GM crops take root in Brazil
Genetically modified foods are steadily advancing in Brazil, where transgenic crop varieties produced by multinational corporations grow alongside others developed nationally.
Ten years ago, Brazil yielded to agribusiness pressure and legalised the cultivation of genetically modified (GM) soy. Today it is the world's second leading producer of GM crops, surpassed only by the United States.
Transgenic soy had been grown clandestinely in Brazil since the second half of the 1990s.
In 2003, the adoption of Decree 4680, which stipulated the labelling of foods with a genetically modified organism (GMO) content of at least one per cent, was considered a landmark decision.
But the most definitive step in this direction was taken by the administration of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (2003-10) through its authorisation of GM soy through successive "provisional measures", which temporarily allowed the legal sale of crops that were being illegally grown in the south of the country with GM seeds smuggled in from Argentina.
Finally, in 2005, the adoption of the Biosafety Law established the National Technical Commission on Biosafety (CTNBio), which is responsible for assessing and approving or rejecting applications for the cultivation and sale of GMOs.
Two years later, another law created the National Biotechnology Commission to co-ordinate and implement a general policy on biotechnological development.
Plant diseases, pests and invasive species are the main causes of financial losses in agriculture, especially due to the difficulty of monitoring and controlling them, according to agricultural engineer Joao Sebastiao Araujo, from the Department of Agronomy at the Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro.
"In this context, in 1996 a new technology was introduced, transgenesis, with a variety of maize that contained proteins derived from the bacterium
(Bt)," providing the maize with the bacterium's insecticidal properties, Araujo said.
"It became one of the most commonly used technologies in agriculture in the United States, and quickly came to account for the majority of maize crops grown in that country," he added.
The emergence of this technology was followed by a new escalation in the use of fertilisers, new crop varieties, agricultural machinery and the introduction of entomotoxic (insecticidal) molecules, "all aimed at achieving bigger crop yields", said Araujo.
This new technological package was then promoted by transnational corporations in countries like Brazil, which is viewed as "an exceptional market" due to its vast areas of soy, maize and cotton plantations, he explained.
As a result, considerable pressure was exerted by these corporations to gain government authorisation for the use of transgenics, with the promise of greater efficiency and lower costs.
According to Celeres, a consulting firm that specialises in the agribusiness sector, GM crops occupied 37.1 million ha of land in Brazil during the 2012-13 agricultural year, which reflects an increase of 14 per cent (4.6 million ha) over the previous year.
The leading GM crop is soy, with 24.4 million ha planted in 2012, accounting for 88.8 per cent of total soy production.
GM varieties accounted for 87.9 per cent (6.9 million ha) of the winter maize harvest. As for the summer maize crop, transgenic varieties cover 5.3 million ha, or 64.8 per cent of the total area planted.
Meanwhile, GM cotton makes up just over 50 per cent (547,000 ha) of the crops planned for the 2012-2013 agricultural year, according to Celeres.
Araujo noted that Brazil is highly competent in agricultural research and that its scientists have achieved "exceptional results" and contributed to crop yields that were unimaginable in the past.
However, despite the technolog-