On March 7th—International Women's Day—dozens of Brazilian women occupied a research site of the U.S.-based agricultural biotechnology giant Monsanto in the state of São Paulo, Brazil, destroying the greenhouse and experimental plots of genetically-modified (GM) corn. Participants, members of the international farmers' organization La Vía Campesina, stated in a note that the act was to protest the Brazilian government's decision in February to legalize Monsanto's GM Guardian® corn, just weeks after the French government prohibited the corn due to environment and human health risks.
La Vía Campesina also held passive protests in several Brazilian cities against the Swiss corporation Syngenta Seeds for its ongoing impunity for the murder of Valmir Mota de Oliveira. Mota was a member of the Movement of the Landless Rural Workers (MST)—the largest of the seven Brazilian movements in La Vía Campesina—who was assassinated last October in the state of Paraná during these organizations' third occupation of the company's illegal experimental site for GM soybeans. While Brazil already has a high number of land activist murders, Mota's was significant because it was the first to occur during an occupation organized by La Vía Campesina, and the first assassination in Brazil to occur on the property of a multinational agribusiness.
The expansion of agricultural biotechnology into Brazil is leading to increasing agrarian conflicts and exacerbating historic tensions over land. The movements in La Vía Campesina reject seed patenting, claiming the practice traps poor farmers in a cycle of debt to corporations that own the seed patents, and undermines small farmers' autonomy to save and share seeds. They claim that GM technology threatens biodiversity and native seed varieties, and violates the rights of consumers and small farmers by contaminating conventional and organic crops. In the United States, where more than half of the world's GM crop acreage is grown, widespread contamination of conventional and organic crops by GM varieties is threatening the organic foods industry, which is finding it increasingly difficult to certify products. According to Greenpeace International, there were 39 cases of crop contamination in 23 countries in 2007, and more than 200 in 57 countries over the last 10 years.1
These claims threaten a multi-billion dollar industry. In the midst of global economic downturn, Monsanto and Syngenta are realizing unprecedented profits—thanks largely to the agrofuels boom. In January, results showed Monsanto's stock appreciated 137% in 2007,2 hitting a record on the New York Stock Exchange.3 In February, Syngenta—the world's largest producer of herbicides and pesticides with control of one-third of the global commercial seed market—announced its 2007 sales amounted to $9.2 billion. Latin America was Syngenta's "star performer" in 2007, where sales of herbicides, pesticides, and seeds increased by 37% respectively, and sales in Brazil increased for all product lines.4
An agricultural superpower, Brazil is the world's largest exporter of ethanol, the largest producer of sugarcane ethanol, the second largest producer of soybeans (the country produced almost a fourth of the world's soy crop in 2007), and the third largest producer of corn. The country holds particular strategic importance to the biotechnology industry's expansion. As global demand—and financial speculation—for Brazil's agricultural commodities ramps up due to agrofuels and increasing food scarcity, Monsanto and Syngenta are determined to expand sales and market control of GM seeds, herbicides, and pesticides in Brazil—at whatever cost.