Sooner or later, there had to be a food fight.
For three years now. Brazil had been the only major agricultural exporter to stave off genetically modified soybeans. President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva even made a campaign promise to uphold a court ruling that keeps farmers from using the technology, which adds a protein to make the plants more resistant to pests and disease.
For years, Brazilian farmers in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul have been planting transgenic soybeans from neighboring Argentina, where such crops are legal. The coveted seeds require less weed killer and tillage and improve yields nearly 70%. As the harvest neared, Lula agreed to an emergency measure that lifted the ban for the current season and only for farmers who already have the seeds in Rio Grande do Sul.
Not surprisingly, Lula's critics are irate that he reneged on his promise and fear the decree will lead to a permanent approval of altered soy, They want the government to employ rigorous environmental impact studies as required by the courts before making a permanent decision. They worry about the long-term health effects on consumers and fear genes from modified plants might escape, creating super weeds, accidental crossbreeding in nearby plants and the poisoning of other insects and creatures.
But Lula had little choice. An estimated 70% of soy grown in Rio Grande do Sul is genetically modified, or GM. Destroying the harvest would have triggered the collapse of the state's agricultural sector. "Either we prohibited GM soy and ordered the police to set fire to it, which would have been a horrible picture in a country suffering from hunger," Lula told the country in a radio address, "or we could ... create a situation that would allow its sale."
While Brazil may finally hop on the transgenic bandwagon--GM crops already cover inure than 18 million hectares in Latin America--it would be a major mistake to embrace the trend wholeheartedly. Instead, Lula should follow the example of Parana, a southern state bordering Rio Grande do Sul. Less than two weeks after the emergency decree that overturned the ban, the Parana state legislature declared the area off-limits to transgenic seeds. Farmers there want to preserve their export market to Europe...