Recently, Dr. Renata Motta of Freie Universität Berlin held a lecture at CEDLA about Politics and resistance to genetically modified crops in Brazil and Argentina. We had the pleasure of interviewing her.

When asked about the actors involved in the consolidation of large scale soy production in both Argentina and Brazil Renata Motta mentioned a few:

“In both countries there is a network of actors composed of seed and chemical companies, biotech companies, who have the property rights over the genetic transformations. This is a small group of companies in the whole world and a very consolidated market. In both countries you also have the agrarian actors, like the national confederation of farmers, or the rural society; different representation of farmers; individual farmers who are interested in testing the technology . There are also scientific groups doing research and they want that their products are released to the market; some don’t want much regulation, others want the freedom to do research, or to patent their work. Also public officials, mostly at the ministry of agriculture and science, are interested in adopting new technologies.”

As Motta explains, these actors use a variety of strategies to consolidate GMO production in the market. We name the multinational seed company Monsanto as an example:

“Monsanto has association with local and national partners. They have institutional strategies. For instance, Monsanto invited Brazilian congressmen to their headquarters in the US in a “Seeing is Believing” tour, as they call it. There, they could see the industrial production of seeds , and experimental fields of GM crops, and how good it is, how it works. They took them also to South Africa, where they have planted GM crops. By a variety of strategies they managed to convince congressmen that GM crops were good for the country. They also had networks into the state apparatus, so they mobilized many people to speak in favor of developing the crops. The discursive strategies also include paying advertisement, mass media outlets, TV commercials and so on. They created a good public image of GM soy and other GM crops in general: it was good for everyone.”

About the consequences of this large scale production of GM crops, both in Brazil and Argentina, Motta explains that it very much depends on how you look at it. For some the consequences might have been pretty good. They profited from high prices in the export market and could accumulate these profits during this time. But the agrarian model underlying the adoption of GM crops brought with it many processes that increased social inequalities in the countryside:

“This type of production is very capital intensive: you need a lot of capital to buy the seeds- they are very expensive because of property rights-, and need an entire technological package to work with them. You also need a lot of machinery to apply the pesticides, you need a certain scale of production in order to get the returns; this means a lot of land. So this led to a strong push for land, which pushed land prices high, and increased violence in de countryside due to conflicts over land.”

“In Argentina for instance, the soy production expanded to the north, where there were also traditional communities, using land collectively, with no legal property tittles of their land. So there was a conflict over means of using the land and over the land. There were also a lot of forest evictions, traditional communities, poor peasants and deforestation in both countries –the soy production displaced many other activities like cattle and other crops, pushing the agrarian frontier, and by doing so, leading to an even stronger deforestation.”

During her lecture Renata Motta presented a comparative study of Argentina and Brazil. We asked to try to come up with a case that could accurately explain the difference between both the Argentinian and the Brazilian case.

“The MST in Brazil is a good example for understanding GM crops embedded in the agrarian question and a good entry point to contrast both countries. Argentina and Brazil today are major producers of GM soy; together with the US. But, because of social mobilization, it took Brazil 10 years to catch up with Argentina to lead the soy production worldwide. In the nineties Argentina and the US adopted GM crops together. In Argentina, the approval of GMO production was insulated and bureaucratically done by the ministry of agriculture in 1996. No one was invited, there was no public discussion about it, no involvement of political actors in the parliament what so ever. And the agrarian poor didn’t know about it until the scale of production had increased so much that was starting to push out the poorer.”

“Most agrarian movements in Argentina were at the time local or regional at the most; there were no national networks. In Brazil, on the other hand, agrarian movements were coming out of a long cycle of social mobilization for land reform. In de mid-nineties the MST was the biggest grassroots social movement in Latin America. At the time it had been developing a lot of repertoires of contention: occupations of farms, occupations of public buildings, they had been doing camps but also popular education. They had a critical reflection of what was going on at the time, which was the large scale agribusiness. And with that, they could identify biotechnology as one that would just add to the whole model of agribusiness.”

“They made the debate about land issues: large vs. small scale farming, and about seeds: who has ownership over seeds? So they soon incorporated GMO in their struggle. In 1999 they started occupying farms, setting fire on experimental field on GMO seeds, they even blocked a shipment with GMO imports. In 2001, 1.000 activist of MST uprooted GM-soy in an experimental field of Monstanto, and with that they had a lot of media attention. At the time the MST had also a favorable image in the mass media because they were carriers of moderns image: they wanted democratization in the countryside, where we still had latifundios -nowadays it is much harder because you have agribusiness men instead of latifudiarios (Landlords). And I think there, in the nineties, it made a big difference that Brazil had a MST and this long cycle of contention, of learning of action repertoire but also of public image and media space on a national level. Whereas in Argentina peasant movements only formalized a national network in 2005, when the GMO model was long installed; so it was always a reaction. Timing is crucial in this case; to mobilize before it becomes a fact, to lead the path instead of reacting to it. I think this is a good example of how different it was for both countries.”

In light of the current political changes in Brazil and Argentina, we asked Renata Motta what we could expect in the near future in terms of GMO related policy/state regulation, and the relations state vis a vis social mobilization. Motta stresses that even though the governments of the left of the past decade -the Kirchner’s and Lula (and later Dilma)- did not much to change the running model since the nineties and also allowed for the consolidation of agribusiness, they did have a public relation of dialogue with social movements:

“In doing so, they opened some spaces for them on the margins where it did not change the core of the agrarian policy. And while the agrarian policy remained a key instrument of foreign economic relations, and agrarian policy was not changed, in Brazil there were splits within the government, the PT party in the congress, that allowed individual congressmen to vote according to their positions on important issues, including agrarian policy. This was crucial for Brazil to build a legal framework that in some way opened room for precaution or public participation, for transparency. In consequence the commission of experts that decide on GMO’s in Brazil is open to the public, must put everything on the website, they must organize public hearing’s for the approval of major products, as happened with the rejection of GM rise in 2009.”

The near future is to say the least uncertain..

After the change in the government -impeachment or coup in the case of Brazil- is that the current congressmen have been always mobilized to reverse those provisions for public participation, and now they have much more room for doing just that. So now it’s a window opportunity to destroy all this construction of an legal and institutional framework that guarantees some room for a precaution in the environmental policy and for public participation in general that has been going on since the democratization.

Pictures by CIMMYT and John Donges, Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic