Jose Hermeto Hoffmann knows an opportunity when he sees it. The opportunity he's examining at the moment is your biggest foreign market: Europe.
Hoffmann is the leftist ag minister for the southern Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul. At 242 million bushels, it's Brazil's third-largest soybean-producing state. On a recent tour of European markets, where fears of genetically modified (GM) soybeans, corn, tomatoes and potatoes from America have brought street protests, Hoffmann reassured buyers and policymakers that they could get GM-free soybeans from his state.
Food scares in Europe, including those caused by mad cow disease in 1990 and more recent dioxin-tainted animal feed, have further fueled consumer anxieties about food. For months, European consumers, particularly in the United Kingdom, have hit the streets demanding foods made without GM ingredients - and have focused on soybeans.
European supermarkets such as Sainsbury's have listened to their customers and banned store-brand products containing GM ingredients. Now the company, which has formed an international retailer group to source non-GM supplies, claims it will supply meat products from animals that were not fed GM rations.
The problem, then, is where to get GM-free soybeans for mayonnaise, salad dressings, pizza, and especially the huge bulk demand for animal feed when the world's No. 1 and No. 3 soybean exporters (the U.S. and Argentina, respectively) cannot guarantee GM-free shipments. The solution is the No. 2 exporter, Brazil.
But in early June, Brazil officially approved the planting of GM soybeans in the form of five of Monsanto's Roundup Ready varieties. For now, however, widespread planting of transgenic soybeans nationwide is being held up while policymakers figure out how to handle labeling such products, among other issues.
Meantime, the government of Rio Grande do Sul is working in conjunction with Greenpeace to keep GM soybeans out of the state regardless of national approval.
In response to European consumer demand, the French supermarket giant Carrefour announced recently that it would enter the soybean export business, sending GM-free soybeans from Brazil to Europe for inclusion in food products sold at the chain.
Not all farmers are in favor of Rio Grande do Sul's hopes to grab a big piece of the European market. In Palmeiras das Missies, Alexandro Manfio Vitdewilligen has written his state representative demanding the state's farmers be allowed to choose for themselves whether or not to plant transgenic soybeans.
"I think it's absurd" that Rio Grande do Sul farmers may be disallowed from planting transgenic soybeans, says Vitdewilligen, 23, who grows 2,500 acres of soybeans and 1,200 of corn, with his father. "We have serious weed problems with wild poinsettia and common blackjack that simply can't be controlled with Scepter or Pivot. Cobra can control them, but then you're talking about a second application."
He says some farmers in Rio Grande do Sul paid up to $100 (U.S.) per 132-lb bag of contraband Roundup Ready seed from Argentina last year. That's because they believed a combination of fewer applications and greater weed control would make a difference to their bottom line.
"And people paid that much for varieties that aren't even adapted to our growing area," says Vitdewilligen.
He adds that he and his father are hosting government research test plots for non-transgenic soybean varieties that yield up to 45 bu/acre. "Just imagine if we could develop transgenic varieties with that much yield."
While he stresses that he and his father plant only non-transgenic soybeans, according to current law, Vitdewilligen guesses that 20-30% of Rio Grande do Sul's bean crop this year may be GM seed, whether legal or not. "It's the economics," he says.
The issue is sensitive, and not all of the state's producers are as frank as Vitdewilligen. One Rio Grande do Sul farmer, who was caught and fined last year for illegally planting transgenic soybean seeds, refused to comment at all. "No, no and no!" he said, when asked whether he would talk about the issue with Soybean Digest.
As for locking into the European marketplace, Vitdewilligen says farmers and consumers should have more choices rather than fewer.
"If Europeans want no transgenics, then they should pay (for separating out and guaranteeing GM-free soybeans)," he says. "And if Brazilian farmers don't want to plant GM soybeans, they shouldn't. But the government shouldn't make farmers plant one thing or another."
But that's not the way the Rio Grande do Sul state government is viewing things at the moment. Right now, European consumers are concerned about transgenic ingredients in foodstuffs. But disputes between the U.S. and Europe over organic beef, GM foodstuffs and bananas could grow to cover meat from animals fed with GM-based rations.
If that happens, and if Jose Hermeto Hoffmann gets his way, there will be only one major exporter of GM-free soybeans available. And it won't be the U.S.