Modified Crops Go Underground

Paulo Rebêlo
Wired News
May 2002

An illegal but well-known underground market for genetically modified crops is growing fast in Brazil.

But oftentimes, farmers who bought the seeds with promises of better yields at lower costs have reaped financial disasters and plantation damages instead.

The problem seems to stem not from defective genetically modified organism (GMO) crops, but from a lack of understanding by farmers who purchase the crops, which are supposedly imported from Argentina or from other regions of Brazil. The upshot is that crops that may work well in their native soils don’t react well when transported.

“(It is) pure lack of information from most farmers,” said Ywao Miyamoto, president of the Brazilian Association of Soy Producers (Aprosoja). “Crops have very specific properties of adaptability that vary from place to place, weather to weather, altitude to altitude, and a range of factors. If you plant an Argentine crop in a Brazilian soil, obviously you’ll get a very weak production.”

James H. Orf, a professor in the Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul, says it’s often a case of carelessness or wishful thinking.

“That’s well known by most farmers, but sometimes in their anxiety to acquire ‘new’ materials, they forget the fact that it’s difficult to take a variety from one place to another and expect it to perform well,” Orf said.

Only three companies — Monsanto, Embrapa (linked to the Brazilian government) and Condetec — have been authorized by Brazil’s Federal Court to grow genetically modified crops, and that is for testing purposes only. Commercial use and sale of GMO crops within Brazil is prohibited.

And while most observers believe the ban will be lifted — maybe even within less than a year — the underground market has been operating for at least six years, Miyamoto said. But the problems appear to be a new phenomenon.

Walter R. Fehr, a professor of agriculture and director of the biotechnology office at Iowa State University, confirms Miyamoto’s thesis. According to Fehr, the GMO soybeans grown in Brazil have the same basic genes as soybeans grown in the United States on millions of acres since 1996.

Recently, farmers from Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil’s southernmost state, planted genetically modified crops bought from clandestine sellers in the region, who said the soybeans were imported from Argentina. The farmers planted the GMO seeds near plantations of natural crops and wound up with poorer results.

At the behest of the farmers, genetic researchers Rubens Onofre Nodari, professor of genetics at Santa Catarina Federal University, and Deonisio Destro, professor of genetics at Londrina State University, were called to investigate.

They wrote a report (in Portuguese) that says the four varieties of soy crops they found had not adapted to general conditions in Rio Grande do Sul.

“It’s impossible to define the origins of those modified crops; we only know they weren’t adapted to Brazil,” Onofre said. “Also, farmers can’t officially protest because they know it’s illegal to buy and plant GMO crops.”

Nodari also found a higher infestation of invasive herbs in areas where the modified crops were grown. “Roundup-Ready” (RR) GMO soy crops are designed to have more resistance against herbicides such as Roundup, a powerful herbicide made by Monsanto. But the poor production suggested that these RR crops didn’t show as much resistance to Roundup as the natural crops.

The report’s conclusion states: “There is need for rigorous studies of GMO crops before the modified soy gets legalized. Detailed researches on the effects of RR soy must be made, including environmental and social-economic impacts of its successive planting.”

Although the report never explicitly states that the GMO crops were inferior, its conclusion seems to imply that they were. Hence, after researchers e-mailed the report to some newspapers in Brazil, the newspapers reported that GMO crops were the cause of weak production and productivity loss in the country — and even led to the bankruptcies of small farmers who chose to plant them.

“The report they’ve made does not fit reality; they’re saying the GMOs are the cause of financial and health damages to farmers, which is not true,” Miyamoto said. “Those specific farmers got misled by clandestine sellers and by their lack of information; it is an isolated case. It has nothing to do with being genetically modified or not; they don’t know what they’re saying.”

The media reports heightened debate on the subject, with opponents of GMO crops arguing that more research is needed, and proponents arguing that research, conducted over years in other parts of the world, has shown no adverse affects.

The National Technical Commission of Bio-Safety in Brazil has been a supporter of GMO soybeans since 1998, saying that the Roundup-Ready crops are not harmful to people’s health.

“Biotechnology is not based on suppositions, it’s much more complex than that,” Miyamoto wrote (in Portuguese). “In addition, everybody knows that farmers have been planting GMO for years now, even being illegal here. It is not harmful to our health.”

Iowa State’s Fehr echoed those sentiments.

“There’s no evidence of any detrimental health effects,” Fehr said.

But groups such as Greenpeace and similar local groups argue that it’s just too early to tell.

“We cannot predict when we will see effects on people’s health,” said Doreen Stabinsky, professor of Environmental Politics at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine. “As more and more GMOs get into people’s diets, the sooner we will see effects; but as for now, no one has enough proof that GMOs won’t affect our health in the future.”

While not going so far as to suggest that the major GMO companies are promoting the underground market in Brazil, Stabinsky, who is also a science advisor for Greenpeace-USA, said that the companies’ strategy is to plant first, ask questions later. “(They) are trying their best to taint as much of the world as possible so that it seems that GMOs are inevitable,” Stabinsky said.

In Brazil, Monsanto released an official statement about the case in Rio Grande do Sul and the report that Roundup-Ready crops caused financial damages: “The company prefers to avoid comments since Monsanto doesn’t sell the Roundup Ready soy in Brazil yet. The report refers to the illegal planting of them, a situation that Monsanto does not support.”

Luiz Barreto de Castro, head director of Genetic Resources for Embrapa, believes that when the GMO market gets legalized in Brazil, the underground selling of modified crops will already be so strong that investments made by biotech companies could be useless.

“By the time the Brazilian Federal Court decides to finally legalize the GMO, farms around Brazil will already be filled with every kind of clandestine genetically modified crops,” he said.