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CTNBio: Novel GMOs threaten peasants, food sovereignty and nature

On January 22, 2018, a new Resolution[1] published by the CTNBio[2], Brazil’s federal authority for the biosafety of transgenic (or “genetically modified”) organisms, enacted rules to handle several new biotechnologies that use genetic engineering for novel purposes, going well beyond the transgenic crops we have seen so far (mostly insecticide-laden and herbicide-resistant corn, soybeans and cotton). These new strategies to manipulate plant and animal genes do not necessarily insert genetic material from other species into the target organisms or their descendants. With its new rules, the CTNBio may now decide by itself whether or not organisms produced with such biotechnologies need to be regulated like other GMOs, under the country’s 2005 Biosafety Law[3]. This includes the possible environmental release of so-called “gene drives,” a high-risk technology aimed at making species extinct, even in the wild.

The new rules are very problematic because:

  1. They open a legal door for seeds, insects and other organisms that have been genetically altered with new biotechnologies to be treated as if they were not GMOs (genetically modified organisms) under the biosafety law, thus empowering the CTNBio to allow their release and sale with no biosafety assessment, no regulation and no labeling.
  1. One particularly grave concern is that these new biotechnologies include so-called “gene drives,” which involve organisms whose genes have been manipulated to fool natural laws of inheritance, to force the passing on of a genetic feature in ways that could be used to eliminate entire plant or animal species. Brazil is the first country in the world to make the release of this kind of genetic contraptions legally possible. They are extremely dangerous and can be used on genetically modified crops and even wild animals.

Who stands to gain from these rules?

The first to be favored will be agribusiness corporations and transgenic seed transnationals, who will be free to occupy fields and markets with new genetically manipulated products, free from any assessments, regulations or labels, thus expediting releases and hiking their profits. They may even mislead consumers with claims that their products are “natural,” as they have already done in the US with chemicals produced by microbes engineered with some of these technologies.

One of the tweaks imagined by companies like Monsanto and DuPont is to use CRISPR and gene-drives, which they control, to make wild weed populations more susceptible to their herbicides. To solve the spread of resistance to glyphosate, for example, they hope to use such “new breeding techniques” on the weeds themselves, and thus perpetuate their weed-killer sales.

They also expect such manipulations to come up with entirely novel species of plants, to further expand their transgenic seed markets. All of this with no more need to prove the seeds’ biosafety for the environment or for the health of people or animals.

Major impacts of the new biotechnologies

Transgenic organisms are genetically modified by the insertion of genes that do not naturally occur in their genomes and that may come from the same or another species. The so-called new biotechnologies of concern in this Resolution (such as CRISPR, RNA-based techniques to switch genes on or off, site-directed mutagenesis, etc.)[4] can either insert genes or use other techniques to alter the natural functions of any given organism.

Brazil’s CTNBio uses the term Innovative Precision Breeding Techniques to cover the so-called New Breeding Techniques (NBTs). In addition to plants, they can be used to modify microorganisms, insects and animals.

The companies also use the term “gene editing” to give the impression that these techniques just rewrite some of the gene’s own alphabet, and thus avoid the growing resistance of peasants and consumers worldwide against transgenic products.

These new forms of manipulation can, like the first generation of transgenic crops, make plants immune to herbicides, or they can make resistant weed populations regain their susceptibility to herbicides (so the seed manufacturers can sell more of their poisons), shift plants’ flowering and ripening cycles (to facilitate industrial harvesting) or induce microbes or plants to produce exotic chemicals of value to different industries.

They claim these techniques are more precise than the old transgenes. In fact, they may be more precise as to the site where they alter a gene, but there is still great uncertainty as to how such changes may disturb the rest of the genome, including possible new, unforeseen and undesired consequences. There have already been cases in which several of these techniques have had “off-target” effects, when plants or the products of manipulated organisms produce allergic reactions or other traits that influence plant growth or even human and animal health.

Other present-day impacts of transgenic crops will also continue to occur, such as higher rates of pesticides sprayed, landrace seeds contaminated and replaced and corporate patents on crops.

Impacts of gene drives

This is the first time GMOs are being released into the environment with the purpose not only of modifying crops, but also to aggressively reproduce in nature. This approach to genetic engineering uses the “CRISPR-Cas9” technology to force the transmission of all the genetic traits inserted into the target organism into the next generation, instead of the normal 50% from each parent. If the manipulation is aimed at producing all males (and they are trying to do this in plants, mosquitoes and mice), then the population, or even the species, could rapidly go extinct. A certain number of genetically modified organisms could be released into a field or ecosystem and then gradually modify all those who mate with the GMOs, until the entire population is affected.

That is why the United Nations also considers it as a biological weapon. The foremost funder of research into gene drives is the United States Army, followed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

This technology’s promoters claim its purpose is to fight pests such as mosquitoes that cause malaria, or weeds. Who defines what is a pest or a weed, though? For industrial farming and agribusiness, anything living in a field besides the crop they want to sell is a loss to be cut. What might be the outcome of eliminating an entire population from an ecosystem that co-evolved with it, or even favored that species to react to other imbalances? What happens to other species that feed on the target species? Whose is the power to decide to eliminate a species? While a specific technique may or may not actually work in the experimental stage, it may still cause major imbalances. That is why over 160 organizations worldwide, including Via Campesina International, called on governments at the 2016 COP13 of the Convention on Biological Diversity to establish a moratorium on gene drives.[5]

Even the United States has not allowed the release of any of these organisms, because once they are in the environment, no one knows how to stop them. With the CTNBio’s new Resolution, Brazil is on its way to be the first country to release this dangerous technology. And with fast-track regulations, no less!

Brazil is also the only country in the world that, thanks again to the CTNBio, has allowed ongoing experiments with transgenic mosquitoes. Although the trials have never shown any impact at all on disease prevalence, they have set the country up as a natural candidate for releasing gene-drive mosquitoes, since it is so easy here to get an official authorization.

The leading economic interest in gene drives, however, lies in agribusiness, where it is the great green hope for eliminating weeds resistant to their own herbicides or making them vulnerable to their poisons once again, so the weed-killer market can go on expanding. Several transgenic seed transnationals already possess the CRISPR-Cas9 technology.

Our peasant organizations, social movements, civil society and consumers’ organizations all emphatically reject the CTNBio’s Normative Resolution 16/2018, which seeks to legalize and release without regulation, assessment or labeling new transgenic organisms which will have an impact on peasants, food sovereignty, health and the environment. We denounce and reject the CTNBio’s intent to legalize “gene drives,” i.e. transgenic organisms that can be used to drive species into extinction and as biological weapons, whose foremost funder is the US Army, and which are not allowed in any other country in the world, because of the great danger they represent.


Articulação Nacional dos Trabalhadores, Trabalhadoras e povos do campo, das águas e das florestas (articulação do campo unitário)

Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra - MST

Movimento dos Atingidos por Barragens - MAB

Movimentos pela Soberania Popular na Mineração - MAM

Comissão Pastoral da Terra - CPT

Associação Brasileira de Reforma Agrária - ABRA

Confederação Nacional dos Trabalhadores na Agricultura - CONTAG

Movimento Camponês Popular - MCP

Articulação no Semiárido Brasileiro - ASA

Movimento dos Pequenos Agricultores - MPA

Movimento das Mulheres Camponesas - MMC

Movimento dos Pescadores e Pescadoras Artesanais - MPP

Conselho Indigenista Missionário - CIMI

Pastoral da Juventude Rural - PJR

Movimento dos Trabalhadores do Campo - MTC

Comissão Brasileira de Justiça e Paz – CBJP

Articulação Nacional de Agroecologia - ANA

Associação Brasileira de Agroecologia – ABA agroecologia

Terra de Direitos – Organização de Direitos Humanos

Centro Ecológico – Assessoria e Formação em Agricultura Ecológica

[1] Normative Resoloution Nº 16, January 15, 2018. (Technical requirements for applications to the CTNBio involving Innovative Precision Breeding Techniques)

[2] National Technical Biosafety Commission. CTNBio/Comissão Técnica Nacional de Biossegurança.

[3] Law 11.105/05.

[4] NR 16 has an appendix with the following non-exclusive list of techniques that may be considered as exempt from biosafety regulations for GMOs: early flowering, single-generation male-sterile seeds, reverse breeding, RNA-dependent DNA methylation, site-directed mutagenesis, oligonucleotide-directed mutagenesis, agro-infiltration/agro-infection, topical/systemic use of RNAi and viral vectors.

Actions: Biodiversity and Food Sovereignty
Axes: Biodiversity and food sovereignty