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Seeds of dissent

Council of Ministers confirms the release of transgenic corn for sale

EDUARDO CESAROne week after  Brazil’s National Biosafety Council, for the first time in this country, confirmed the trading of two varieties of transgenic corn, physician and biochemist Walter Colli was chosen to head CTNBio (the National Biosafety Technical Commission) for another two years.

Last year, CTNBio authorized the sale of two  varieties of corn, MON810 and Bayer LL, produced by Monsanto and Bayer respectively. However, the decision was challenged by IBAMA, Brazil’s Institute of the Environment and Renewable Resources and by ANVISA, the National Health Surveillance Agency, and had to be confirmed by a council comprising 11 ministers and their representatives. “From the technical standpoint, CTNBio decisions are final, from the production to the trading of genetically modified organisms. The Council of Ministers assesses economic, social and political issues and its function is to judge appeals,” explains Colli.

He was again chosen for the position by Science and Technology Minister Sérgio Rezende, from a short list of three  that the other commission members had voted on. 18 of the 22 members present voted for Colli. “There are many accrued issues, from research requests to the release of sales,” he stated. Colli is an adviser to FAPESP and a member of Pesquisa FAPESP’s editorial board. The entity’s vice-chairman will be Edílson Paiva, an Embrapa researcher from the city of Sete Lagoas, state of Minas Gerais.

The sale of the transgenic corn got four negative votes in the Council of Ministers, from the ministries of the Environment, of Agricultural Development, and of Health, as well as from the Aquiculture and Fishing Bureau, which recommended new studies on the impact of these products. “The Ministry of Health is not against transgenic food,” says the Science, Technology and Strategic Input Secretary, Reinaldo Guimarães. He believes, however, that companies are highly interested in marketing proposals involving any product – transgenic or otherwise. “In this specific case, CTNBio considers the briefs from the companies as evidence for releasing the transgenic corn for sale. Anvisa, however, feels that these briefs are not evidence; the ministry believes that the right position is one of awareness and prevention.”

For Guimarães, different political and ideological attitudes “poison” CTNBio, thus polarizing the debates. “On one side, there is a group that is against transgenic products, and on the other side, there are important researchers with an excessively liberal position about the marketing of transgenic products,” he stated. According to Guimarães, a more balanced position is necessary to enable dialogue between the parties.

Colli refutes this analysis. “The polarization was not established by the majority. In fact, this division is visible at other levels, too. There were seven votes favorable to the CTNBio decision and four against in the ministers’ meeting. This shows that the government is divided.” He argues that releasing products for sale follows a process: the evaluation of several ad hoc expert opinions provided by scientists in the field, depending on the case, and from four to eight CTNBio members. Colli highlights that the Commission makes its decisions based on a majority of 16 to 18 favorable votes, in general, vs. 4 or 5  against. “It’s hard to accept the remark that this majority is catering to corporate interests; similarly, I don’t believe that the Ministry of Health, for example, approves the use of drugs which take the interests of corporations, generally multinationals, into account.”

Colli says he sees the negative reactions of NGOs  releasing transgenic products for sale as a “certain nostalgia”. “Previous legislation had room for challenges. Now, the only higher jurisdiction is the Council of Ministers, which assesses economic, social and political issues and judges appeals,” he explains.

However, he finds the Health Ministry’s vote against the National Biosafety Council “odd”. “The minister has been saying that he wants to introduce technology content into the health inputs. And when it comes to high technology, one is talking about transgenic products that, according to the law, should be submitted to CTNBio.” Furthermore, Colli highlights that the decision to authorize the sale of both corn varieties was taken after extensive risk analysis. “The risks are the same as of conventional hybrid corn. They are minute, perhaps similar to taking an aspirin and certainly smaller than the risk involved in several pills authorized for sale by the appropriate agency”.

The controversy drags on. Less than ten days after the ministers’ meeting, Anvisa filed a new appeal with the National Biosafety Council against the release for sale of a transgenic corn variety produced by Syngenta already authorized by CTNBio, claiming that toxicological studies proving its safety were not submitted. Colli replies: “Syngenta’s corn is a copy of Monsanto’s corn”.