SAO PAULO, Dec 7 (Reuters) - Brazil's southernmost state will launch what may be the world's first-ever crop substitution program aimed at weeding out genetically modified (GM) crops, a top state official said Tuesday.
Treating GM soybeans like drug plants, the state will offer farmers a total of 10 million reais (US$5.37 million) in special low-interest loans if they rip out the lab-enhanced soy -- illegal throughout Brazil -- and replant normal varieties.
"What we are telling them it is better to lose seedlings than lose their entire crop," said Rio Grande do Sul state's agriculture secretary, Jose Hermeto Hoffmann.
Brazil, the world's second-largest soybean producer, is the last major competitor to top grower United States who has not followed the North American country down the transgenic trail.
But the ban has not been enough to discourage many farmers, especially in Rio Grande do Sul, where growers itching to save money on costly weed killers have fueled a thriving black market for the suped-up seeds.
The Brazilian Association of Seed Producers (Abrasem) estimates that the contraband crop could account for about eight percent of Brazil's upcoming 31.5 million tonne crop and a third of production in Rio Grande do Sul.
Hoffmann, however, estimated that GM planting was far lower -- largely due to an aggressive radio and television campaign warning farmers the government will torch illegal crops.
The state has even sponsored a toll-free phone number called "Dial Transgenics" to encourage law-abiding farmers to phone in tip-offs on unusual planting activity.
"Sadly, our initial field inspections showed that transgenic soybeans were grown on 20 farms in five municipalities," Hoffmann said. "While that is disappointing, it represents a small fraction of the 700 tests that we have conducted."
Hoffmann's promise to burn down GM crops has met with fierce resistance in many municipalities, where illegal planting was so widespread that they passed now-stricken laws authorizing GM planting.
A band of 80 angry farmers, fearing their crops could be burned next, surrounded state inspectors last week as they prepared leave their offices to test for illegal soybeans.
"They surrounded the inspectors for 12 hours. Obviously you can see there has been resistance," Hoffmann said.
He added that farmers have until Dec 31, the end of the state's planting season, to apply for the loans -- which carry interest rates 54 percent lower than the market rate.
The crop-substitution scheme met cheers from environmental group Greenpeace, which is leading a campaign to keep Brazil transgenic free. But it said it would prefer if the loans were doled out by U.S. biotechnology giant Monsanto Co. (NYSE:MTC - news), which engineered the brand name "Roundup Ready" soybeans.
"These crops are made by companies and these companies should be held responsible. This is product stewardship," said Benni Haerlin, head of the group's worldwide anti-GM campaign.
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Last Updated on 12/14/99
By Karen Lutz