Despite serious environmental concerns about genetically modified crops escaping into the pristine rainforest, on Tuesday the Biosecurity Technical National Comission (CTNBio) of Brazil, ratified the use of a type of eucalyptus which was genetically modified in order to grow faster. The crop was approved by 18 votes in favor and 3 against.
Since 2004, eight field tests were carried out in which possible hazards to bees and other wildlife were evaluated the matter was discussed in the four permanent subcomissions the body held before giving the green light Tuesday.
The custom made variety was created after 14 years of research by FuturaGene Brasil Tecnologia Ltd, which incorporated a gene of the Arabidopsis thaliana species — a type of bush native to Europe and Asia — to the Eucaliptus genome.
According to the company, the new tree represents a 20% productivity boost to farmers versus common eucalyptus. The plant can be used to fabricate wood, paper and other articles, and will be available for small producers without the payment of extra royalties.
The approval was marred by controversies, as several organizations have rallied against the use of the modified species for many years. Last month, the Movement of Rural Workers Without Land (MST) destroyed the incubator of the research unit of FuturaGene in Sao Paulo, and another group of activists took over the offices of the company in Brasilia.
The environmental groups argue that the transgenic species use more water than what is "needed" and that it is a threat to national honey, due to the possibility of bees contaminating their production with "elements" of the new species, which they claim might carry health risks.
The groups are also concerned that contaminating honey with genetically modified organisms could result in the rejection of Brazilian honey in the international markets.
According to Nagib Nassar, botanist, geneticist and professor emeritus from the Universidad de Brasilia, the studies to test a new genetically modified species can "never be enough", because unexpected issues may not be observed in trials. In the case of the modified eucalyptus he said that besides the gene which enhances its growth, another one was incorporated which increases its strength against antibiotics. The long term effects of these in the wild are unknown and could lead to irreparable long-term consequences.