Proponents claim that GM crops are necessary for fighting hunger in developing countries and decreasing the use of pesticides. The evidence shows otherwise. GM crops have exacerbated poverty and hunger, increased herbicides use, brought new health hazards, destroyed agricultural land and livelihoods, and resulted in deforestation. Report by Dr. Lilian Joensen in Buenos Aires, Argentina and Dr. Mae-Wan Ho in London, UK.
Within the past decade in Argentina, 160,000 families of small farmers have left the land, unable to compete with large farmers. GM soya has served to exacerbate this trend towards large-scale, industrial agriculture, accelerating poverty.
Roundup Ready (RR) soya clearly requires more, not less, herbicide than conventional soya. In 2001, more than 9.1 million kg of extra herbicide was used with GM soya compared with non-GM. The use of glyphosate doubled from 28 million litres in the period 1997/98 to 56 million litres in 1998/1999, and reached 100 millions in the last (2002) season.
RR soya crops also yield 5% to 10% less compared with the non-GM varieties grown under similar soil conditions, confirming findings in the United States. Scientists at the University of Arkansas showed that root development, nodule formation and nitrogen fixation worsened in some varieties of RR soya and the effects are exacerbated under strong drought conditions or in relatively infertile fields. That is because the symbiotic bacterium responsible for fixing nitrogen in soya, Bradyrhizobium japonicum, is very sensitive to drought and to Roundup.
Argentina started to transform its economy to an export-led focus on soya when it had to pay back foreign debt with money gained through export commodities. During the last quarter century, soybean production increased at an unprecedented rate from an area of 38 000 hectares in 1970 to approximately 13 million hectares today. Around 70% of the soybean harvested is converted in oil-processing plants, most of which is exported, providing 81% of the world's exported soya oil and 36% of soybean meal.
Soya was identified as a buoyant market, and Monsanto's offer of subsidized Roundup Ready Soya seed and heavily discounted glyphosate prices in 1996 proved irresistible to Argentinean farmers.
Practically all of 13 million hectares of soya crop are GM, in particular, RR soya. Bt cotton and Bt maize cover another million hectares between them. Monsanto is in the process of applying for a permit to grow RR maize.
Argentina is currently the second biggest producer of GM Soya in the World. The countryside has been transformed from traditional mixed and rotation farming, which secured soil fertility and minimized the use of pesticides, to almost entirely GM soya.
Financial problems for farmers are set to worsen with Monsanto now starting to charge royalties for their seeds, where before, it was allowing farm-saved seeds. Twenty-four million acres of land belonging to bankrupted small farmers are about to be auctioned by the banks.
With an increase in poverty, a glut in soya, and a deficit of other agricultural products, the government began to promote soya as a healthy alternative to traditional foodstuffs such as meat and milk. A campaign, Soja Solidaridad (Soya Solidarity) was launched. Soup kitchens served soya-based meals and cookbooks were written with soya-based recipes. As a result, many people are consuming soya-based foods on a daily basis.
There is a large body of scientific evidence showing that an unbalanced diet based on soya can have nutritionally damaging effects. Too much soya can inhibit absorption of calcium, iron, zinc and vitamin B12, and doctors in Argentina are already seeing such symptoms. Among the most worrying observation is the early onset of puberty in girls, possibly linked to the high levels of phytoestrogen in soya.
Other health problems have been caused by the widespread increased use of glyphosate (Roundup). Glyphosate is entering the water supply. There are reports of crop sprayings by plane, dousing people and their homes. The more visible symptoms of this spraying include skin and eye irritations and recent field research (personal communications by local people and medical doctors) suggests that there is a great increase in the incidence of cancer within populations surrounding RR soya fields.
Peasants in Santiago del Estero, North Argentina, who have been living there for generations, say that they are being threatened by big land-owners linked to seed companies and supported by local police and parapolice-like forces. To intimidate the peasants, they set fire to the forests while shooting around the people in order to take their land for planting RRsoya.
Studies carried out by the University of Formosa Province have reported serious health problems in peasant communities due to pesticide fumigation on surrounding RRsoya fields. Their crop and animal production, which families depend on to survive, have been completely destroyed. A judge has forbidden the use of pesticides on RRsoya, but companies have flouted the prohibition and kept on fumigating.
Roundup resistant weeds have appeared. A list of the resistant weeds published to-date include Commelia erecta, Convulvulus arvensis, Ipomoea purpurea, Iresine difusa, Hybanthus parviflorus, Parietaria debilis, Viola arvensis, Petunia axillaris, Verbena sp, Hybanthu sparviflorus, Tragopogon sp, Senecio pampeanus, Sonchu soleraceus, Sonchu sasper and Taraxa cumofficinale.
Highly toxic herbicides, some of them banned in other countries, which glyphosate was supposed to replace, have had to be brought back in use in addition to glyphosate. These include 2,4D, 2,4DB, Atrazine, Paraquat, Metsulphuron Methyl, Imazethapyr. There are also reports of a fungus, new in Argentina (Phakopsora sp.) which is spreading and requiring additional fungicide.
In order to fight the "insect complex" that invade soya plantations (Nezara viridula, Piezodorus guildinii, Edessa meditabunda, Dichelops furcatus) producers are recommended to use endosulphan together with cipermetrine, which together are labeled as extremely toxic for bees and fish and very toxic for birds. Prices for the insecticides, including air-fumigation are specified in the recommendations.
Argentina's balance of agricultural products has been seriously affected by the focus on a soya-led export economy. Production of traditional Argentinean products such as milk, wheat and meat has gone down, and the country now imports where it used to export. Other produce, such as lentils, peas, sweet maize, as well as different potato and sweet potato varieties have disappeared together with the industries linked to their processing. Honey producers have been affected due to GM contamination, the loss of flora diversity, as well as well as death of bees by herbicide poisoning. These are not only bad for the country's economy but also devastating for the health and nutrition of the entire population.
Soya plantations began in the Argentina Pampas, one of the six most agriculturally productive regions in the world. Its soils cover some 9 million hectares and used to be rich in nutrients and organic matter. The 'no tillage` method was introduced 10 years ago to reduce soil erosion on farms. Seeds are planted directly into the soil, without the need for ploughing, and herbicides are used to remove weeds. For this reason, direct seeding is often promoted as an environmentally friendly farming technique.
When herbicide tolerant GM soya was introduced, it became very popular in Argentina, as it fit in perfectly with no tillage. The rate of adoption of GM soya has surpassed even the industry's highest expectations. Farmers can now use glyphosate to remove weeds in combination with glyphosate-tolerant GM soya.
But problems soon appeared. Although direct seeding has reduced the rate of erosion, new diseases and pests have emerged, and the levels of nitrogen and phosphates in the soil were markedly reduced. Most recently, herbicide-resistant weeds have appeared requiring the use of more poisonous herbicides as mentioned earlier.
Development of land for RR soya plantations has led to deforestation in Argentina, with serious impacts on biodiversity and water resources. "We have already lost more than 130,000ha of forest," says the director of the Argentina's Fundación Vida Silvestre (Wildlife Foundation), Javier Corcuera. "If we carry on like this we can expect more flooding and less natural resources for the population."
The no-till technique promoted with RR soya as a means of reducing carbon dioxide emission actually produces worse damages by compaction of the ground, requiring more agrochemicals every year.
"In Argentina, the 'success' of the GM soya bean story must largely be attributed to marketing by the seed companies involved, rather than scientific evidence and farmer experience," says Walter Pengue, agricultural engineer specialised in genetic improvement at the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Article first published 19/09/03
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