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The 'Green Desert' of soya

(Monday, Oct. 6, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Marcela Valente, IPS, 08/30/03: BUENOS AIRES - Soya has become Argentina's number-one export, and the area planted with this crop is expanding each year at the expense of livestock and other traditional crops like maize, wheat, cotton, potato and lentils.

"The Argentine countryside has turned into a green desert," a farmer who is worried about the advance of soya told IPS.

The national Agriculture Secretariat is touting this year's soya harvest for having reached the 36-million-ton mark, 98 percent of which is exported to be processed into flour for human consumption in Asian countries and for animal feed in Europe.

But environmentalists, agricultural experts and many farmers warn that the massive development of soya farming -- thanks to biotechnology and the practice known as direct planting -- is occurring at the expense of productive diversity.

In the long term extensive monoculture of soya depletes the soil and ultimately drives the legume's price down, they argue.

Soya prices on the international markets dropped from 307 dollars a ton in the mid-1990s, when genetically modified (GM) varieties were introduced in the United States, to around 200 dollars a ton today. Given the surplus supply, there is little chance the price will recover any time soon.

"Ninety-five percent of our members have turned to soya farming," says José Luis Lemos, Buenos Aires coordinator of the Argentine Agrarian Federation, an organisation whose membership dropped from 400,000 small and medium-sized farmers in the early 1990s to 103,000 today.

The "soya invasion" is evident in the northeastern province of Chaco, which has traditionally been a cotton-growing region.

In the past "we had two million hectares in Chaco planted with cotton, and some 150,000 people involved in its cultivation, but now, with soya, there are just 100,000 hectares of cotton and we are going to have to import to meet demand," Lemos said in an IPS interview.

"With the dissemination of genetically modified soya and the technique of direct planting, soya production yields more and is simpler than other agricultural activities, although we know that in the long term monoculture hurts soil quality," the farmer said.

Traditionally, farmers would rotate the crops they planted in their fields to allow the soil to recover nutrients, or would leave sections for grazing livestock, allowing the soil to "rest" while it receives animal manure as its main fertiliser.

Direct planting bypasses the preparatory step of tilling and ploughing under the remnants of previous crops, which helps speed up the pace of production. This technique keeps the soil covered with dead vegetation, which decomposes to serve as a natural fertiliser, and protects the soil from erosion and from extreme temperature shifts.

Direct planting is a technique used in conventional and organic farming alike. But in Argentina its massive implementation is associated with the intensive production of transgenic soya, which is also noted for higher yields.

The genetically modified soya variety Roundup Ready was developed by the agribusiness and biotechnology transnational Monsanto to be resistant to the company's glyphosate-based Roundup herbicide, which kills the weeds that grow alongside the soya plant.

Its utilisation means that farmers do not have to battle each specific weed, but they are then left dependent on Monsanto for its GM seed and the herbicide.

"The farmer is aware that the GM soya will make him dependent, that it depletes the soil and hurts crop diversity, but 'necessity wears a heretic's face'," summarised Lemos, owner of a 100-hectare farm in Mercedes, in Buenos Aires province. His land, of course, is planted with soya.

In a conversation with IPS, economist Miguel Pereti explained that in the south of the central province of Córdoba, the area planted with soya grew 118 percent in the last 10 years, replacing maize and sorghum crops and livestock operations.

"It has been a very big and negative transformation from the perspective of environmental and social sustainability," he said.

Over the past decade, the area dedicated to livestock shrank 35 percent in that region, particularly hog farming, which dropped from 470,000 to 152,000 head, according to Pereti, economics and statistics coordinator for the National Institute of Agricultural Technology in the Córdoba district of Marcos Juárez.

Soya was "born" as a crop in Argentina just 30 years ago, in the humid pampas area extending through northern Buenos Aires, southern Santa Fe and southwest Córdoba provinces. By the 1990s, more than half of the fields there were planted with this legume.

"Today, 80 percent of the area's cultivable lands grow soya, and when it became evident that the region was reaching its saturation point with the crop, the agricultural frontier began to extend into other areas of those provinces and in the northeast provinces of Santiago del Estero, Chaco, Formosa and Entre Ríos," Pereti explained.

This expansion was facilitated by new technologies that give farmers higher yields with the same number of hectares and labour, he said. "Planting transgenic soya is cheaper than any other crop," he added.

When the moment comes to decide what to plant, the factor of production cost appears to be more important to farmers than soya's fluctuating prices on international markets.

"The land planted with soya is expanding in the same measure that its international prices are falling. The soya crisis that began in the 1990s in Southeast Asia is being resolved with the expansion of the crop here," said Pereti.

The loudest criticisms of the phenomenon are heard from environmental activists.

The spread of soya farming in the provinces of Santa Fe and Chaco -- where the Salado River begins -- is one of the causes of the floods that earlier this year left 24 people dead and tens of thousands homeless in the city of Santa Fe, Jorge Capatto, head of the environmental group 'Fundación Proteger', told IPS.

The Salado overflowed its banks during heavy rains in April and May, flooding the capital of Santa Fe and destroying thousands of homes.

Environmentalists say that deforestation in Chaco and Santiago del Estero, and the low permeability of the soils used in intensive soya farming contributed to channelling more water into the river.

"Plant soya and harvest the flood victims," says Capatto with a note of irony.

More critical even are the members of the Rural Reflection Group, comprising farmers, agricultural technicians and activists. They say that GM soya and its accompanying herbicides, as well as direct planting, are turning Argentina into an "agricultural nation without farmers", noting that 500 small towns have been completely abandoned.

"The seed transnationals -- Cargill, Nidera, Monsanto -- have turned us into a country that produces transgenic soya and exports forage," Jorge Rulli, of the Rural Reflection Group, said in comments to IPS.

"Meanwhile, we see enormous food shortages throughout the population" of 37 million, he said.

"Around 12 million hectares of transgenic soya -- in a total of 26 million hectares with other crops --, treated with more than 100 million litres of herbicide annually, leaave enormous quantities of soil that lack any microbial life and that do not retain water," Rulli pointed out.

In the last six years, he said, 17,000 dairy farms in Buenos Aires province shut down operations. "We are importing milk from Uruguay," cultivation of the 'candeal' wheat variety has nearly disappeared, and maize production is on the decline, he said.

In the Buenos Aires town of San Pedro, until recently some 6,000 hectares were planted with potato, producing two harvests annually. Now that same land produces soya only. The same phenomenon is occurring in areas that used to grow lentils, carrots, peas and artichokes -- all of which Argentina must import.

According to the Agricultural Secretariat, this transformation of the countryside should not be a cause for worry, because it is merely a response to the fact that soya is more profitable and entails lower risks for the farmers.

If the soya supply increases and prices continue to fall, the farmers can return to growing other crops, say Argentina's agricultural authorities.

But the Rural Reflection Group argues that the "harmful effects of extensive monoculture can only be neutralised" if farmers follow a crop rotation schedule and choose complementary varieties. In any case, say the agricultural activists, it is not easy to return to traditional production patterns.

In its August report, the Group states that one way to encourage rational crop rotation would be to implement a system of differentiated taxes that would compensate farmers for the disparate profitability of soya and other crops.

But for now the proposal has apparently been lost in the middle of Argentina's green soya desert. (END/2003)

Source: http://ipsnews.net/interna.asp?idnews=19906