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Embarrassments and skirmishes

Action by environmentalists and public attorneys agitate the CTNBio and open up a crisis with researchers

monsantoTransgenic cotton: The Brazilian government’s position is ambivalentmonsanto

A war of nerves has contaminated the monthly meetings of the new National Technical  Biosafety Commission (CTNBio), the organ of the federal government entrusted with emitting opinions about the safety of genetically modified organisms, the GMOs. On one hand there is a group of members who run clearly contrary to the rhythm and agenda of the commission. They are researchers chosen for their noted scientific knowledge, linked to various research institutions or representative of ministries such as the Ministry of Science and Technology and the Ministry of Agriculture. They complain that the meetings set aside too much time to bureaucratic questions and judicial trifles, as well as the interminable discussions surrounding secondary themes, and up until now they have not gotten close to the essential issues, such as authorizations for research into GMOs, which for years have been waiting for a response from the CTNBio.

In the other corner, a group of members linked to the ministries of the Environment and Agricultural Development and the entities in defense of the consumer have taken up their position. Although in the minority, this group is managing to control the commission’s work, pushing forward in the meetings judicial artifacts and questions of order. “The commission must be rigorous and restrictive. It exists to watch over biosafety, not to promote technology, as many members openly do. It’s they who aren’t in the correct forum” says Rubens Onofre Nodari, the genetics resources manager of the Ministry of the Environment (MMA) and a professor of phytotechniques at the Federal University of Santa Catarina. “The law consecrated the principle of precaution and it is this that we’re defending. If the legislation were not to be complied with, the commission’s work could be contested in the justice system” says  Nodari.

“Zero risk”
The agronomy engineer Edilson Paiva, who makes up part of the quota of three specialists of the vegetable area, with a seat on the commission counter argues: “It’s clear that the commission needs to be rigorous, but its objective of slowing down the development and use of technology by demanding absolute certainty and zero risk, as some members are doing, cannot be.” The researcher at Embrapa Maize & Sorghum, a unit of the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation at Sete Lagoas , in the state of Minas Gerais, st Paiva considers disproportionate the discussions on technical themes already covered by the previous commission, which frequently are repositioned on the agenda without the justification of some new fact. He cited as an example the isolation of transgenic maize in controlled liberations.

Previously the CTNBio had defined the option of making the isolation temporary – one cannot plant in the location for up to 30 days after germination – or that of space – nothing in the surroundings within a circle of 300 meters. Now this has come back to the table under the thesis that both these isolations should be adopted at the same time. “This doesn’t bring extra security from the point of view of biosafety and physically makes the logistics difficult at the moment of installing field experiments” says  Paiva. By adopting this procedure, a single crop of transgenic maize in the field will be immobilizing an experimental area of around 30 hectares, or 30 football fields, for a period of six months. This will make things unviable, from the point of view of area availability for this type of activity in the majority of research units that possess genetic improvement programs for maize in Brazil.

“There are more than 200 requests for research authorizations waiting for definition” says Paiva. “Who will be responsible for the technological delay that this will impose upon the country? We?ve already been overtaken by Argentina, China and India in the area of vegetable biotechnology. Who’ll be responsible for the losses caused to the farmers and to the environment by the fact that they’ve been banned from using a more rational and safer technology?” the agronomist questions. Rubens Nodari has already proposed in writing a motion asking for the removal of Paiva from the commission because of his critical declarations dealing with the direction of the CTNBio.

For Geraldo Deffune Gonçalves de Oliveira, a specialist in family agriculture, who has a seat on the commission, the criticisms of the researchers are exaggerated. “I don’t see why colleagues should get so upset if what we’re searching for is always a solution within the legality of the law. It’s not we who are the sectarians” he argues.

One of the causes of the CTNBio’s crisis is structural. In its new configuration, the commission has 27 members, 12 of them specialists of noted scientific knowledge, three from each of the following areas: human, animal and vegetable health, along with the environment. Representatives from nine ministries also participate as well as a further six specialists in the areas of consumer defense, health, the environment, biotechnology, family agriculture and workers’ health. The problem is that as well as the 27 members with the right to vote, there are also 27 substitutes with the right to verbally express themselves. This conspires against productivity during meetings.

“The result is a sort of assembly with more than fifty people, with many of them wanting to speak about all types of issues or raising points of order” says Carlos Augusto Pereira, a researcher at the Butantan Institute. In its previous life, the CTNBio was much leaner. . There were 13 full members. “The members’ role is to decide on the technical analysis of projects, but a lot of time is wasted dealing with bureaucratic questions, which could be solved by the commission’s secretary, or judicial questions that we simply don’t have the tools to analyze” says Pereira.

In his opinion, an advance has already been made by splitting the groups into thematic sub-commissions whose members, although they only meet once per month, have already managed to get ahead of the work and to cut corners via e-mail. “But there’s the need to establish a system that optimizes the CTNBio’s work in such a manner that it uses its members in a more productive form. It’s frustrating to spend time going to Brasilia and to see that the work is not up to our competence.”

Marcio de Castro Silva Filho, a professor at USP’s Luiz de Queiroz Higher School of Agriculture, sees another origin of dissent. “The federal government takes an ambivalent position in relation to transgenics and this is revealed in the position of the members indicated by different ministries” he says. “Among the specialists there is no closed position in relation to transgenics, but the polarization is much more visible between the members indicated by the government.”

The invasion of judicial demands into the commission is the main cause of contrariety. The Attorney General (MPF in the Portuguese) has taken unto itself the function of an external organ with watchdog powers and the control of the CTNBio. In an unprecedented decision, the 4th Chamber of the Environment and Cultural Patrimony of the MPF determined that one attorney, Maria Soares Cordioli, could participate in the CTNBio’s ordinary monthly meetings.  The decision is supported by law, but never, since the founding of the CTNBio in 1995, has it been put into practice. The presence of the attorney caused reactions within the researchers, irritated with the interference of someone outside of the academic world on a commission that should be eminently technical.

monsantoTransgenic Soybeanmonsanto

The decision to indicate a public attorney was taken on the 15th of February, the day on which the CTNBio returned to its activities. The organ’s president, Walter Colli, was elected on the 16th. But the prosecutor only appeared at the May meeting, bringing about an internal debate that paralyzed the work. Faced with this reaction, Maria Cordioli explained that she was not there “to interfere, but to contribute” towards the “transparency and democracy” of the CTNBio. “The commission isn’t conscious of its role” said Maria Cordioli to the newspaper Valor Econômico.

“It’s not just simply saying if a product will be scientifically authorized, but one also has to evaluate the environmental and work bias as well as the consumer’s rights.” One of the first acts by the prosecutor was to demand that the members sign a declaration of conflict of interest, under the penalty of losing their mandates. It is true that this question should have been dealt with during the first meetings of the new CTNBio, but it became relegated in the face of more important demands and of the excess of work that built up. Consequently, there then followed a debate about the type of declaration that had to be signed.

Rubens Nodari, the representative from the Ministry of the Environment, demanded a hard  declaration, in which the members, beforehand, would declare themselves incapable of evaluating processes with even a distant relationship to universities, research institutes or companies interested in the question. After lots of debate, the case was voted upon and the model that functions for development agencies, in which the member promises to declare, before evaluating or voting on a process, if he has an interest linked to the case, ended up prevailing.

Lack of objectivity
The interference by the Federal Public Ministry has produced one loss. Last month the CTNBio’s vice president, Horácio Schneider, a professor at the Federal University of Pará, resigned. Schneider alleged personal reasons: the monthly journeys from the city of Bragança, in the state of Pará to Brasilia took up a lot of time and he needed to prepare for his investiture as the president of the Brazilian Genetics Society. However, in his letter of resignation, Schneider referred to “the tense and interminable monthly meetings, which never finished.” And he criticized the commission’s lack of objectivity.  The CTNBio president, Walter Colli, who is a professor at USP’s Chemistry Institute, did not want to comment upon the problems, alleging that he needed to keep himself impartial.

The National Technical Biosafety Commission was established in 1995 and had its activities suspended in 1998 due to a judicial order conceded to the environmental entity Greenpeace and the Consumer Defense Institute (Idec in the Portuguese acronym), which suspended its competence to emit conclusive written opinions. The bone of contention was the liberation for planting of the transgenic soybean named Roundup Ready, from Monsanto, considered to be safe for consumption and for planting. In spite of this judicial order, transgenic soybean conquered ground in the state of Rio Grande do Sul  smuggled through Argentina, and the federal government had no option but to release the planted area by way of a provisional law enforced year by year. In 2004, even before the sanctioning of the Biosafety Law, the CTNBio recovered, within the judicial system, its powers to deliberate on transgenics. In this manner, it liberated the use of cotton seeds with up to 1% of GMOs and the planting and commercialization of Monsanto’s Bollgard variety of cotton, resistant to insects, as well as the importing of 370,000 tons of transgenic maize from Argentina.

Within the wake of the new Biosafety Law, sanctioned during 2005, the CTNBio was re-established with a new configuration and began to operate in February of this year. Tasks it did not lack. In February the waiting list had 398 processes: seven requests for the commercial liberation of genetically modified organisms; four new research projects and a further 52 requests for the liberation of research into the case of vegetation for the external environment as well as 41 solicitations for importing, among other requests as yet not analyzed. But, from then until now, the two groups have dedicated themselves to consensual measures, such as the concession of a biosafety quality certificate (CQB) for very low risk research, or to the preliminary tasks such as re-evaluating the normative instructions that knocked out the commission’s work. One of these instructions looks to determine the classification of the genetically modified organism into low, medium and high risk.

The group linked to the Ministry of the Environment and the consumer defense organs had preferred a proposal according to which, when a high risk gene was installed in a very low risk organism, the end product must be classed as maximum risk. However, the researchers, with knowledge about the issue, said that if this were to pass nobody was going to work with GMOs in the country. At the June 21st meeting the impasse was overcome and there was a consensus of opinion in favor of the more flexible and rational proposal.

The groups also made use of their time to measure their forces, and it became clear that those contrary to transgenics, although in the minority, have the weight to block proposals with which they do not agree. When there is a dispute, the score in general is 14 to 7, since the representative of the Ministry of Foreign Relations has not yet been indicated (although he counts in obtaining a qualified quorum) and there are always some absentees. With this score it would be possible to impede the liberation for the commercialization of transgenics, since a two thirds majority is required, or 18 votes, for approval. But up until now not a single case has come under the scrutiny of the commission.

“The problem is that these discussions don’t take into account the amount of work done in previous years and there’s an attempt to re-evaluate things that have been thoroughly discussed” says Edilson Paiva. For example: the MMA demanded that there be a re-discussion on the approval of the Bollgard cotton, approved by 12 votes for and 1 against in 2005. The judicial consultancy of the Ministry of Science and Technology has already emitted two written opinions affirming that it is not the case of again submitting the issue to a vote, since there has not been any “change in knowledge” on the question, as the law that created the CTNBio states.

The debate is catching fire outside of the commission. Gabriel Fernandes, a technical assessor at the Projects’ Services Accessory in Alternative Agriculture (Aspta), has attacked the CTNBio in an article divulged via the internet. “Obscurantism, in truth, is to believe in principal that transgenics are inherently safe and to avoid, in all forms, that these products be submitted to rigorous independent testing of medium to long duration.” Reginaldo Minaré, the judicial director of the National Association of Biosafety (Anbio), underlined, also in an article, that not a single error in the risk evaluation work done by the commission has been found that had brought about sanitary or environmental damage. “The battle is not in the sense of improving the guarantee of the risk evaluation of GMOs, but of creating difficulties for the functioning of the CTNBio in order to undermine the motivation of various members” he affirmed.

For Marcio de Castro Silva Filho, a professor at the Esalq, the challenge to the CTNBio’s members is to maintain their balance during the next few meetings and not to allow polarization to paralyze their work. “We have to concentrate on the technical questions, to invest in that which is consensual and, when it’s necessary to resolve by a vote, not losing our serenity” he argued.