Brazil, Rio de Janeiro, May 03, 2007
Greetings from Brazil!
We finally have good news from Brazil! For the first time in the history of the CTNBio (the National Technical Biosafety Commission) its regular meeting has been opened to outside observers. The most important direct result was that the commercial release of GM maize, on the agenda for immediate approval, has been postponed indefinitely.
For eleven years, the Commission's meetings were always held behind closed doors, although civil society organizations were able to access the content of the decisions and debates held within the Commission in minutes published some months after each meeting.
The struggle for greater transparency and participation runs counter to the government's priorities. President Lula simply wants Brazil's economy to grow, and has often declared that environmental issues are a hindrance to his plans. Having been convinced that GMOs are good for the country's economy, for example, he signed new rules into law last month to speed up GMO authorizations.
Also in March, after a public hearing imposed by federal court order was held, the commercial release of Bayer's gluphosinate-ammonium tolerant GM maize was expected to be approved at CTNBio's next meeting. But Greenpeace representatives walked into the CTNBio meeting room and requested observer status, without the right to speak. Rather than back down, the Commission's president simply threw up his hands and canceled the March meeting.
A month of confusion ensued in the wake of that decision. First, CTNBio president Colli threatened to suspend the meeting again if "outsiders" insisted on attending. Meanwhile, several more civil society organizations and independent scientists also formally requested authorization to be allowed in.
Groups of professors from two major Brazilian universities published letters criticizing the Commission, its procedures and the way it deals with science, as well as demanding more transparency and public participation.
A court decision in response to a suit filed by a Regional Federal Prosecutor in Brasília was issued early the first day of the April meeting, and forced the CTNBio's doors open to the public.
Although the people authorized to enter the room did not have the right to speak, the powerful effect of the Commission having "witnesses" to its debates and decisions was amazing.
The Commission always portrays itself as a "technical" body and argues that "ignorant" people should not interfere in such complex matters as GMOs, on which they have nothing to contribute.
Indeed, closing the CTNBio's doors is the only way that the federal government had maintained the appearance of a "science-based" commission. Those who witnessed this most recent meeting watched even its own internal rules being ignored and broken by its members. Field
trials are almost automatically authorized, "following a historical pattern," as declared one of the members.
When the representative of the Agrarian Development Ministry proposed that Syngenta be required to provide more data, to comply with the CTNBio's internal rules before being granted authorization for a field trial, the matter was put to a vote and 16 members voted for immediate authorization (and only 6 for the delay).
Just like at the GM maize public hearing held in February, once again the best scientific argument mustered by pro-GM members of the CTNBio is the same one used by biotech companies: "GMOs have been planted for over ten years in many countries and no negative impact has been recorded so far." Some members, however, do go straight to the point, explaining that "my project will be affected" if the CTNBio starts to demand more risk analyses.
Even so, the awareness caused by the presence of civil society was enough to have the commercial release of Bayer's GM maize taken off the agenda. CTNBio members were certainly ashamed to decide "in public" an authorization so full of both technical fragilities and administrative irregularities.
CTNBio president Walter Colli and the Science & Technology minister himself have indeed promised to fight hard to close the CTNBio's doors again.
Colli actually changed his earlier stance and declared last week that the commercial release of GM maize "is not a priority for the Commission at this time" and may not even be put on the next meeting's agenda in May. He seems to be following orders to wait until the Commission's doors are closed so that they can "be alone" to decide the matter "scientifically". If this happens, Brazilian democracy will be the biggest loser. For the GMO promoters who always say that opposition to GMOs is merely ideological, it is important that the CTNBio's decisions be taken in secret, to keep their myths alive. The veil over supposedly science-based decisions also helps keep the real economical interests behind them in the shadows.
GM-FREE BRAZIL - Published by AS-PTA Assessoria e Serviços a Projetos em Agricultura Alternativa. The GM-Free Brazil Campaign is a collective of Brazilian NGOs, social movements and individuals.
AS-PTA an independent, not-for-profit Brazilian organisation dedicated to promoting agroecology and sustainable rural development. Head office: Rua da Candelária, 9/6º andar/ CEP: 20.091-020, Centro, Rio de Janeiro, Brasil. Phone: 0055-21-2253-8317 Fax: 0055-21-2233-363
This article can be found on the AS-PTA website at http://www.aspta.org.br