Brazil is set to break a global moratorium on genetically modified "terminator" seeds, which are said to threaten the livelihoods of millions of small farmers around the world if they become an industry standard.
The sterile seeds produce crops that die off after one harvest without producing offspring. As a result, farmers have to buy new seeds for each planting.
Environmentalists fear that any such move by Brazil could produce a domino effect that would result in the worldwide adoption of the controversial technology. Major seed and chemical companies, which together own more than 60 per cent of the global seed market, all have patents on terminator seed technologies. However, in the 1990s they agreed not to employ the technique after a global outcry by small farmers, indigenous groups and civil society groups.
In 2000, 193 countries signed up to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, which recommended a de facto moratorium on the technology.
The moratorium is under growing pressure in Brazil, where powerful landowning groups have been pushing congress to allow the technology to be used for the controlled propagation of certain plants used for medicines and eucalyptus trees, which provide pulp for paper mills.
The proposed measure has been approved by the legislature's agricultural commission, rejected by the environmental commission, and now sits in the justice and citizenship commission. It is likely to go to a full congressional vote, where it could be passed as early as next Tuesday, or soon after Christmas.
Environmental groups say there would be global consequences. "Brazil is the front line. If the agro-industry breaks the moratorium here, they'll break it everywhere," said Maria Jose Guazzelli, of Centro Ecologico, which represents a coalition of Brazilian NGOs.