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Environment

Bayer withdraws controversial GM rice application in Brazil

German chemicals giant Bayer has suspended its application for legal approval of one of it genetically-modified rice strands in Brazil as rice producers in the country worry about its impact on exports.

Rice in cupped hands

Environment campaigners say Bayer's GM rice poses a risk to human health

The German company has been pushing for legal approval of its "Liberty Link" long-grain GM rice in Brazil since 2003. Developed by subsidiary Bayer Crop Science AG, the rice has been genetically-modified to withstand high doses of the herbicide glufosinate, sprayed on rice fields by farmers to control a wide range of weeds.

But in a surprise move last week, the German chemicals and pharmaceutical heavyweight, which already markets genetically-modified cotton, corn and soy, said it was temporarily suspending its application for approval of its rice.

In a statement, Bayer Crop Science in Sao Paulo said the "proactive approach" emerged from the "necessity to broaden dialogue with key members in rice production in Brazil."

The company, however, added that it would continue lobbying to ensure that "Liberty Link technology for rice can be brought to the market," provided it received the support of producers and "wide acceptance by the market."

An assisstant at a Bayer research lab

Bayer is one of the world's leading drugmakers

Economic factors fuel resistance

Unlike its other GM products in Brazil, Bayer's "Liberty Link" GM rice has been dogged by controversy.

Opposition to Bayer's rice is reportedly even growing among traditionally biotech-friendly farmers' groups in the southern Brazilian state of Grande do Sul, which accounts for 60 percent of the country's total rice production.

"The rice producers in Rio Grande do Sul fear that if Brazil becomes the first country to commercially plant GM rice, it could meet resistance in other countries, especially in the European Union, who import rice from Brazil," Marijane Lisboa, a Brazilian researcher and a member of a network of scientists following the debate on biotechnology in Brazil said.

In a statement, Rio Grande do Sul's rice producers pinpointed two reasons for their reluctance to embrace Bayer's GM rice. The consumption of GM rice isn't common in the global market, they said, and secondly, exports are hugely important for the economic sustainability of the national productive sector.

Brazil has also pointed out that it needs to follow regulations passed by the Mercosur countries - Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay - which also export rice and protect production to keep it free of genetic engineering.

Since the founding of the Mercosur, or the Southern Common Market, Brazilian producers are reportedly suffering from the rice imports from Mercosur members. Though these countries produce less rice than Brazil, their products are still cheaper in the Brazilian market.

A rice field with paddy saplings

Brazil's rice producers fear GM rice could hit exports

Mounting safety concerns

Marijane Lisboa pointed out that resistance to Bayer's GM rice in Brazil was unique.

"For the first time, we have important commercial sectors in Brazil who are speaking against the rice," she said. "That was not the case with either soya or maize." Lisboa added that the decision against planting GM rice was purely commercial.

"We've never had restrictions on environment grounds, the concerns don't focus on that," she said.

But environmental campaigners have long said that Bayer's GM rice poses a high risk to human health and threatens non-GM varieties with contamination.

In a report in 2009, Greenpeace said that "any use of the Bayer GM rice will lead to an increased use of the toxic herbicide glufosinate - undoubtedly boosting sales of Bayer's glufosinate as a consequence. It will also lead to higher risks for farmers, consumers and the environment. "

Referring to Bayer's latest decision to withdraw its application for GM rice in Brazil, Larissa Packer from the Terra de Direitos group told German daily Die Taz on Wednesday that the move was a "defeat" for the multinational and had "bought time" for GM opponents who aim to raise pressure on the government.

A worker in a paddy field in Bangladesh

India is one of the world's biggest rice producers

Bayer forced to pay damages in US

Bayer has announced that its "Liberty Link" rice has already been approved in Australia, the United States, Russia, Mexico, Canada and Colombia.

"But the company has decided not to allow the technology for commercial use in any of these countries because it wants to push the approval of the product in as many countries as possible that have to do with international rice trade," Bayer said in a statement.

But some suspect that the reason Bayer's GM rice isn't commercially planted in these countries has to do with a US court decision in April this year.

That's when the company was ordered by a jury in the United States to pay $1.5 million in damages to three farmers for losses they incurred because of contaminations of Bayer's genetically modified rice.

The decision came after Bayer's "Liberty Link" rice, which was not approved for commercial cultivation, was found in the food supply chain in August 2006 after it had been tested by a US university. As a result, Japan and the European Union restricted US rice from crossing their borders, leading to a plunge in rice prices, a drop in exports and extensive losses incurred by US rice farmers.

Bayer, however, told Deutsche Welle that the US ruling had no influence on its decision to withdraw its application in Brazil, insisting that it had always acted responsibly.

Rice matters

Rice is one of Brazil's biggest exports. The country's 2009-2010 rice harvest is forecast to reach 11.3 million tons. Currently, Brazil accounts for just 1.8 percent of global rice production. China is the largest contributor, at 29 percent, followed by India at 21.5 percent.

Two-thirds of the rice consumed in the European Union is produced in the continent - Italy and Spain are the biggest producers, followed by Bulgaria, France, Greece, Hungary and Portugal - who together account for 2.5 million tons each year. The EU mainly imports from Thailand, India and Pakistan.

Author: Nadia Pontes (sp)
Editor: Nathan Witkop

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