Science in Society Archive

How Europe is Re-colonising America with Help from the Natives

A major row has erupted over an industry-led proposal to make GM soya in Argentina "sustainable", and the blame is laid squarely at Europe's door. Dr. Mae-Wan Ho reports

Argentina’s GM soya woes

Argentina, once the "bread-basket" of the world, has been transformed since 1997 into a GM soya republic (see "Argentina’s GM woes", SiS 20). Within the past decade, more than 160 000 families of small farmers have been driven off their traditional mixed/rotation farms to be replaced by large-scale soya monocultures. From the 38 000 hectares planted in 1970, soya expanded to 13 million hectares or more today, practically all GM. Around 70% of the harvest is converted to oil, most of which is exported, providing 81% of the world’s exported soya oil and 38% soya meal, mostly fed to cattle.

As a result, Argentina is devastated by massive rural depopulation and impoverishment, increased deforestation and desertification. The use of the herbicide glyphosate increased nearly four fold from 28 million litres to 100 million litres in 2002; and additional, highly toxic herbicides, some banned in other countries, have had to be brought back in use, as numerous glyphosate-tolerant weeds sprang up.

Peasants living near GM soya fields and other inhabitants near plantations that have taken over the suburbs are suffering serious health problems from the aerial herbicide sprays, including birth defects and cancers.

With an increase in poverty, a glut in soya and severe deficit of other agricultural produce, the government began to promote soya as a ‘healthy alternative’ to the traditional meat and milk. As a result, many people, especially the poor, are forced into a predominantly soya-based diet and to suffer nutritionally damaging effects including the early onset of puberty, possibly linked to high levels of phytoestrogens in soya.

Before the introduction of GM crops, Argentina was one of the countries with the highest certified organic production. Organic crops can no longer be produced, due to transgenic contamination, while Argentinean honey has been downgraded because of chemical residues.

Cattle-farming too, has been displaced by soya to marginal areas and flood planes, and worse, to livestock feed lots, where rather than feeding on pastures, the cattle are fed grains, especially soya, with added antibiotics and hormones.

Traditional grass-fed Argentinean beef, much prized by locals and visitors alike, is fast disappearing, as are the pampas, the beautiful grasslands for which Argentina is renown.

"Sustainable Soya"?

What can bring Argentina’s downward spiral to a halt? Industry is proposing more of the same: to increase the production of exportable grain from sixty to one hundred million tonnes per annum, an expansion that will probably require ten or more million hectares of GM crops planted in addition to the existing 15 million hectares cultivated. That proposal is supported by government institutions such as the Ministry of Agriculture (SAGPYA), the National Institute of Technology in Agriculture (INTA), the National Service for Animal and Plant Health (SENASA), and the National Research Institute (CONICET).

But, to increase production of exportable soya at this juncture carries the real risks of an ecological catastrophe as well as social upheavals. So, industry needs the help of non-government organisations (NGOs). Hence the initiative, "Sustainable Soya", started under the mandate of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), via its Argentinean agency Fundacion Vida Silvestre, together with Fundación Ambiente y Resursos Naturales, Greenpeace, the Faculty of Agronomy of the University of Buenos Aires and several companies.

The initiative was presented in a report published by the WWF in Gland, Switzerland, in September 2004, Managing the soya boom: Two scenarios of soy production expansion in South America.

"At best naïve and at worse cynical"

The Argentina-based Grupo de Reflexión Rural (GRR) is alarmed at the development. This monoculture model, it says, is essentially agriculture without farmers, and inevitably leads to the concentration of land ownership and mass depopulation of rural areas. And it cannot be reversed in the manner proposed in the document. In reality, the policy of the WWF is not to challenge the soya model, but to facilitate its implementation within the areas currently cultivated, while hopefully avoiding the social upheavals that are expected and feared.

Defending the report, Matthias Diemer, head of WWF’s forest Conservation Initiative said, "The study shows that it is possible to achieve higher production of soya without destroying nature."

But Jorge Eduardo Rulli, a spokesperons for GGR, is extremely critical.

"Certain environmental organisations are supposed to search to establish sanctuaries within the national parks and exploit the remaining native forests, while acting as guides and experts to help prevent the collapse of the ecosystems." He says, "The scientific and technical institutions are naively pursuing a national biotechnology project, neglecting that even the most minute laboratory procedures are protected by patents, and placing the already depleted resources of the State at the service of multinational interests."

"By accepting the reality created by the multinationals, the WWF is condemning the south of our continent to the role of commodity producers, with no means of defending our food sovereignty and food security." Rulli continues. "Their reasoning is to multiply the capacity of commodity production of our countries, while preserving only a fraction of our forests and natural ecosystems. The pretension of making soya production sustainable is at best naïve and at worst cynical."

Unfortunately, many small farmers have also been taken in, and are trying to get their share of the perceived goodies. They are arguing for land tenure, in the belief that they don’t have to pay royalties for their seeds, and drumming up support for so-called agrarian reform, while fully complying with the "sustainable" soya model. Many of the urban union leaders, too, ignorant of the true damage of GM monocultures, continue to press for a fairer distribution of the gains, arguing that this would benefit consumers. They denounce corrupt practices, such as the under-declaration of grain exports, implying that better custom controls and taxation could generate sufficient funds for solving the acute social problems.

In the mean time, major charities such as the Rotary Club and CARITAS continue with their plans to install "soya milk" machines (called "mechanical cows" in Argentina) for use in hospitals and areas of extreme poverty, and incorporating soya-based foods in soup kitchens. In this way, they are legitimising the monoculture of GM soya among the poor, and establishing a double standard in nutrition, in which the poor are fed on GM products.

According to GRR, all these groups are effectively colluding with the multinationals that dominate our export market and have converted Argentina into a soya republic.

Instead, the group declares: "We need to recover our national dignity and denounce this soya model, and our country’s role as commodity producer and biotechnology laboratory. We need to reconstruct the State by taking charge of foreign trade and reorganise the Junta Nacional de Granos (the organisation for the storage and distribution of seeds at national level) that would maintain fair prices for foods destined for the tables of Argentineans. We need to return to the production of seeds, to recover our genetic heritage, and create the foundations for a different agrarian model, with food sovereignty and local development as national objectives."

Europe is to blame

Argentina’s apparent success in export is also its most abject failure, according to GRR, because export agriculture has destroyed the tradition of a country that’s able to produce, and has, until quite recently, produced abundant and diverse healthy foods; and at the same time, condemned the vast majority of its people to hunger and misery. Just as Argentina is failing to protect the interests of its people, Europe is effectively forcing another continent (Argentina and other Latin American countries) to produce GM cattle feed that is overwhelmingly rejected by its citizens.

GRR is accusing the "globalised Europe" of attempting to maintain a standard of living close to that of the US by forcing Argentina into the role of commodity providers to pay back its external debt. This has nothing to do with peace and prosperity for the European Union, but "a sad and perverse expression of the Europe’s dirty colonial past".

"Let us also remember that the external debt was imposed upon us during a military dictatorship, at the cost of widespread terror and thirty thousand lives." Rulli warns.

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Article first published 21/11/04

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