Argentina, the second largest GM producer in the world after the United States, is having second thoughts as world market collapses. Dr. Mae-Wan Ho reports while on tour in Latin America last September to October.
This was the message conveyed by both the Environment Minister Ruben Dario Patrouilleauz, who headed the Argentinian delegation to the Biosafety Protocol Conference in Montreal, and the Director General of Cultural Affairs, Raul Alfredo Estrado Oyuela. Both spoke at a special Parliamentary debate on agricultural biotechnology in La Plata, Federal Province of Buenos Aires, on 26 September. The very fact that such a debate took place was significant. Argentina had a recent change in Government, which now has a farming crisis on its hands. What better time to rethink agricultural policy?
Patrouilleauz recalled with dismay how he had to side with the 'traditional enemy' the United States, against Colombia in the Biosafety Conference. "Things have to change now", he said. "There are different positions within the Government, which is improving all the time. Argentina cannot afford to turn a blind eye to what is happening in the GM market; it would be disastrous." Patrouilleauz wants biosafety to be moved from the Department of Agriculture to the Department of the Environment, with a clear implication that the Department of Agriculture has not been doing its job properly. The precautionary approach must be adhered to, he insisted, as science is always uncertain.
Oyuela went even further, and stressed it is the precautionary principle that must be adopted, and not just the precautionary approach. He too, drew attention to the state of the GM market, and urged Parliament not to neglect what the people want.
Patrouilleauz and Oyuela are not alone. An informal group advising the Government, by the name of Gruppo de Reflexion Rural (GRR), have spearheaded the recent GM debate in Argentina and attracted international attention. A key member of the group, Adolpho Boy, is a lively Professor of Agronomy who has been in charge of plant research in Argentina for 36 years. He confessed he was one of the top boys who regularly got invited to the international plant research institutes. Over the years, however, he came to realize that academic scientists like himself had contributed nothing, to say the least, to sustainable agriculture nor to the benefit of small farmers.
GRR is an informal association of like-minded academics, journalists and activists all working towards the fundamental social change that is needed to get out of the vicious cycle of extravagant consumption and destructive extraction of natural resources. At least two of the members of GRR have been political exiles, one of whom still bears the scars of torture. It is a sober reminder that the right to dissent has been hard-won.
Argentina is responsible for perhaps one fifth of all GM crops in the world today. The largest crop by far is soya, of which 84% are GM; compared with 10% in cotton and 6% in maize. During the buffet lunch in Parliament, the Minister of Trade assured me that farmers in Argentina are very pleased with the GM crops and have had no problems selling their produce to Europe as well. Most of the sales had been in the form of processed oil and animal feed. I told him that the major food suppliers and retailers in Europe are going for an 'Identity Preservation System', which tracks the produce from field to plate, in order to ensure that no contamination with GM will occur at any stage. (Whether they can be trusted to actually do so is another matter.)
But things aren't quite as rosy in Argentina as the Minister of Trade has presented. Argentina is a country of big industrial farms. A single farm can be as large as 65 000 hectares. There simply has been no incentive to farm efficiently or sustainably.
On the last day of my sojourn in Buenos Aires, we went to San Andres de Giles in the suburbs. There, I met Juan Carlos, a 'small' farmer with 500 hectares. He has indeed planted GM soya and found it more profitable compared with non GM soya. It was not because GM seeds were less expensive, for they cost more; nor because GM soya yielded more, because it actually yielded less (confirming University-based studies done in the US). The reason it worked for Juan Carlos was because he had previously used three different expensive herbicides with non GM soya, and is only using one with the GM soya, Roundup, which Monsanto is selling cheap. Another reason is that farmers in Argentina have been allowed to save the GM seeds, while farmers elsewhere are prevented from doing so under the threat of draconian legal action from the company.
Juan Carlos was taken aback when I told him that, as a result of world-wide resistance to GMOs and the collapse of the international market, the United States has drastically reduced planting of GM crops in the past year. "Be sure to tell people about that", he said to me quietly before we headed to the village cinema for a conference with farmers and farming representatives.
Juan Carlos was not the only farmer kept in the dark about GMOs. "Why is it that the only information we get is from Monsanto?" Someone asked indignantly after the conference. Another farmer who had planted 100 hectares out of 600 with GM soya wanted to know if horizontal gene transfer might contaminate his new crop if he switched back to non GM soya. I confessed I did not know, because no one had looked. Adolpho Boy thought that would be a good topic for scientific investigation.