Growing of GM Crops in Brazil

Text of an SGR letter, 17 March 2003
 

Mr Jose Dirceu, josedirceau@planalto.gov.br

Cc: Mr Roberto Rodrigues, gm@agricultura.gov.br

Ms Marina Silva, marina.silva@mma.gov.br

 

Re: GROWING OF GM CROPS IN BRAZIL

Dear Mr Dirceu, Mr Rodrigues and Ms Silva,

We are an organisation of British scientists who believe that science and technology should be used only for ethical, socially just and environmentally friendly purposes. Having read the evidence on genetically modified (GM) crops we are deeply concerned by the risks that they may pose to human health and the well-being of the environment, and hence recommend that planting of these crops should not go ahead at present. This letter outlines the main reasons for our view.

The technology is not precise and remains relatively poorly understood. The full consequences of placing genes from one species into another species are not known, all the more so as the position amongst the host genes cannot be precisely controlled. During development of a new GM seed, strange and unpredicted effects sometimes occur. In animal feeding trials, harmful effects have sometimes become apparent only after a number of generations. Such transgenes are, moreover, likely to be unstable.

In spite of claims that GM foods have been thoroughly tested, this is not the true case. Such testing as has been done has been largely carried out by the industries that develop the GM plants, and they have vested interests in ensuring that adverse results are not reported. When some of these studies have been re-examined by independent scientists, they have been found to be flawed.1 Regulatory agencies are very lax and often turn a 'blind eye' to information provided by independent scientists or even their own scientists who point to observed or potential ill effects. The inadequacy of regulation in the United States was officially recognised by the National Academy of Sciences in February 2002, when it criticised the US Department of Agriculture for lack of scientific justification of its review processes, confidentiality of its environmental assessments and inadequate protection of the environment from the risks of growing GM plants.

Many scientists worldwide have warned that components of the ‘package’ that carries the desired gene into a new host can cause harm. Very often the package includes a gene for resisting antibiotics, which could have serious consequences for the treatment of diseases. Further problems could arise by the unintended creation of toxins or allergens. There have also been warnings that the viral component of the gene package could recombine with other viral fragments already in the host to produce new, potent viruses that cause diseases, including cancer.

The facts on yield and chemical use of GM crops are not always what the companies claim. Extensive university and government studies have shown that yields can in some cases be greater but can also be the same or even smaller. An example can be given for Monsanto’s widely-grown Roundup Ready (RR) soya beans. University studies of over 8,200 varietal trials of soya beans in 1998 showed that RR soya beans yield, on average, 5.3 percent less than conventional soya beans. In some areas of the United States, the best conventional soya beans yielded 10 percent more than comparable RR soya beans sold by the same seed companies.2 These results were confirmed for 1999 and 2000, as well.3 Moreover, the amount of herbicide applied per acre to the RR soya beans was 2 to 5 times greater than the amount used on most other soya bean fields using popular weed management systems.4 The study also ‘explains how Monsanto has manipulated comparative data on RR and conventional soyean herbicide use in ways that fall between misleading and dishonest.5 This is just one example of how biotechnology companies make unjustified claims.

Genetic modification, especially in the light of its uncertainties, is not the answer to increasing yields or reducing pesticide use. It is reported that: ‘In twenty Third World countries, more than 2 million families are farming sustainably [using ecological methods] on 4-5 million hectares, with tripled or doubled yields, fully matching if not surpassing intensive agrochemical agriculture.’6 Moreover, ‘A study in the United States reveals that small farmers growing a wide range of plants can produce ten times as much money per acre as big farmers growing single crops.7 In the southern part of your own country, it is reported that 38,000 farmers more than doubled their crop yields by using green manures and cover crops.8 Also, Jose Lutzenberger, former Brazilian Minister for the Environment, estimated that “backward Indians” produce at least fifteen tons of food per acre --- without fertilisers, pesticides, bank loans or governmental assistance. 9

Being designed for chemical monoculture, most GM crops incur at least the same objections as conventionally grown crops, in terms of effects on the environment. Chemicals, in time, degrade the soil and the vital micro-organisms that live in the soil. Micro-organisms make the nutrients contained in soil available to plants. Some experts have warned that GM crops may transfer the GM genes to soil organisms and alter their functioning, which could lead to progressive decline in soil fertility. Furthermore, chemical farming is known to have resulted in a great decline in both plant and animal wildlife. This decline would also apply to chemically-dependent GM crops.

Scientists for Global Responsibility believes that much more effort (including scientific research) should be devoted to ecologically friendly systems of farming, such as organic farming. Many farms around the world have hugely increased their yields (sometimes by factors of two or three) by adopting such methods. Organic farming encourages the good health of soil, plants and animals and, ultimately, of human beings. Good husbandry of the land makes the use of chemicals virtually unnecessary. Moreover, it has been shown that small farms producing a variety of crops produce a much greater total yield than do large, intensively cultivated farms.

The real reason for the development of GM food technology is that the companies promoting it see it as a way to control the food chain10 in order to obtain huge profits from the patented seeds and the chemicals needed to grow them. In fact, some of the companies first sold herbicides and then developed seeds that would be resistant to these herbicides, so they could be used freely on crops without killing them.

It may come to pass that reluctance of consumers to purchase GM food will in time produce such a fall in the market that farmers will abandon growing such crops. All major supermarkets in the United Kingdom, in response to consumer demand, now guarantee all products bearing their own label to be GM-free. Various European countries (eg Austria) also do not want GM food, nor does Japan or some other countries. Even some nations experiencing famine, like Zimbabwe, have refused food aid from the United States on the grounds that it was genetically modified.

An excellent resource for the true picture of what is actually happening on farms in the United States and Canada is the report ‘Seeds of Doubt: North American farmers’ experiences of GM crops’, published in September 2002 by the Soil Association.

We urge you most strongly to resist pressures to release GM crops into Brazil. The effects on health and the environment remain inadequately tested, and the economic prospects for these crops are uncertain. You will lose the advantages you now enjoy in the growing of GM-free crops.

Yours sincerely,

 

(Dr) Eva Novotny

Co-ordinator for GM Issues

1 For example, see the evidence presented to the Chardon LL Hearing in the United Kingdom, 2000 and 2002, available by visiting http://www.defra.gov.uk and searching for 'Chardon'. This will take you to the listing of all the transcripts.(Note that transcripts are identified by year, month, day: e.g., 18 October 2000 is denoted by ‘001018’). In particular, animal-feeding tests were re-examined on 18 and 24 Oct. 2000 and 23 May 2002, the latter by SGR.

2 Dr Charles Benbrook, Ag BioTech InfoNet Technical Paper Number 1, 13 July 1999, ‘Evidence of the Magnitude and Consequences of the Roundup Ready Soybean Yield Drag from University-Based Varietal Trials in 1998’, p. 1; available at http://www.biotech-info.net/troubledtimes.html)

3 Dr Charles Benbrook, Ag BioTech InfoNet Technical Paper Number 4, Part II, 3 May 2001, p. 29; available at the same website as in note 2.

4 Dr Charles Benbrook, Ag BioTech InfoNet Technical Paper Number 1, 13 July 1999, ‘Evidence of the Magnitude and Consequences of the Roundup Ready Soybean Yield Drag from University-Based Varietal Trials in 1998’, p. 2; available at the same web site as in note 2.

5 Dr Charles Benbrook, Ag BioTech InfoNet Technical Paper Number 4, 3 May 2001, p. 2; available at the same web site as in note 2.

6 The Ecologist, vol. 28, no. 5, 1998, p. 318

7 George Monbiot, The Guardian, 24 Aug. 2000, ‘Organic Farming Will Feed the World’. Reproduced with references added by the author at www.psrast.org/orgfarmmonbiot.htm. Referring to Peter M Rosset, ‘The Multiple Functions and Benefits of Small Farm Agriculture in the Context of Global Trade Negotiations’. Policy Brief prepared for ‘Cultivating Our Futures’, the FAO/Netherlands Conference on the Multifunctional Character of Agriculture and Land, 12-17 September 1999, Maastricht, The Netherlands. Co-published by Transnational Institute, Paulus Potterstraat 20, 1071 DA, Amsterdam

8 Jules Pretty, Living Earth, no. 190, 1996, p. 8

9 The Ecologist, vol. 30, no. 4, June 2000, p. 29

10 ‘In 1996, Robert Fraley, then the President of Monsanto’s Ceregen Division, explained the company’s strategy of taking over scores of plant-breeding institutes and smaller biotechnology firms to the American magazine Farm Journal. ‘What you are seeing’, he boasted, ‘is not just a consolidation of seed companies, it’s really a consolidation of the entire food chain.’ (George Monbiot, 2000, Captive State: the Corporate Takeover of Britain, Macmillan, London, p. 253, quoting from Farm Journal, cited by the Rural Advancement Fund International, September 1996: The Life Industry, originally at http://rafi.org/web/ but now moved to www.etcgroup.org/article.asp?newsid=198)