Eucalyptus tree. Mark Hillary under a Creative Commons Licence
On 9 April, corporate profit trumped common sense when the Brazilian Technical Commission on Biosafety (CTNBio) approved a request by FuturaGene to commercially produce genetically engineered (GE) eucalyptus trees in Brazil – the first such approval anywhere in the world.
But Winnie Overbeek, the Brazil-based Co-ordinator of World Rainforest Movement, was not surprised. ‘Over the years, CTNBio has made many decisions in favour of releasing GMO crops in Brazil, ignoring protests, and disregarding Brazil’s constitutional mandate for precaution,’ she says.
In fact, the day before the CTNBio decision, the Brazilian Forum to Combat Agrotoxins, an agency co-ordinated by Brazil’s Public Ministry, warned that CTNBio has repeatedly violated the National Brazilian Policy of Biosafety.
CTNBio not only ignored Brazilian law, however; they also violated the UN Convention on Biological Diversity’s 2008 decision on GE trees, which calls for detailed risk assessments and the Precautionary Approach with regard to GE trees. Brazil is a signatory to the CBD but seems content to ignore their obligations – ironic, since the head of the CBD is also Brazilian.
CTNBio member Paulo Paes de Andrade argues that ‘release of this GM tree is solely a Brazilian question and no other country or group of countries has the right to interfere in our decision’.
Geneticist Ricarda Steinbrecher counters this view, saying that adhering to the CBD’s ruling is crucial: ‘Regulation of GE trees at a national level is not sufficient. A review of the scientific literature shows that currently no meaningful and sufficient risk assessment of GE trees is possible. Both scientific literature and in-field experience show that contamination by and dispersal of GE trees will take place.’
FuturaGene, meanwhile, argues that faster-growing GE trees will mean less land will be needed and forests will be protected. But a study from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization shows the opposite. It states that between 1990 and 2010, the average yield of wood from plantations doubled, yet the amount of land occupied by those plantations increased over 60 per cent. This is simple economics. If faster-growing trees are more economically valuable, greater numbers will be used, and more land needed. Less economically valuable forests and their biodiversity will be destroyed and the communities that depend on them displaced.
This looming threat to forests was not of interest to CTNBio. Another major concern that CTNBio refused to even discuss was the fact that FuturaGene’s GE eucalyptus would severely impact thousands of honey-producing families in the eucalyptus-growing regions of Brazil. If their honey is contaminated by GE eucalyptus pollen, they risk losing their international markets. FuturaGene, on the other hand, extols the benefits of making all of Brazil’s eucalyptus plantations GE – a move that would spell doom for these families.
But the rural communities in Brazil were not going down without a fight. CTNBio’s April meeting was not their first. Their original meeting on 5 March was stormed by hundreds of people from La Via Campesina, forcing them to postpone their GE eucalyptus decision for a month. Earlier that same morning, 1,000 women from the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) and other social movements, occupied the operations of FuturaGene in São Paulo state and destroyed their GE eucalyptus seedlings.
During the action, they stated: ‘This model of agribusiness is the model of death, not of life. We, the landless women, are here to defend life, defend food sovereignty, and defend agrarian land reform.’
Just prior to the CTNBio meetings, the Campaign to STOP GE Trees, in collaboration with groups from Brazil and Latin America, organized global weeks of actions against GE trees targeting Brazilian Embassies and Consulates on four continents and 100,000 protest letters were collected.
CTNBio, however, was determined to ignore the word ‘biosafety’ in their name.
Our challenge now is to continue to strengthen the global movement against GE trees, in solidarity with Brazilian organizations and social movements. Though we may have lost the battle in Brazil, we have not lost the war. We are still working to stop CTNBio’s illegal decision and stop GE eucalyptus in Brazil.
As they say in Brazil: ‘A Luta Continua! – The struggle continues!’
Anne Petermann is Executive Director of the Global Justice Ecology Project, which co-ordinates the International Campaign to STOP Genetically Engineered Trees.