GM-free nations fall to Monsanto

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Genetically modified foods are poised to slip back into Britain after major advances by Monsanto in countries that have so far refused to grow them.

Last week, India lifted a four-year ban on growing GM crops to allow production of three bio-engineered types of cotton and hinted that it will also give the go-ahead to GM foods such as soya and corn.

And earlier this month, the Brazil's commission on GM foods recommended the immediate authorisation of GM crops and foods, despite a similar ban. The recommendation would particularly benefit Monsanto, which has been lobbying hard for approval to grow pesticide-resistant soya.

Brazil and India have been important sources for British and European firms that have been forced to drop GM materials from food and animal feeds. If bio-engineered crops now sweep through the two countries, companies will find it hard to find non-GM supplies.

Brazil, for example, is the world's second biggest producer of soya. The first and third biggest, America and Argentina, already grow GM varieties, and the three countries together account for 80 per cent of soya production.

Monsanto's victories are a blow for environmentalists who had thought their success in turning consumers against GM foods in Europe and Japan would have global repercussions. As consumers refused to buy, the argument went, exporting countries would be forced to grow GM-free crops in order to reach their markets. Eventually even America would come under pressure to change course.

Now environmentalists fear firms and supermarkets will be forced to buy GM ingredients again, restricting choice to consumers.

The blow is all the more bitter because their strategy had seemed to be working. Over the past two years, Brazil has increased its share of world soya trade from 24 to 36 per cent, while the US share fell from 57 to 46 per cent.

As a result, many Brazilian farmers' leaders want to keep the ban. "Three quarters of our exports go to countries that don't accept GM," said Agide Meneguette, president of the Farming Federation of Parana, the country's second largest soya-producing state. "It is beginning to look foolish to switch to GM crops."

The recommendation to lift the ban has yet to be approved by the full parliament, but President Fernando Henrique Cardoso is determined to push it through. Earlier this month, the anti-GM environment minister, Jose Sarney Filho, resigned.

Monsanto refuses to comment beyond saying that it "remained committed to bringing the benefits of biotechnology to Brazilian farmers".

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