Argentinas GM Woes
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
The references for this article are available in the ISIS members site. Full details here
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
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
worlds exported soya oil and 36% of soybean meal.
Soya was identified as a buoyant market, and Monsantos 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
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
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
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.
Argentinas 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 countrys 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 industrys highest expectations. Farmers
can now use glyphosate to remove weeds in combination with glyphosate-tolerant
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
Argentinas 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,
The references for this article are available in the ISIS members site. Full details here