A soya republic

HILARY CHIEW writes on the Argentine experience in which the introduction of genetically-modified soya created havoc in the nation's agricultural and dairy industries.

By: Hilary Chiew

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 good life.

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 further degraded.

"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 tonnes.

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 – 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% for wheat.

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 Boy.

Reduced food production has plunged Argentina into a state of hunger and is breeding contempt for the government and social unrest.

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 resistance.

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 season.

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 and paraquat.

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 RR soya.

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 Chinese producers.

"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 monoculture.

Describing the situation as total madness, she says: "My government doesn’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.