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The recent approval by Brazil of a genetically modified (GM) sugarcane has pleased some scientists and dismayed others, who claim it may threaten biodiversity in the country. The GM sugarcane is designed to help farmers with the sugarcane borer, one of the main pests in sugarcane fields of South-Central Brazil, leading to losses of about US$1.5 billion per year. “Breeding programmes could not produce plants resistant to this pest, and the existing chemical controls are both not effective and severely damaging to the environment,” says Adriana Hemerly, a professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. “Therefore, the [GM variety] is a biotechnological tool that helps solve a problem that other technologies could not, and its commercial application will certainly have a positive impact on the productivity of sugarcane in the country.” The sugarcane was developed by inserting the gene for a toxin from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) into the sugarcane genome, so the GM variety can produce its own insecticide against the borer. It’s a technology, says Aníbal Eugênio Vercesi, a professor at the State University of Campinas, that “has been in use for 20 years and is very safe.” But Rogério Magalhães, an environmental analyst at Brazil’s Ministry of the Environment, said he is concerned about the approval of the transgenic sugarcane. “I understand that studies related to the impacts that genetically modified sugarcane might have on Brazilian biodiversity were not done by the company that owns the technology,” he said. He is worried the GM sugarcane could contaminate the variety’s wild relatives, as well as impact biodiversity. “Studies conducted outside Brazil prove that Cry protein from genetically modified organisms harms non-target insects, soil fauna and microorganisms,” he added.
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