March 1, 2004, CropChoice:
Known for its vast pampas with cows grazing on the pasture,
Argentina has a long history as a beef and dairy producer.
Indeed, that is now history.
Gone are the pastures and happy ranchers as many farmers
have converted their farmland to cultivate a new brand of
crop -- the Round-up Ready (RR) soya, a herbicide-tolerant
plant, in 1996.
With promises of lower cost, less maintenance and reduced
use of agro-chemicals that had caused a host of environmental
problems such as soil and water contamination, the farmers
were, understandably, eager to try out the high tech crop.
That was how GM crops were introduced to Argentina. Agronomist
Adolfo Boy says the switch to GM crops failed to deliver the
Instead it has eroded the fundamentals of food sovereignty
of Argentines -- farmers have grown dependent on GM crops,
fail to save their farm seeds and the environment has been
"We are not in a crisis. We are heading towards a catastrophe,"
cries Boy who has observed and documented the advent of GM
crops into his country.
According to the founding member of the Network for a GE-Free
Latin America, prior to the introduction of Monsanto's RR
soy, Argentina was already producing soya for the Chinese
oil market since the 1970s.
However, when Monsanto introduced its transgenic soya, the
area planted with soya doubled from seven million ha to 14
million ha and production jumped from 13 million to 37 million
The increased production came at the expense of deforestation
and the disappearance of traditional agricultural models that
are increasingly being acknowledged as the foundation for
a sustainable future.
As the area under cultivation expanded, the first effect
was the abandonment of the mixed farming systems upon which
sustainability was based â€“ the rotation
of crops and cattle which helps soil fertility to recover
and provides security in the long run.
Then, fences, mills and ranching structures were gradually
removed. The land entered into a process of permanent crop
production, in lots comprised of several small to medium-sized
farms in the range of 50 to 100ha, he recalls.
A country that used to be able to feed its population has
redirected its agriculture to export- oriented production,
thus neglecting the need to take care of hunger back home.
"Argentines do not use soya oil, we use sunflower oil.
Products for local consumption were abandoned for RR soya,"
says Boy, noting that traditional corn, rice, lentil and dairy
production were all sidelined.
While soya production grew by 74.5% between 1996 and 2002,
official figures show decreases in the area sown with the
following food crops: 44.1% for rice, 26% for corn and 3.5%
Highlighting the irony of the short-sighted agriculture policy
manifested in the dairy sector, Boy says dairy exporters were
reduced from 30,141 in 1998 to 15,000 in 2002. "RR soya
domination was so acute that it now reaches the point where
Argentina is importing milk from Uruguay."
Boy also points out that GM crops are a technology for large
farms under the pretext of economy of scale, hence promoting
the concentration of land in the hands of a few that leads
to migration to the cities.
"It has generated unemployment and the migration of
more than 250,000 rural families in the last 14 years largely
because their land has passed into the hands of financial
institutions that prefer the 'farming pools' method and concentrate
millions of hectares into soya production.
"These contractors own bigger and faster machines, resulting
in severe erosion of the fertile pampas," says an exasperated
Reduced food production has plunged Argentina into a state
of hunger and is breeding contempt for the government and
Disputing the seed industry's sales pitch that GM crops require
less herbicide, Boy says farmers are using more than one herbicide
with the introduction of RR soya. In fact, the quantity has
increased and more toxic herbicides have to be used to control
weeds that are getting hard to eradicate -- a sign of growing
According to the Friends of the Earth report entitled Genetically
modified crops: a decade of failure (1994- 2004), released
at the COP-7 meeting in Kuala Lumpur, in 2001 alone, more
than 9.1 million kg of herbicide were used for GM soy in comparison
with non-GM plants. The use of glyphosate herbicide doubled
from 28 milliion litres between 1997-98 to 56 million litres
in 1998-99 and reached 100 million litres in the 2002 planting
It noted that weed resistance has prompted the use of highly
toxic herbicides with RR soy, and farmers have started using
herbicides that are banned in developed countries like atrazine
RR soya is genetically-engineered to tolerate the spraying
of herbicide, thus allowing the use of glyphosate.
He says without patenting the RR soya in Argentina, farmers
multiplied their seeds and thus flooded their fields with
Farmers were engaged in a well-known traditional practice
called "brown-bagging" whereby they save the seeds
for the next planting season to reduce their costs.
However, the transgenic soya was patented in 2000 following
complaints from American farmers who were paying US$20 (RM76)
per kg of seed as opposed to US$12 (RM45.60) per kg paid by
their Argentine counterparts. Hence, it is now illegal for
farmers to save their seeds in the field and they face the
risk of prosecution.
Boy also challenges the apparent cost-saving advantage from
the reduction in herbicide use as claimed by the seed industry.
The lowered cost, he reveals, was due to the import of Chinese-produced
glyphosate that was far cheaper and resulted in 50% reduction
of herbicide costs for the farmers.
Again, this savings will not be for long as Monsanto has
sought legal redress against the dumping of glyphosate by
"Let Argentina be a warning to others. We are going
down the path of destruction," warns Boy.
Asia, he says, will suffer more as it has much more diverse
biological resources that risk being destroyed by GMO contamination.
His colleague, Dr Lilian Joensen, who is also a molecular
biologist and researcher with the Ministry of Health of Argentina,
notes that as the industry seeks to expand the cultivation
of RR soya, more forests are cleared to make way for this
Describing the situation as total madness, she says: "My
government doesnâ€™t seem to have the political
will to turn back from this path. And it looks like we have
to contend with more adverse consequences from GM crops."
And there seems to be no way out as there is so much at stake
for Argentina. It is the second largest exporter of GM crops
after the United States.
Despite the mayhem back home, the Argentinean government
is negotiating at the first meeting of the Cartagena Biosafety
Protocol in the same group of countries dubbed the Miami Plus
Group that is reportedly trying to weaken the liability and
redress regime that is suppose to be established by 2008.
At the rate contamination by GM crops is raging around the
world, one wonders if four years is not too long a wait to
have an international liability and redress regime to address
the problems created by the introduction of transgenic crops
in just under a decade.