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Permission to market GMOs should expand investments in biotechnology

EDUARDO CESARFrom May onwards, the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa) will be offering soybean producers eleven varieties of genetically modified seeds, adapted to the various areas of Brazil where they are planted. The new varieties, developed in a technical cooperation with Monsanto, have their planting and marketing authorized by the new Law on Biosafety, sanctioned on March 24. Embrapa and Monsanto will receive royalties for the sale of the seeds. A portion of this amount will form a fund, managed by a scientific committee, which will fund research in such products as beans and potatoes, to cater to the demands of small farmers. “These are the results of the first research with transgenics. There are another 150 cultivars under test”, says Mônica Amâncio, from Embrapa’s Intellectual Property management.

The new law brings to a close the legal battle over the competence of the National Technical Biosafety Commission (CTNBio) to permit the use of transgenics in the country. The law conferred on the Commission – which, from now onwards, will be made up of 27 doctors “of renowned scientific work and learning – power to approve researches and the commercial use of genetically modified organisms. The decisions of the Commission may be contested by bodies and entities of registration and supervision, by means of appeals forwarded to a National Biosafety Council, made up of 11 ministers.

President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva sanctioned the law with seven vetoes of articles regarded as unconstitutional and contrary to the public interest. For example, the penalty of from 2 to 4 years of prison for those permitting GMOs in the environment outside the rules defined by law was suspended. The argument of the executive  was that the penalty was too rigid, since practically the same was provided for those who clone human beings. The article that provided for an increase in the operational capacity of the CTNBio and of inspection bodies was vetoed, for implying extra expenses. The quorum of one third of the votes of the CTNBio for approving an issuer, provided for in the law approved by the Chamber, was equally rejected. The system of voting will be defined by decree. Also to be regulated later is the time limit for the manifestation of the Council of Ministers.

The vetoes did not jeopardize the main points of the new legislation. They run counter to the expectations of the ministries of the Environment and of Health, which asked for 16 vetoes, but were well received by companies and by researchers.  Monsanto – the producer of the Roundup Ready soybeans that during seven years was at the epicenter of the polemics over the transgenics in the country – said in a note, that the new law “represents a victory of national science”. “With the establishment of clear rules for the regulation of transgenic plants, Brazil may attract investments in biotechnology from all over the world, besides encouraging the activities of over 60 Brazilian companies that are working in the sector today. Moreover, the approval of this legal and regulatory landmark is going to bring about as well the creation of well paid jobs, besides investments in the specialization of the workforce”, the company explains.

End of uncertainties
Bayer Cropscience regarded the text of the law as an advance in relation to the previous legislation, of 1995. “As far as marketing is concerned, the law is clear and leaves little room for juridical insecurity. The text is also clear about the licenses needed for carrying out researches and production. Before, there were uncertainties about the necessary licenses”, says André Abreu, the technology manager of Bayer Cropscience’s Biosciences division.

The Sugar Industry Technology Center, formerly Coopersucar, was just waiting for the law to be sanctioned to ask the CTNBio for authorization for field experiments. The tests in a vegetation house of plants with higher sugar content showed some “interesting” results, according to Eugênio Ulian, responsible for the Biotechnology Program.

Aluízio Borem, the president of the Brazilian Plant Improvement Society and a professor at the Federal University of Viçosa, believes that the new legal landmark is going to attract “heavy investments” from the biotechnology industry, since the prospects for a return are now secure. He bets – and guarantees that he is not dreaming too high – that Brazil is going to overtake the United States, in two or three years, in the ranking for the production of soybeans. “We already have better productivity, with 2,780 kg per hectare against 2,600 kg per hectare”, he compares. “We have now overtaken America’s production in the level of oil and protein, because our climate is warmer. And our soybeans are cheaper”.

CTNBio’s agenda for assessments is full. In the next few months, two pleas from Monsanto will be analyzed, to release commercially cotton that tolerates glyphosate and corn that resists insects; two requests from Bayer to market glyphosate ammonia tolerant corn, cotton and rice seeds; one application from Syngenta Seeds to market insect-resistant corn; and requests from the Brazilian Foodstuff Industries Association (ABIA) to allow the release of soybeans with a high oleic acid content and corn seeds resistant to insects and tolerant to glyphosinate and glyphosate.

Even before the sanctioning of the law, the Commission approved the planting and marketing of a variety of transgenic cotton, known as Bt, patented by Monsanto. The only vote against was from the Ministry of the Environment, which promises to lodge an appeal against the decision. As in its article 30, the law validates the GMOs that have had a technical decision in favor of their commercial release, CTNBio’s decisions on Bt cotton and Roundup Ready soybeans, announced in 1998, will prevail, save for a contrary manifestation from the Council of Ministers, according to Reginaldo Minaré, a lawyer who specializes in Biosafety.

On the same day that it authorized the marketing of Monsanto’s cotton, CTNBio also released for field tests a variety of sugarcane that is resistant to mosaic, developed by Alellyx Applied Genomics for customers of CanaViallis, a biotechnology company supported by the Votorantim group. “One of the most productive, the variety was used by farmers from Paraná, but is was eradicated when it was contaminated by disease”, explains Fernando Reinach, the president of Alellyx and executive director of Votorantim New Businesses. The rehabilitation of this variety of sugarcane should increase productivity for the farmers, Reinach wagers. Alellyx should now submit to the approval of the CTNBio the release for field tests of an orange rootstock that resists the disease known as citrus sudden death, Reinach discloses.

In Reinach’s assessment, the approval of the law has created a legal landmark that should stimulate investments and attract new enterprises in the area of biotechnology in the country.