Under controversy, Brazil approves the first virus resistant GM bean
Sep. 27, 2011
Brazilian legislation stipulates that members with professional or personal involvement in a matter are barred from voting, under penalty of losing their mandate. What should have been understood as a lack of exemption was legally defended by specialist advisers from the Ministry of Science and Technology, which hosts CTNBio, stated its president, Edílson Paiva. At the end of the session, Paiva reported that a federal public prosecutor was in the house meeting with CTNBio’s lawyers. The Semi-Arid Regional Alliance, AS-PTA, IDEC and Terra de Direitos had submitted a petition to the Public Prosecutor’s Office warning of the infringement.
Five members of CTNBio voted for diligence, asking for more studies to be conducted. These members included the representative from the Ministry of Health, who argued that the information available was insufficient to allow the creation of a health monitoring system capable of identifying potentially harmful effects of the new seed when grown and consumed on a large-scale. This vote was defeated, as were those questioning the validity of the health studies based on just three laboratory rats from a single species, far too small a sample to extract statistically valid conclusions. Even so, the studies on these 3 males rats identified a tendency towards a decrease in the size of the kidneys and an increase in the weight of the liver. Why? The product was released without an answer. Despite the warnings, the approval given also dispensed with the legal requirement for studies on two generations of animals and on pregnant animals.
Francisco Aragão, the researcher responsible for developing the GM beans, told the newspapers that “tests were conducted from 2004 to 2010” (Folha de São Paulo, 16/09), that “we carried out studies between 2005 and 2010” (O Estado de São Paulo, 16/09) and that “field research had been conducted since 2006” (O Globo, 16/09). Anyone opening the application sent to CTNBio, signed by Aragão, can observe on pages 17-19 that “the trials were conducted in greenhouses and cultivated fields for a two-year period.” Section VII of the dossier “Environmental risk assessment” presents data referring to 2008 and 2009. And that’s all.
The viability of the technology and the durability of its resistance to the pathogenic virus were also placed in doubt. The first generation of seeds coming from GM beans showed as many as 36% of plants susceptible to the virus (p.143 of the application). What happens to the commercial seeds produced for sale, also derived from genetically modified material? Again the application was approved without an answer. The presence of plants vulnerable to the virus’s attack may accelerate the development of resistance.
Anyone who has studied the topic would have also missed a reference from 2008 in the application citing the work of Italian researchers studying tomatoes with the same method of genetic transformation applied to Embrapa’s beans. Lucioli and collaborators concluded that new genetic engineering strategies are needed to control the virus, since their research shows the rapid development of resistance and mutation in the virus. In the same journal, Nature Biotechnology (December 2009), Aragão defended his project in a reply published in the publication’s letters to the editor section, which was answered by Lucioli’s team, who cited other published studies backing their claim that the methodology used has an ‘Achilles heel’ that renders it vulnerable.
However in the application for Embrapa’s GM beans, submitted in December 2010, we read that “There are no studies in the literature on the effect of a similar GM plant”.
Questions presented at a public hearing were not properly answered, recalling here that the meeting was held at the head office of the applicant company. The same treatment was bestowed to the independent analysis of geneticists from the Federal University of Santa Catarina, forwarded to CTNBio. Among other problems, the document identifies more than one copy of the inserted gene and criticizes the presentation of data without the respective statistical analysis: “It is clear that the applicant company is behaving improperly, since even undergraduate science students would not dare leap to the same conclusions.”
The Science and Technology minister Aloizio Mercadante rubberstamped the process. He ignored manifestations from the National Food Security Council and the Public Prosecutor’s Office and warnings from civil society organizations. His representative at CTNBio heard a detailed exposition of the failures in the application process and the clear breaches of the Commission’s rules. Making no declaration, he abstained during the vote and then left the meeting.
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