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Empty promises, declining soybean production in Argentina

(Monday, March 1, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- Here are two pieces dealing with the impacts of increased soybean production -- much of it with genetically engineered varieties -- in Argentina.

1. Declining soybean production in Argentina

Sue Branford commentary in New Statesman: British ministers, having given the go-ahead for the experimental planting of GM crops, ought to be able to look to Argentina for inspiration. This is the country that has embraced GM technology most wholeheartedly. Today, more than half of its arable land is covered with GM soya, which was developed by Monsanto and is sold as Roundup Ready (RR) because it has been engineered to be resistant to Roundup, the company's trademarked glyphosate herbicide.

Yet something has gone wrong. Argen-tina's main agricultural research institute has warned that, unless the move into RR soya monoculture is reversed, 'a decline in agricultural production will be inevi-table'. And in January Monsanto abruptly halted the sale of its GM soya seeds.

At first, GM technology seemed like a gift for farmers. The pampas, an area of rich land that fans out for roughly 600 kilometres around Buenos Aires, were suffering from serious soil erosion, caused partly by repeated ploughing. RR soya seemed the solution: it allowed farmers to control weeds by spraying glyphosate during the growing season and thus farm without ploughing. The proliferation of weeds had earlier made such no-till farming unsuccessful.

Driven by the huge demand on the world market for soya meal as cattle fodder, farmers enthusiastically adopted the technology. At the time, with encouragement from the IMF, Argentina had adopted free-market economics. Soya looked like an ideal export product where the country had 'comparative advantage'. Monsanto sold Roundup at a special cheap price and exempted farmers from royalty payments. The area under soya cultivation increased by 60 per cent in the second half of the 1990s; output more than doubled.

After a currency collapse in December 2001, only export crops remained profitable. Quick-witted businessmen set up investment trusts that scoured the country in search of land to plant with soya. Soya spread beyond the pampas into more environmentally fragile areas in the north, joining fields in Brazil and Paraguay to form a vast 'soya republic'.

About 150,000 small farmers, who had cultivated rice, maize, lentils, potatoes, fruit and other food crops, were driven off the land, hit both by low prices for their products and by herbicide contamination from soya farmers' spraying. Land ownership in Argentina is more concentrated today than at any time in history. Moreover, new weeds, probably naturally resistant to glyphosate and opportunistically occupying the new ecological niche, are proliferating. RR soya, sprouting inconveniently from seeds dropped during harvesting, is also becoming a nuisance. Farmers tried upping the frequency and strength of Roundup applications. Sales of glypho-sate rose from 5.4 million litres in 1994 to 59.2 million litres in 1998, and probably to well over 100 million litres now.

Even so, the farmers have been losing the battle. So biotechnology companies have come up with a new technical fix. Syngenta's advert proclaims that 'soya is a weed' and advises farmers to spray their fields, prior to planting, with two notoriously damaging herbicides - Gramoxone (paraquat) and Gesaprim (atrazine).

These are exacerbating the damage to neighbouring farms. I recently visited a peasant hamlet near the border with Paraguay. The families' small subsistence plots have become islands in a sea of soya. One day last year, soya farmers sprayed one of the new mixtures on a nearby farm. 'The wind was in the north, so the toxic cloud got blown on to our plots and into our houses,' recalled Sandoval Filemon. 'Our eyes immediately started smarting.' Over the next few days chickens, pigs and goats died. Sows gave birth to deformed or dead piglets. And almost all the crops were badly damaged, said Eugenia, Sandoval's wife. Even today, the banana trees produce stunted fruit.

Because of their heavy use of herbicides, soya farmers also kill off bacteria in the soil, leading to more snails, slugs and fungi. As the normal process of decomposition is interrupted, some farmers have to brush dead vegetation off the land prior to planting. Charles Benbrook, a US agricultural economics consultant who has studied GM farming in Argentina, told me that without big changes in farming practice, Argentinian agriculture will not be sustainable for longer than another two years.

Even Monsanto appears to have qualms. In response to my queries about the sustainability of RR soya, it said it 'strongly supports crop rotation', something that it has not encouraged in practice. It is also trying belatedly to regain control over the soya sector by charging royalties. But the farmers are resisting, either by saving seeds at harvest time to plant the following year or by buying RR seeds on the black market. Monsanto suspended seed sales in January and could introduce an extra 'terminator' gene into other GM crops to sterilise seeds and stop hoarding.

The case of Argentina shows that genetic modification of crops, by its very nature, permits farmers to indulge in irresponsible practices such as deluging the soil with glyphosate, something that would be impossible in conventional farming. In less than a decade the rush into soya farming has driven thousands of families off the land, created serious ecological and agronomic imbalances, destroyed food security and led to dependence on a technology controlled by a handful of multinational companies. GM technology, though not wholly responsible, has played a part while contributing only a temporary increase in yields and a short-lived solution to the problem of soil erosion.

Sue Branford is co-author of Cutting the Wire: the story of the landless movement in Brazil (Latin America Bureau, 2002)

2. Empty promises
Friday February 27, 2004

HILARY CHIEW writes on the Argentine experience in which the introduction of genetically-modified soya created havoc in the nation's agricultural and dairy industries.

KNOWN for its vast pampas with cows grazing on the pasture, Argentina has a long history as a beef and dairy producer. Indeed, that is now history.

Gone are the pastures and happy ranchers as many farmers have converted their farmland to cultivate a new brand of crop -- the Round-up Ready (RR) soya, a herbicide-tolerant plant, in 1996.

With promises of lower cost, less maintenance and reduced use of agro-chemicals that had caused a host of environmental problems such as soil and water contamination, the farmers were, understandably, eager to try out the high tech crop.

That was how GM crops were introduced to Argentina. Agronomist Adolfo Boy says the switch to GM crops failed to deliver the good life.

Instead it has eroded the fundamentals of food sovereignty of Argentines -- farmers have grown dependent on GM crops, fail to save their farm seeds and the environment has been further degraded.

"We are not in a crisis. We are heading towards a catastrophe," cries Boy who has observed and documented the advent of GM crops into his country.

According to the founding member of the Network for a GE-Free Latin America, prior to the introduction of Monsanto's RR soy, Argentina was already producing soya for the Chinese oil market since the 1970s.

However, when Monsanto introduced its transgenic soya, the area planted with soya doubled from seven million ha to 14 million ha and production jumped from 13 million to 37 million tonnes.

The increased production came at the expense of deforestation and the disappearance of traditional agricultural models that are increasingly being acknowledged as the foundation for a sustainable future.

  • As the area under cultivation expanded, the first effect was the abandonment of the mixed farming systems upon which sustainability was based – the rotation of crops and cattle which helps soil fertility to recover and provides security in the long run.
  • Then, fences, mills and ranching structures were gradually removed. The land entered into a process of permanent crop production, in lots comprised of several small to medium-sized farms in the range of 50 to 100ha, he recalls.

A country that used to be able to feed its population has redirected its agriculture to export-oriented production, thus neglecting the need to take care of hunger back home.

"Argentines do not use soya oil, we use sunflower oil. Products for local consumption were abandoned for RR soya," says Boy, noting that traditional corn, rice, lentil and dairy production were all sidelined.

While soya production grew by 74.5% between 1996 and 2002, official figures show decreases in the area sown with the following food crops: 44.1% for rice, 26% for corn and 3.5% for wheat.

Highlighting the irony of the short-sighted agriculture policy manifested in the dairy sector, Boy says dairy exporters were reduced from 30,141 in 1998 to 15,000 in 2002. "RR soya domination was so acute that it now reaches the point where Argentina is importing milk from Uruguay."

Boy also points out that GM crops are a technology for large farms under the pretext of economy of scale, hence promoting the concentration of land in the hands of a few that leads to migration to the cities.

"It has generated unemployment and the migration of more than 250,000 rural families in the last 14 years largely because their land has passed into the hands of financial institutions that prefer the 'farming pools' method and concentrate millions of hectares into soya production.

"These contractors own bigger and faster machines, resulting in severe erosion of the fertile pampas," says an exasperated Boy.

Reduced food production has plunged Argentina into a state of hunger and is breeding contempt for the government and social unrest.

Disputing the seed industry's sales pitch that GM crops require less herbicide, Boy says farmers are using more than one herbicide with the introduction of RR soya. In fact, the quantity has increased and more toxic herbicides have to be used to control weeds that are getting hard to eradicate -- a sign of growing resistance.

According to the Friends of the Earth report entitled Genetically modified crops: a decade of failure (1994- 2004), released at the COP-7 meeting in Kuala Lumpur, in 2001 alone, more than 9.1 million kg of herbicide were used for GM soy in comparison with non-GM plants. The use of glyphosate herbicide doubled from 28 milliion litres between 1997-98 to 56 million litres in 1998-99 and reached 100 million litres in the 2002 planting season.

It noted that weed resistance has prompted the use of highly toxic herbicides with RR soy, and farmers have started using herbicides that are banned in developed countries like atrazine and paraquat.

RR soya is genetically-engineered to tolerate the spraying of herbicide, thus allowing the use of glyphosate.

He says without patenting the RR soya in Argentina, farmers multiplied their seeds and thus flooded their fields with RR soya.

Farmers were engaged in a well-known traditional practice called "brown-bagging" whereby they save the seeds for the next planting season to reduce their costs.

However, the transgenic soya was patented in 2000 following complaints from American farmers who were paying US$20 (RM76) per kg of seed as opposed to US$12 (RM45.60) per kg paid by their Argentine counterparts. Hence, it is now illegal for farmers to save their seeds in the field and they face the risk of prosecution.

Boy also challenges the apparent cost-saving advantage from the reduction in herbicide use as claimed by the seed industry. The lowered cost, he reveals, was due to the import of Chinese-produced glyphosate that was far cheaper and resulted in 50% reduction of herbicide costs for the farmers.

Again, this savings will not be for long as Monsanto has sought legal redress against the dumping of glyphosate by Chinese producers.

"Let Argentina be a warning to others. We are going down the path of destruction," warns Boy.

Asia, he says, will suffer more as it has much more diverse biological resources that risk being destroyed by GMO contamination.

His colleague, Dr Lilian Joensen, who is also a molecular biologist and researcher with the Ministry of Health of Argentina, notes that as the industry seeks to expand the cultivation of RR soya, more forests are cleared to make way for this monoculture.

Describing the situation as total madness, she says: "My government doesn’t seem to have the political will to turn back from this path. And it looks like we have to contend with more adverse consequences from GM crops."

And there seems to be no way out as there is so much at stake for Argentina. It is the second largest exporter of GM crops after the United States.

Despite the mayhem back home, the Argentinean government is negotiating at the first meeting of the Cartagena Biosafety Protocol in the same group of countries dubbed the Miami Plus Group that is reportedly trying to weaken the liability and redress regime that is suppose to be established by 2008.

At the rate contamination by GM crops is raging around the world, one wonders if four years is not too long a wait to have an international liability and redress regime to address the problems created by the introduction of transgenic crops in just under a decade.

Source: http://www.thestar.com.my/lifestyle/story.asp?file=/2004/2/27/features/7407388&sec=features