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ISIS Report 06/09/05
GM Soya Disaster in Latin America
Hunger, Deforestation and Socio-Ecological Devastation
Prof. Miguel A. Altieri, University of California, Berkeley
and Prof. Walter A. Pengue, University of Buenos Aires, Argentina
The fully referenced
version of this article is posted on ISIS members’ website. Details
Hollow triumph of GM crops
In 2004, the biotech industry and their allies celebrated the ninth consecutive
year of expansion of genetically modified (GM) crops. The estimated global
area of approved GM crops was 81 million hectares, a growth of 15 per cent over
the previous year. In 22 countries, they claim, GM crops have met the expectations
of millions of large and small farmers in both industrialized and developing
countries; delivering benefits to consumers and society at large through more
affordable food, feed and fiber that require less pesticide and hence more environmentally
It is difficult
to imagine how such
expansion in GM crops
has met the needs of small farmers or consumers when 60 percent of the global area of GM crops is devoted to
Roundup Ready herbicide-tolerant
crops. In developing countries, GM
crops are mostly grown for export by big farmers, not for local consumption. They are used as animal feed to produce meat consumed mostly
by the relatively wealthy.
The new soya republics in Latin America
The Latin America countries growing soybean include Argentina,
Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay and Uruguay. The expansion of soybean production
is driven by prices, government and agro-industrial support, and demand from importing countries, especially
China, which is the world’s largest
importer of soybean and soybean products. The expansion is accompanied by
massive transportation infrastructure projects that destroy natural habitats over wide areas,
well beyond the deforestation directly caused by soybean cultivation. In Brazil,
soybean profits justified the
improvement or construction of eight industrial waterways, three
railway lines and an extensive network of roads to bring inputs and take away
produce. These have attracted private investment in logging, mining, ranching
and other practices that severely impact on biodiversity that have not been included in any impact assessment
studies . In Argentina, the agro-industry for
transforming soybean into oils and pellets is concentrated in the Rosario region on the Parana river. This area has become
the largest soy-processing estate
in the world, with all the infrastructure and the environmental impacts that entails.
The area of land in soybean production
in Brazil has grown on average at 3.2 percent or 320 000 hectares per
year since 1995, resulting in a total increase of 2.3 million hectares. Soybean
today occupies the largest area of any crop at 21 percent of the cultivated
land. The area has increased by a factor of
57 since 1961, and the volume of production by a factor of 138. In Paraguay, soybeans occupy more than 25 percent
of all agricultural land. In Argentina, in 2000, soybean cultivation
area reached 15 million hectares and the total production was 38.3 million
tonnes. All this
expansion is at
the expense of forests and other habitats. In Paraguay, much of the Atlantic forest has been cut . In Argentina, 118 000 hectares of forests have been cleared
in Caco State, about 160 000 hectares in Salta, and in Santiago del Estero a record 223 000 hectares. In Brazil, the cerrado
and the savannas are falling victim to the plow at a rapid pace.
Expulsion of small farmers and loss of food security
Biotech promoters always claim the expansion of soybean cultivation as
a measure of the successful adoption of the transgenic technology by farmers.
But these data conceal
the fact that soybean expansion leads to extreme land and income concentration.
In Brazil, soybean
cultivation displaces 11 agricultural workers for every one who finds employment in the sector. This is not a new phenomenon.
In the 1970s, 2.5 million people were displaced by soybean production in Parana, and 0.3 million in Rio Grande do Sul. Many of these now landless people moved
to the Amazon where they cleared pristine forests. In the cerrado region,
where transgenic soybean is expanding, there is relatively low displacement
because the area is not widely populated .
In Argentina, the situation is quite dramatic
as 60 000 farms
went out of business while the area
Ready soybean almost tripled.
In 1998, there were 422 000
farms in Argentina while in 2002 there were only
318 000, a reduction of a quarter. In one decade, soybean area increased 126 percent at the expense of dairy, maize, wheat
and fruit production. In the 2003/2004 growing season, 13.7 million hectares of soybean were planted but there was a reduction
of 2.9 million hectares
in maize and 2.15 million hectares in sunflowers . For the biotech industry, huge increases
in the soybean area cultivated and more than a doubling of yields per unit
area are an economic and agronomic success. For the country,
that means more imports of basic foods, therefore loss of food sovereignty,
and for poor small farmers and consumers,
increased food prices and more hunger .
Millions of hectares of Roundup Ready soybean
were planted in Brazil in the period 2002-2003, while a moratorium was in effect. How did the
manage to expand cultivations of transgenic crop so
extensively in developing countries? During the early years of introducing
transgenic soybean into Argentina, Monsanto did not charge farmers royalties to
use the technology. But now that farmers are hooked, the multinational is
pressuring the government for payment of intellectual property rights, despite
the fact that Argentina signed UPOV 78, which allows farmers to save seeds
for their own use. Nevertheless, Paraguayan
farmers have just signed an agreement with Monsanto to pay the company $2
Soybean cultivation degrades the soil
Soybean cultivation has always led to erosion, especially in areas where it is not part of a long rotation. Soil loss has reached an
average rate of 16 tonnes per hectare per year (t/ha/y) in the US Midwest,
far greater than is sustainable; and soil loss levels in Brazil and Argentina are estimated at between 19-30
t/ha/y depending on management, slope and climate.
can reduce soil loss, but with the advent of herbicide tolerant soybean, many farmers
now cultivate in highly erodible lands. Farmers wrongly believe that with
no till systems there is no erosion, but research shows that despite improved
soil cover, erosion and negative changes in soil structure can still be substantial
in highly erodible lands if weed cover is reduced.
monocultures have rendered Amazonian soils unusable. In areas of poor soils, fertilizers and lime
have to be applied heavily within two years. In Bolivia, soybean production is expanding
towards the east, and in many areas soils are already compacted and suffering
severe soil degradation. One hundred thousand hectares of land with soils exhausted due to soybean were abandoned for cattle-grazing, which in turn
further degrades the land. As
land is abandoned, farmers move to other areas where they
again plant soybeans and repeat
the vicious cycle of soil degradation.
In Argentina, intensive soybean cultivation has led to
massive soil nutrient depletion. It is estimated that continuous soybean production
has extracted about 1 million metric tons of nitrogen and about 227 000 metric tons of phosphorous. The
estimated cost of replenishing this nutrient loss via fertilizers is US$ 910
million . Increase of nitrogen
and phosphorus in several river basins of Latin America is certainly linked to the increase of soybean production.
A key technical
factor in the rapid spread of soybean production in Brazil was soybean’s pseudo-symbiotic relationships with nitrogen-fixing
bacteria living in root nodules that allowed soybean to
be produced without fertilizers. This claimed
productive advantage of soybeans
in Brazil can quickly disappear in the light of findings reporting direct toxic
effects of the herbicide glyphosate on the nitrogen-fixing rhizobium bacteria; which would make soybeans dependent
on chemical fertilizers for nitrogen.
Moreover, the common
practice of converting uncultivated pasture to soybeans results in a reduction
of the economically important rhizobia, again making soybean dependent on
Soybean monocultures and ecological vulnerability
Ecological research suggests that the reduction of landscape diversity caused by the expansion of
monocultures at the expense of natural vegetation has led to insect pest outbreaks
and disease epidemics. In such
poor and genetically homogenous landscapes insects and pathogens
find ideal conditions in which they can grow unchecked by natural controls.
This leads to increased
used of pesticides,
which after a while are no longer
effective due to the development of pest-resistance or ecological
upsets typical of the pesticide treadmill.
Pesticides also cause
major problems of soil and water pollution, elimination of biodiversity
and human poisonings. The humid and warm conditions of the Amazon are also
favourable for fungal growth, resulting in the increased
used of fungicides. In Brazilian regions under tillage soybean production, the crop is increasingly
being affected by stem canker and sudden death syndrome.
rust is a new disease, increasingly affecting soybeans in South America, requiring increased fungicide
applications. In addition, since 1992, more than 2 million hectares have been
infected by cyst nematodes. Many of these pest problems are linked to the
genetic uniformity and increased vulnerability of soybean monocultures, and
also to the direct effects of Roundup on the
soil ecology, through the depression of micorrhizal fungal populations and
the elimination of antagonists that keep many soil-borne pathogens under control
quarter of all pesticides applied in Brazil are used on soybean, which in 2002 amounted to
50 000 tonnes. As the soybean area rapidly expands,
so does the growth in pesticide use; it is now increasing at a rate of 22
percent per year. While biotech promoters claim that one application
of Roundup is all that is needed for whole season
weed control, studies show that in areas of transgenic soybean, the total amount and number
of herbicide applications have increased. In the USA, the use of glyphosate rose from 6.3 million pounds in 1995 to 41.8 million pounds in 2000, and now the herbicide
is used on 62 percent of
the land devoted to soybeans. In Argentina, Roundup applications reached an estimated 160 million litre equivalents
in the 2004 growing-season. Herbicide usage is expected to increase as weeds
start developing resistance to Roundup.
Yields of transgenic
soybean average 2.3
to 2.6 t/ha in the region,
about 6% less than conventional
varieties, and are especially low
under drought conditions. Due to pleiotropic effects (stems splitting under high
temperatures and water stress) transgenic soybean suffer 25 percent higher losses than conventional soybean.
of the yields of transgenic soybeans were lost in the 2004/2005 drought that
affected Rio Grande
do Sul, and a 95 percent drop in exports is expected with dramatic economic consequences.
Most farmers have already defaulted on 1/3 of government loans.
Other ecological impacts
By creating crops resistant to its herbicides, a biotech company can expand the market
for its patented chemicals. The
market value of herbicide-tolerant crops was $75 million in 1995; by 2000,
it was approximately $805 million, more than 10-fold increase. Globally,
in 2002, herbicide-tolerant soybean occupied 36.5 million hectares
making it by far the number one GM crop in terms of area . Glyphosate is
cheaper than other herbicides, and although it reduces the use of other herbicides, companies sell altogether much more herbicide
(especially glyphosate) than before. The continuous use of herbicides and
especially of glyphosate (or Roundup,
Monsanto’s formulation) with herbicide-tolerant crops, can lead
to serious ecological problems.
It has been well documented that
when a single herbicide is used repeatedly on a crop, the chances of herbicide-resistance
developing in weed populations greatly increases. About 216 cases of pesticide
resistance have been reported in one or more herbicide chemical families 
pressures to increase herbicide sales, the acreage treated with broad-spectrum herbicides
will expand, exacerbating the resistance problem. The increased use of glyphosphate will
result in weed resistance, even if more slowly. This has already been documented
with Australian populations of annual ryegrass, quackgrass, birdsfoot trefoil,
Cirsium arvense, and Eleusine indica . In the Argentinian pampas, eight species of weeds, among them two
species of Verbena and one species
of Ipomoea, already exhibit
resistance to glyphosate .
becomes more of a problem as weeds are exposed to fewer and fewer herbicides. Transgenic soybean
reinforces this trend on account of market forces. In fact, weed populations
can even adapt to tolerate
or “avoid” certain
herbicides. For example, in Iowa, populations of common waterhemp have demonstrated delayed germination, which allows
them to avoid planned glyphosate applications. The GM crop
itself may also assume weed status as
volunteers. For example, in Canada, volunteer canola resistant to three herbicides (glyphosate, imidazolinone,
and glufosinolate) has been detected, a case of stacked, multiple resistance. And now farmers have to resort to
2,4-D to control the volunteer canola. In northern Argentina, there are several “strong
weeds” than cannot be controlled with glyphosate, forcing farmers to resort
to other herbicides.
claim that when properly applied, herbicides should not pose negative effects
on humans or the environment.
In practice, however, the large-scale planting of GM crops encourages aerial application
of herbicides and much of what is sprayed is wasted through drift and leaching, affecting human beings as well as soil mycorrhizal fungi and earthworms.
The companies contend that glyphosate degrade rapidly in the soil, do not
accumulate in ground water, have no effects on non-target organisms, leave
no residue in foods and water or soil. Yet glyphosate has been reported to
be toxic to some non target species in the soil—both to beneficial predators
such as spiders, mites, and carabid and coccinellid beetles, and to detritivores
such as earthworms, including microfauna as well as to aquatic organisms,
including fish .
a systemic herbicide (i.e. it
is absorbed into and moves through the whole plant), and is
carried into the harvested parts of plants. Exactly how much glyphosate is
present in the seeds of HT corn or soybeans is not known, as grain products
are not included in conventional market surveys for pesticide residues. The
fact that this and other herbicides are known to accumulate in fruits and
tubers because they suffer little metabolic degradation in plants, raises
questions about food safety, especially now that more than 37 million pounds
of this herbicide are used annually in the United States alone . Even in
the absence of immediate (acute) effects, it might take 40 years for a potential
carcinogen to act in enough people for it to be detected as a cause (see “Glyphosate toxic and Roundup worse” and “Roundup kills
frog”, SiS 26).
Moreover, research has shown that glyphosate
seems to act in a similar fashion to antibiotics by altering soil biology
in a yet unknown way and causing effects such as [8,9]
- Reducing the ability of soybeans and clover to fix nitrogen.
- Rendering bean plants more vulnerable to disease.
- Reducing growth of beneficial soil-dwelling mycorrhizal fungi, which are
key for helping plants extract phosphorous from the soil.
In the farm-scale
evaluations of herbicide resistant crops recently completed in the United Kingdom, researchers showed that reduction
of weed biomass, flowering, and seeding parts under herbicide resistant crop
management within and in margins of beet and spring oilseed rape involved
changes in insect resource availability with knock-on effects resulting in
abundance reduction of several
beetles, butterflies, and bees. Counts of predacious carabid
beetles that feed on weed seeds were also smaller in transgenic crop fields.
The abundance of invertebrates that are food for mammals, birds, and other
invertebrates were also found to be generally lower in herbicide resistant
beet and oilseed rape . The absence of flowering weeds in transgenic
fields can have serious consequences for beneficial insects (pest predators
and parasitoids), which require pollen and nectar for survival. Reduction
of natural enemies leads unavoidable to enhance insect pest problems.
Soybean expansion in Latin
America represents a recent and powerful threat to
biodiversity in Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia. Transgenic
soybeans are much more environmentally damaging than other crops because in
addition to the effects from the production methods that involve heavy herbicide
use and genetic pollution, they require massive transportation infrastructure
projects (waterways, highways, railways, etc), which impact on ecosystems
and make wide areas accessible to other environmentally unsound economic and
The production of herbicide resistant soybean leads to environmental problems
such as deforestation, soil degradation, pesticide and genetic contamination, as well as
socio-economic problems such as severe concentration of land and income, expulsion
of rural populations to the Amazonian frontier and to urban areas, compounding
the concentration of the poor in cities. Soybean expansion also diverts government
funds otherwise usable in education, health, and alternative, far more sustainable agroecological methods.
impacts of soybean expansion also reduce the food security potential of target
countries. Much of
the land previously devoted to grain,
dairy products or fruits has been diverted to soybean for exports.
As long as these countries continue to embrace neoliberal models of development
and respond to demand from
the globalized economy, the rapid proliferation of soybean will increase,
and so will the associated ecological and social impacts.