Poor citizens decide on the introduction of GMOs in Brazil
Ana Toni and Johanna von Braun
Keywords:  Brazil, Genetic Engineering, Public acceptance.
Correct citation: Toni, A. and Braun, von J. (2001), "Poor citizens decide on the introduction of GMOs in Brazil." Biotechnology and Development Monitor, No. 47, p. 7-9.

Early this year a Citizens Jury in Fortaleza, Ceará, Brazil rejected a proposal to introduce genetically modified organisms into Brazil. Unfortunately their judgement has more moral than legal weight. The two Brazilian non-governmental organizations, ActionAid and Esplar who organised the jury wanted to provide a public platform so that those who would be most affected by this new technology could make their voices heard and have a chance to acquire information and form opinions about plans that could radically affect their lives.

Who is to judge whether genetically modified organisms (GMOs) should be introduced into a country? Should this important decision be left in the hands of scientists, politicians and economists? When and how are the poor consulted in these discussions - or are they consulted at all?

Despite recent moves made by government and industry, Brazil is still one of the only major agricultural exporting countries in the world which remains free of GMO crops. This situation, however, is not the result of a complex and far-reaching national debate about the issue but the consequence of a legal battle between some NGOs and the government. In 1999, the National Technical Biosafety Committee (CTNBio) issued a technical decision in favour of several Monsanto-owned GMO soya varieties with glyphosate tolerance. Greenpeace and a consumer defence organization, Instituto Brasileiro De Defesa do Consumidor (IDEC), questioned the legality of their commercial release. They raised questions about environmental safety, particularly as no environmental impact assessment had been done despite legal requirements. As a result, a Federal judge ordered that the commercial application of all GMOs should be forbidden until environmental impact assessments had been made and other precautions had been taken.

This legal decision has delayed the plans of both the Brazilian Government and the agribusiness industry to release GM crops on a commercial basis. More importantly, however, this fragile legal blockade has given the Brazilian scientific community, consumers, parliamentarians, peasants and the media the opportunity to start a fundamental debate on the advantages and disadvantages of introducing GMOs. These are groups that have never been properly consulted about the issue before and are still not in a position to really influence decisions taken by government. Nevertheless, they are the real promoters, critics and in many cases victims of GMOs, and should be the ones judging the introduction of this particular technology. It was in this spirit that ActionAid Brazil and ESPLAR decided to organize the first Citizens' Jury on GMOs in Brazil. The aim was to give the most powerless groups in Brazilian society a chance to be heard.

The Citizens' Jury

The jury was held in Foraleza, Ceará, North-Eastern Brazil, a region characterised by an arid climate, poverty, and a very unequal distribution of land and services. The large majority of farmers grow manioc, corn and wheat on less than 50 hectares of, often nutrient-depleted, land. There is no government assistance to help the peasants of this region overcome the harsh climatic conditions in which they farm. Most public resources go to support the big landlords producing for foreign markets. Historically, peasants in the North-East have been excluded from the formulation and implementation of Brazilian agricultural policy and measures to introduce GMOs have been conducted in the same spirit.

The Citizens' Jury was designed along the lines of a formal court trial. During the two day event a judge, two lawyers (the defender and the prosecutor) and the jury, listened, cross-examined and weighed up the evidence presented by twelve witnesses (six representing each side), from many disciplines and professional backgrounds. The jury itself was made up of eleven people, seven women and four men drawn from among the rural and urban poor and it was they who determined the verdict.

The eleven jury members were picked randomly by local grassroots organisations from a group of 36 potential candidates on the morning of the first day of the trial. Three main criteria were used in the selection of jury members: they should not have heard about GMOs before, they should not hold any representative function in the community or politics and they must fall within the government's definition of 'poor', meaning they had to be unemployed, have little or no land or property and have no steady income. A facilitator was appointed to help jury members formulate questions and arrive at a final verdict.

Questions answered by the Citizens' Jury in Brazil

  • Can GMOs contribute to solving hunger in Brazil and the world?
  • Can GMOs facilitate access to food and food security and serve the interests of small-scale farmers and the poor?
  • Does enough scientific evidence exist about the consequences to human health of GMOs to justify their release?
  • Does enough scientific evidence exist about the consequences of GMOs for the environment to justify their release?
  • Has the analysis, monitoring, reporting and decision making on field trials and commercial liberalization been done with sufficient caution, transparency and participation of civil society?
  • Is there sufficient information on GMOs and is it accesible? Can consumers and farmers exercise a right to choose?

The case was presented to the jury in the same way as it would be in a real trial. This consisted of a definition of GMOs and the presentation of the questions to be answered by the Jury (see box). These questions were formulated by ActionAid Brazil and ESPLAR and approved by both prosecution and defence. Definitions of important concepts and the parameters of the case were decided in discussion between representatives of both sides before the trial began.

For two days the jury heard scientists, consumers, government officials and environmentalists called as witnesses by the lawyers for the defence and prosecution. Everyone presented their own position on GMOs with vigour and did their best to respond to the interrogation launched by the opposing party. One particular characteristic of this Citizens' Jury was that jury members themselves were allowed to question witnesses. This gave the jury members the freedom to ask for any information they felt they needed on this complex subject and it ensured that questions were answered with care and consideration. Every effort was made to avoid a heated debate between prosecution and defence. This meant that all witnesses had to use a language that common people could understand and answer questions and explore aspects of the GMO debate that were of particular interest to poor people.

After two days of debate the final verdict was given. The jury gave cautious answers to all questions. With one exception, all questions received negative votes from all eleven jury members. Only Question Two on access to food and food security received nine negative votes and two positive ones. In addition, jury members made recommendations for future policy relating to GMOs in Brazil. These focused on three main demands. Firstly, there is a need for greater transparency about the potential risks of GMOs and related policy activities. They stressed that it should be made easier for workers and farmers to get information. Secondly, civil society should be more closely involved in decision- making processes by ensuring permanent and proportional representation in those bodies responsible for dealing with GMOs. Finally, it was necessary to focus more closely on alternative agriculture, which jury members felt was falling behind in research and investment when compared to the progress being made within the agricultural biotechnology sector. Until circumstances were improved, the jury demanded an immediate halt to the use and commercialization of GMOs. They were against the introduction of GMOs into Brazil under present conditions.

An effective methodology?

The Citizens' Jury in Brazil was designed according to the format of a real court trial. This trial format and the very real element of 'risk' for both sides (the jury could vote both ways) made the Forteleza Citizens' Jury process much more formal than experiences with Citizens Juries elsewhere. The formality of the court trial format and its very confrontational nature were the key elements in this experience. Among the factors that were crucial to its effectiveness and success were:


The Jury was the first of its kind in Brazil and therefore as much a learning process for those involved as it was an awareness raising tool for the general public. In the coming year four more Citizens' Juries are planned in Brazil. The outcome of these juries will give a good overview on whether there are regional differences in the way the rural and urban poor think about the prospect of introducing GMOs into agriculture or whether opinions are very much the same throughout the country. The next Citizens Jury will take place in Belém and involve participants from the whole Amazonian region, and later in the year juries are planned for Rio Grande do Sul and Rio de Janeiro.

This first experiment with the Citizens' Jury on GMOs in Brazil already demonstrates that if the final decision on the introduction of GMOs was taken with the participation of civil society and in particular with the participation of the poor, the outcome would have been quite different to the decision taken by the Brazilian Government in 1995. This decision is now being challenged in a real Court.

Ana Toni* & Johanna von Braun**

*ActionAid, Corcovado 252, Jardin Botanico, Rio Janeiro, 22460050, Brazil.
Phone (+552) 1 254 05707; Fax (+ 552) 1 254 05707; E-mail actionaid@actionaid.org.br

** International Science and Technology Programme, Columbia University, New York, USA.
Phone (+1) 646 698 2478; E-mail vonorange@aol.com

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