Brazil is one of the largest pesticide consumers and agricultural commodity exporters in the world. The country is now fiercely debating updating its agrochemical law for the first time in three decades.
The current draft of the bill combines recommendations from 29 other bills. It was first proposed in 2002 by the then senator Blairo Maggi, who served as Brazil’s minister of agriculture from 2016 to the end of 2018. Maggi also owns the Amaggi Group, one of the biggest soy producers in the world.
Public debate over the bill ramped up last June after a special commission of Brazil’s National Congress approved the text.
One of the most controversial parts of the bill is that it would shift which agencies oversee agricultural chemicals. Currently, three agencies share equal weight and responsibility for evaluating and regulating agrochemicals. The Ministry of Health’s Health Regulatory Agency (Anvisa) assesses risks of pesticides to human health. The Ministry of the Environment’s Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (Ibama) assesses risks to the environment. And the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, and Food Supply assesses compounds’ efficiency at improving agricultural productivity. Each agency does its work independently and in parallel with the others.
The bill proposes integrating all evaluations under the Ministry of Agriculture while still involving the three agencies. It is unclear whether Anvisa and Ibama will keep their veto power.
Anvisa’s and Ibama’s roles in regulating agrochemicals are currently set by decree, and the bill would give them the authority of law, notes Reginaldo Minaré, technology coordinator for the Brazilian Confederation of Agriculture and Livestock. “Anvisa and Ibama powers will not be diminished, as they will still deliberate on whether agrochemicals are compatible with the market or not,” Minaré says.
Others fear that the bill leaves room for interpretation. “Not only could Anvisa and Ibama lose veto powers, but they could also become subordinated to decisions of the Ministry of Agriculture,” says Guilherme Franco Netto, a specialist in health, environment, and sustainability at the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz), the leading institution for public health research in Latin America.
Another controversial part of the bill is that it allows for temporary use of agrochemicals pending evaluation in Brazil. Chemicals registered for use in at least three countries that are members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations could be granted provisional registration for use in Brazil by the Ministry of Agriculture. Proponents see it as an appropriate bypass for a process that can take as long as a decade. “This could help align our processes and deadlines with world standards,” Minaré says.
Science and policy experts are concerned, however, that allowing use of chemicals before complete evaluation, in addition to other measures that would alter standards for risk assessment of pesticide use, could expose Brazil’s citizens and environment to possibly mutagenic, carcinogenic, and environmentally hazardous substances. A change in terminology proposed by the bill, which replaces “pesticides” with “phytosanitary defensives” or “environmental control products,” could also be misleading, bill opponents argue.
Brazil’s legislators are expected to vote on the bill in 2019. If it passes both chambers, it will still need presidential approval before becoming law.
Environmentalists worry that President Jair Bolsonaro’s minister of the environment, Ricardo Salles, will push for the bill. Both men took office on Jan. 1. Salles is a lawyer who was state secretary for the environment in São Paulo and a member of the Superior Council of Agribusiness of the Federation of Industries of the State of São Paulo. In 2017, the Public Prosecutor’s Office of São Paulo filed a lawsuit against Salles charging him with illegally altering the management plan of a protected area at the wetlands of Tietê River. On Dec. 19, 2018, Salles was sentenced with the loss of political rights, such as the ability to run for public office or be appointed to a government position, for three years. The sentence would mean he can’t serve as environment minister; however, his lawyers plan to appeal.
Bolsonaro had promised to eliminate the Ministry of the Environment if he were elected. That he has chosen a minister suggests he no longer plans to do that. However, his choice to appoint Salles means that the environment ministry, if it continues to be led by Salles, “will cease to be, for the first time since its creation in 1992, an independent structure in the government,” says environmental organization Observatório do Clima in a statement. “Its minister will be a helper of the agriculture minister,” whose job is to promote agribusiness, the organization says.
Institutions such as the Brazilian National Cancer Institute, the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science, the national councils of health and human rights, Ibama, Anvisa, and Fiocruz have issued public statements analyzing the bill and warning politicians and the public of their concerns about the legislation. The Public Prosecutor’s Office, an independent government body that upholds justice at the federal and state levels, has pointed out several aspects of the bill that may be unconstitutional, including moving public health and environmental assessments under the Ministry of Agriculture.
Meanwhile, additional legislation was recently introduced to create a national policy to reduce agrochemical use.
Nevertheless, the effort to move agrochemical evaluation under the Ministry of Agriculture and ease regulatory approval might be closer to approval than many Brazilians think. “The situation is more complex now than it already was,” Franco Netto says. But after Brazil’s elections, most of Brazil’s legislators “are frankly favorable to this proposal,” he says.
Meghie Rodrigues is a freelance writer based in Brazil.
This story was originally published on Dec. 31, 2018. It was revised for clarity on Jan. 16, 2019.