updated 3/3/2005 5:10:20 PM ET 2005-03-03T22:10:20

Brazilian agribusiness won a key victory after lawmakers cleared the way for rules to permit genetically modified crops and allow Monsanto Co. to sell its popular modified soy seed, the country’s agriculture minister said Thursday.

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Brazilian soy farmers, who have used cloned or smuggled versions of the biotechnology company’s Roundup Ready variety for years, will be able to acquire the seeds legally as long as regulators approve them for planting, said the minister, Roberto Rodrigues.

“The important thing here is the legal framework,” he said a day after Brazil’s lower house of Congress overwhelmingly passed the bill hotly contested by environmentalists. “This is essential.”

While the environmental group Greenpeace said the move is unconstitutional and warned that genetically modified crops will harm the environment, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is expected sign it into law later this month.

Monsanto spokeswoman Lori Fisher suggested the company wants develop seeds tailored for Brazilian growing conditions, but would not provide specifics.

“If the biosafety bill is enacted and becomes law, that would be a good sign for investment, not just by Monsanto but by others who are anxious to bring technology innovations to Brazilian farmers,” she said.

Seeds cut costs
Soy production has boomed in Brazil over the last decade, along with the use of the banned GM seeds, which help farmers cut production costs, despite Monsanto’s long-standing complaints it was being robbed of profits by the widespread illicit use of its technology.

Greenpeace said it would lobby Silva to veto the bill, claiming the commission that would approve GM seeds in Brazil lacks representation from environmental authorities. Experts expect GM soy may be the first modified seeds to be approved, followed by other seeds for such crops as wheat or cotton.

But the bill, passed Wednesday in a 352-60 vote, has already been approved by Brazil’s Senate. And Silva has already twice approved temporary decrees approving the harvesting of modified soy even though the crops were technically illegal.

Soy demand
Brazil is second only to the United States in soy production, but easily has the potential to become the world’s largest soy producer because of cheap land, low labor costs and plentiful water.

International demand for soy has skyrocketed in recent years, driven by ever-increasing purchases by China for soy used in products ranging from animal feed to cooking oil.

Monsanto’s soy seed is engineered to withstand the spraying of herbicides, which saves farmers money by cutting down on the number of workers and weed killers needed. Brazil’s ban on such crops did little to stop farmers, because it was rarely enforced.

The company disputed claims that GM crops harm the environment, saying many Brazilian farmers have boosted their profits while significantly reducing the amount of herbicides used to kill weeds.

Experts estimate about 30 percent of Brazil’s soy is grown with genetically engineered seeds, but the figure is near 90 percent in Brazil’s southernmost state of Rio Grande do Sul, where the seeds were first introduced in the 1990s after being smuggled in from neighboring countries with no bans on them.

In India on Thursday, Greenpeace pressured the government to scrap licenses it gave to Monsanto for selling its genetically modified cotton seeds. The company has faced stiff opposition from environmental groups there since 2002, when it was granted licenses to sell three varieties of its seeds.

The licenses are due to expire this month. Monsanto has sought licenses for 10 new varieties of BT (bacillus thuringiensis) cotton and an extension for the existing three.

Monsanto’s BT cotton is the only genetically modified crop allowed in India. Bacillus thuringiensis is a bacterium whose gene is injected into cotton seeds to give them resistance against boll worms, a major concern for farmers in India.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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