farmers in America or Europe, Brazilian farmers get no subsidies, so this is important in helping us compete," Pippi said.
However, too much genetically modified soy might pose a problem. Brazil's top export market for soybeans is the European Union, which has introduced stringent regulations on the origins of all genetically modified foodstuffs because of concerns by consumers. Domestic consumers could also prove resistant. The stance in Europe appears to be softening considerably from three years ago, when genetically modified foods were referred to as "Frankenfoods." But if Europeans continue to resist, Amauri Miotto of Rio Grande's Fetag, a federation of farmers working small, family-owned properties, said that the Brazilian farmers would just have to look for other markets.