The International Consortium on Agricultural Biotechnology Research (ICABR)

Non technical abstract

Agricultural Biotechnology in Brazil –
institutionality and implications OF GENETICALLY MODIFIED ORGANISMS

Alberto Duque Portugal[2]

Maria José Sampaio[3]

Elisio Contini[4]

Flávio Ávila[5]

Brazil is one of the important agricultural producers in the world (1st in sugarcane, orange and coffee, 2nd in soybean and 3rd in corn) which still does not officially cultivate genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in a commercial scale (1). Although being technically and commercially prepared for their planting, it tumbles in a juridical decision that forbids the commercial planting of glyphosate resistant soybean, the only product approved for commercial applications by the National Technical Biosafety Committee (CTNBio), created according with the Biosafety Law no. 8.974/1995 and Decree no.1.752/1995. That decision came along with a great controversy of opinions: pro-GMO production - competitivity and economic efficiency arguments; against GMO production - mainly matters related with environmental biosafety and the consumer’s right to choose (labeling).


Similarly to other countries, GMOs commercial use has raised a strong reaction against biotechnology in some sectors of the Brazilian society. It is not surprising that in some states there is a similar reaction to what has been seen in Europe, with the destruction of experimental fields and proposals for the establishment of GMO-free regions, which is equivalent to a moratorium, with no deadline. Maybe the greatest mistake in these strategies is the adoption of radical positions.


As it relates with GMOs, biotechnology has been used, in Brazil, as a political flag by international non-governmental institutions. They have joined forces with left parties that were already positioning themselves against globalization, against the multinational industry’s acquisition of national seeds companies along with breeding programs, and against a possible seed monopoly, in order to convince the population about the danger of using GMOs in a large scale. All very similar to what has been occurring in Europe, Mexico, Australia and some countries in Asia. Besides, the appearance of the Mad Cow disease in Europe scared European consumers that began to reject any new or genetically modified food, a movement that is influencing every other country in the World because of confusing information.


Trying to ensure consumers on the matter and trying to give more credibility to CTNBio, the Brazilian Government has officially positioned itself in favor of biotechnology (including the use of transgenic products, giving they undergo all the necessary safety tests). According to the Government official position, biotechnology is a priority area. It defends and trusts in the competence of its regulating institutions (including CTNBio) and proposes “improvements according to the advances of science and the strategic interest of the country”.


Recently, in order to avoid further misunderstandings and new judicial disputes, caused by premature vetoes, which left gaps in the Biosafety Law, the Brazilian Government edited a new Provisional Law no. 2.137/2000 that rules on the legal status of CTNBio and its competences.


General evaluation from other countries is that the benefits for the consumer coming from the first wave of transgenic were not significant. It is expected that the rising of the “second and third waves” (functional food and biofactories for food, medicine and feed industries) will improve the acceptability of transgenic products in the country. Besides, there are indicatives that the resistance is fading. Perspectives are that approval for GMOs commercial production in the country is around the corner.   


Despite of the situation, research on GMOs continues to develop in Brazil. More than 1000 contained field tests with transgenic plants have already been approved by CTNBio, including corn, soybean, cotton, eucalyptus, sugarcane, tobacco, potatoes, sweet corn and papaya. National private and multinational corporations as well as public research institutions participate in this effort. The major target of this process has been the test of transgenes with resistance/tolerance to insects, virus and herbicides.


The use of genetics engineering in Brazilian agriculture has to be analyzed, case by case, under several perspectives: (i) relevance of recombinant DNA technology for the sustainable development; (ii) technology safety for the consumer and for the environment, according to the existing scientific knowledge; (iii) possible commercial advantages for Brazil because of the certification of origin of some non-transgenic commodities; and, (iv) consumer’s right to choose its food through adequate labeling.

[1] Paper submitted to the 5th International Conference of the International Consortium on Agricultural Biotechnology Research (ICABR) on “Biotechnology, Science and Modern Agriculture: a New Industry at the Dawn of the Century”, Ravello, Italy, June 2001.

[2] President of Embrapa

[3] Ph.D. Researcher, Biotechnologist, Executive Board Adviser, Embrapa

[4] Ph.D. Researcher,  Economist, Executive Board Adviser, Embrapa

[5] Ph.D. Researcher, Economist, Strategic Administration Secretariat, Embrapa

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