Biotech corporation Monsanto is spending $2 million to convince Brazilians that genetically modified food is good for them and the environment. Targeted at housewives and students, the campaign aims at breaking down public resistance to genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
“Housewives are important because they decide what the family buys, and students are future opinion makers,” says Monsanto’s director of communication Lúcio Mocsányi.
Monsanto’s TV commercial presents idyllic images of children playing on a farm while Louis Armstrong sings “What a wonderful world.” A female narrator chirps: “Imagine a world that preserves nature, the air and the rivers; where people can produce more with less herbicides, without deforesting.
“Imagine a world with more and better food and people with more health. Can you imagine it? Bet you never thought that GMOs could help us with that.”
The campaign is the latest move from Monsanto, which has lobbied intensely for the legalization of GMOs. Monsanto wants to first overcome the public’s aversion to genetically modified organisms.
Opinion polls show that 65 percent of Brazilians are against the production of GMOs and 71 percent would rather not eat food with genetically modified ingredients. While the public still shuns GMO crops, Monsanto and soy farmers have already successfully pressured the Brazilian legislature to legalize genetically modified soy.
GMO production had been prohibited in Brazil since 1998 when consumer organizations filed a lawsuit arguing that production should only be allowed after it was determined conclusively that such crops were safe for humans and the environment.
In early 2003, however, soy producers from southern Brazil pressured the federal government to legalize the production of the genetically modified crop, alleging that much of Brazil’s soy had already been illegally converted to Monsanto’s genetically modified Roundup Ready variety.
A national seminar discussing GMOs in March 2003 gathered together 85 civil society organizations and accused Monsanto of turning a blind eye to the widespread smuggling of genetically modified soy seeds from Argentina.
According to a document presented at the seminar, Monsanto deliberately kept loose controls on Roundup Ready soy seeds sold in Argentina in order to facilitate distribution of the seeds in Brazil. “This attitude seems to be part of a deliberate strategy to contaminate Brazilian soy production and create a de facto situation to knock down national legislation controlling its products,” the document states.
As a result, with up to one-third of the soy crop contaminated last year, Brazil’s government caved in to the pressure to legalize the harvest. Large farms and Monsanto celebrated the decision while landless workers, small farmers, and environment and consumer organizations demonstrated.
Greenpeace organized supermarket protests against genetically modified products. Via Campesina, an international coalition of peasant movements, camped for 61 days in Brasilia protesting the legalization of GMOs. But despite these efforts, Monsanto and farmers successfully lobbied again in September to have the precedent extended to the next harvest.
Unlike the United States, where White House officials are connected to biotech companies (Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman was a director of Calgene, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was formerly president of Monsanto subsidiary Searle Pharmaceuticals and Director of Management and Budget Office Mitch Daniels was vice president of Monsanto’s partner Eli Lilly & Company), government officials in Brazil have strong links to consumer and environment groups.
The conservative magazine Veja denounced Marijane Lisboa, an adviser to the Minister of Environment, and Secretary of Agrarian Reform Miguel Rosetto for their activism against genetically modified plants. And during his presidential campaign, Luis Inácio Lula da Silva publicly promised Greenpeace that he would not legalize GMOs.
Nevertheless, the Workers’ Party government reversed its position. Now, the availability of traditional soy in the world market will be drastically reduced (the other main producers, the United States, Argentina and China, already grow GM soy).
The next stage in Monsanto’s campaign is to convert most of Brazil’s soy production to its genetically modified variety.
Maria Carrascosa, an agronomist working with biodiversity recovery in Rio de Janeiro, observes that not only is the introduction of GMOs an issue of health, environmental safety and economic productivity, but it also affects the autonomy of the small farmer.
“By using Monsanto’s Roundup Ready soy seeds, the farmer is contractually bound not to use the grown seeds to sow the next harvest. He is obliged to not buy only new seeds from Monsanto but to buy also Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide. This generates a cycle of dependency on corporations.”
As part of its new advertising blitz, Monsanto argues that genetically modified soy is more productive, requires less herbicides, and will produce safer soybeans.
Monsanto spokesperson Lúcio Mocsányi claims studies from the Argentinean government have shown that the introduction of GM soy in the country was responsible for a considerable reduction in production costs. The introduction of “genetically modified soy led to a reduction of 20 to 25 dollars per hectare in the costs of production and a rise in Argentinean soy exports,” says Mocsányi.
A technical study made by the Brazilian Worker’s Party, however, argues that traditional soy is more productive than its genetically modified cousin. “While [in Brazil] traditional soy has shown gains in productivity, in the United States, Roundup Ready soy has shown the opposite,” the report states.
From 1996, when the United States began producing genetically modified soy, to 2002, U.S. production grew only 1.8 percent annually while Brazil’s traditional production grew 8.8 percent annually. In the same period, Brazilian productivity per hectare increased 1.91 percent while U.S. productivity decreased 0.04 percent.
A coalition of grassroots organizations, under the banner, “Brazil Free of GMOs,” also takes issue with Monsanto’s contention that its GM soy requires less pesticides. The coalition has pointed out that the use of herbicides has risen with the growth of genetically modified soy.
“In the past years, consumption of glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup herbicide) in Rio Grande do Sul almost tripled – during the very same period in which the growth of genetically modified soy spread in the state.”
The bulletin argues that the fact that genetically modified soy is more resistant to glyphosate makes farmers likely to abuse it. Not coincidentally, Monsanto has asked the Brazilian National Agency for Sanitary Vigilance to increase by 50 times the level of glyphosate residue allowed in soybeans.
According to Mocsányi, Brazil’s glyphosate rules are too strict and Monsanto is only asking for a reduction to U.S. standards. “The allowed glyphosate level in Brazil is significantly lower than the one in the United States where genetically modified soy has been grown for eight years.”
Mocsányi also argues that the high level of glyphosate in Rio Grande do Sul is due to the expansion of farming in the area.
In the end, the controversy over GMOs is a battle of scientific information. Monsanto’s website cites dozens of studies arguing that GMOs are safe. An open letter from the Brazil Free of GMOs coalition responds by pointing to independent scientific studies.
Critics of GMOs say that with the controversy surrounding the product, society should follow the “precautionary principle:” When there are serious doubts about safety, a new technology should not be adopted.