SILVER CITY, New Mexico, March 23, 2005 (ENS):
Latin America is being invaded by genetically engineered
(GE) crops. The promoters of these crops say they will
help fight hunger, reduce agrochemical use, and bring
prosperity to farmers and rural communities in Latin
America. But so far experience has demonstrated that
these novel crops do not fight hunger, do not reduce
agrochemical use, do not benefit small farmers, and
also create new forms of economic dependence.
||"Puerto Rico is one of
the biotechnology industry's favorite sites for
GE crop experiments. According to U.S. Department
of Agriculture data, the island hosted 2,957 GE
crop field tests between 1987 and 2002. This figure
is surpassed only by the states of Iowa (3,831),
Illinois (4,104), and Hawaii (4,566)."
No Latin American country has embraced GE crops as
wholeheartedly as Argentina. Recent years have witnessed
an explosive growth in Argentine farmland devoted to
soybeans. Soybean production has risen from 9,500 hectares
in the early 1970s to 5.9 million hectares in 1996.
The introduction of GE soy in the late 1990s sparked
a further expansion of soy production, which now surpasses
14 million hectares. At least 95 percent of all this
soy is genetically engineered. All GE soy grown in Argentina
is of the Roundup Ready variety, a product of the U.S.
based biotechnology corporation Monsanto.
Neoliberal ideologues and agribusiness people consider
soy to be a complete success and an economic boon for
Argentina. They point out that this crop brings large
sums of badly needed foreign exchange to pay the foreign
debt. But the consequences of this "success"
have been wrenching for the environment and for the
lives of the majority of Argentines.
Other agricultural production is being displaced and
pushed to extinction as the country’s farmland
converts to soy monoculture. Fields of lentils, yams,
cotton, wheat, corn, rice, sorghum, leafy greens, vegetables,
fruit, dairy farms, and even the country's world-famous
cattle ranches are disappearing before the advance of
This country, that once could feed itself and export
prime-quality beef, now imports basic food staples.
Imported food is more expensive and out of reach for
much of the large, poor population. From 1970 to 1980
the percentage of Argentines living below the poverty
line rose from 5 percent to 12 percent. After the implementation
of neoliberal structural adjustment policies, the percentage
went up to 30 percent in 1998, and reached 51 percent
in 2002. Today 20 million Argentines live in poverty
and 10 million of them go hungry.
More than 99 percent of Argentina's soy is exported
to Asian and European markets to feed cattle. The country
has in effect sacrificed its own beef production, prized
all over the world for its singular quality, for the
benefit of its European competitors. From 1998 to 2003
the number of dairy farms decreased from 30,000 to 15,000.
In the words of agronomist and geneticist Alberto Lapolla,
"The Argentine nation has metamorphosed from being
the world's breadbasket to transform itself into a soy
republic, a producer of forage crops, so that countries
with serious development policies can feed their cattle
and don't have to import it from other countries like
Farmers and landowners switch to soybeans in response
to a number of economic pressures. First, local producers
cannot compete against massive and cheap agricultural
imports that result from free trade policies. Moreover,
the structure of government incentives and subsidies
favors soybean growers. To further tip the balance,
Monsanto provides producers with expert advisers, seeding
machinery for mass soy production, and herbicide--all
The Roundup-Ready GE soy is modified to be immune to
glyphosate, the active ingredient of Monsanto's Roundup
herbicide. The environmental effect of this new agriculture
has been devastating.
"The direct seeding system, with its high use
of agrochemicals (Roundup), has already produced in
the monoculture zone a noticeable biological desertification,
with the disappearance of birds, rabbits, crustaceans,
mollusks, insects, etc... particularly affecting the
soil's microflora and microfauna, altering the microbiology
of the soil responsible for the processes that develop
and recover the soil's natural fertility by exterminating
bacteria and other microorganisms, allowing their replacement
by fungi,” warned Lapolla.
The expansion of soy has come at the expense not only
of other crops but also of forests and wilderness areas.
To expand the monoculture, land owners and agribusinesses
are deforesting broad swaths of the forested mountains
at the foot of the Andes, known as the Yungas, and of
the Chaco, on the border with Bolivia and Paraguay.
In the province of Entre Rios, north of Buenos Aires
and bordering Uruguay, over one million hectares were
deforested between 1994 and 2003 to make way for soy.
This deforestation has caused disastrous and unprecedented
floods, especially in the province of Santa Fe.
The economic effect has been no less devastating. The
direct seeding of Roundup Ready soy monocultures creates
unemployment since it hardly requires any labor. While
a hectare of apricots or a lemon grove of the same extent
require from 70 to 80 farm workers, soy employs two
people at most.
Those who have turned their backs on the soy model to
engage in traditional subsistence agriculture have found
it nearly impossible since the clouds of airplane sprayed
glyphosate travel great distances, leaving trails of
death and destruction in their wake.
In Colonia Los Senes, in the province of Formosa, families
that grew peanuts, beets, and plantains, and had chickens,
ducks, and hogs, saw their lives changed in 2003 when
they were flown over by airplanes spraying herbicide
on nearby soy fields. The inhabitants suffered nausea,
diarrhea, vomiting, stomach pains, allergies, and skin
eruptions. Painful spots and sores appeared on the children,
sometimes so painful they could not get up. Plantain
plants grew abnormally, animals died or gave birth to
deformed offspring, and there were reports of lakes
filled with dead fish.
Facundo Arrizabalaga and Ann Scholl, lawyer and social
anthropologist respectively, note, “Soy is causing
disintegration not only of the very essence of the land
but also of society. Shanty towns are expanding on the
outskirts of major cities with farmers displaced by
airplanes loaded with glyphosate, while agroindustrial
giants take over the land. Soy does not generate jobs,
it is an agriculture with no people, no culture. The
rural exodus in recent years has increased at an alarming
rate: 300,000 farmers abandoned the countryside and
almost 500 towns have been left deserted. As a consequence,
crime and violence are increasing day by day, and with
that, marginalization increases.”
The Roundup Ready soy monoculture is crossing Argentina's
borders and penetrating neighboring countries. In recent
years, Brazil, the grain's second worldwide producer,
has experienced widespread smuggling of RR soy seed
from Argentina to the Brazilian state of Rio Grande
do Sul, where soy production is concentrated.
This illegal seed contraband has enjoyed the complicity,
at least passive, of agribusinesses and land owners,
although importation is clandestine and does not go
through the normal procedure of government approval.
Civil society groups like the Landless Workers Movement
hold that GE crops should be submitted to an environmental
evaluation, as required by the Brazilian Constitution.
They also point out that Brazil is obligated to carry
out such assessments since it signed the Cartagena Protocol
on Biosafety, an international agreement that addresses
the possible risks of genetically modified organisms
Another concern is that this GE crop invasion could
spoil the competitive advantage of Brazilian produce
in international markets, since GMO-free products command
During his electoral campaign, President Luiz Inacio
"Lula" da Silva promised to address the concerns
of sectors that denounced the illegal entry of GMOs
into the country. Once in power, however, he leaned
in favor of pragmatism, and in October 2004 signed a
bill that civil society organizations claim favors the
biotech industry and legitimizes the violations of law
committed by smugglers and illegal users of Roundup
A protest letter signed by numerous groups - including
co-ops, social movements like the Landless Workers Movement,
rural labor unions like the Family Farm Workers Federation,
the Consumer Defense Institute, ActionAid Brazil, and
Pastoral Commission of the Earth - states that the bill
violates “the precautionary principle of the Biodiversity
Convention” by liberating GE crops "with
no previous study of the environmental impact and risk
to the health of consumers."
According to the letter's signatories, the clandestine
introduction of Monsanto's Roundup Ready seed "prevented
the Brazilian population from having the opportunity
to choose whether or not it wanted to consume GMOs and
expose them to the environment. It also prevented measures
to guarantee the segregation an labeling of GE products
and in that way protect farmers who want to plant conventional
seeds or promote agroecological farming."
Landless Workers Movement leader Joao Pedro Stedile
describes the conflict, “On the one hand we have
the profit and control motives of the multinational
companies' seed monopolies, like Monsanto, Cargill,
Bung, Du Pont, Syngenta, and Bayer. On the other we
have the interests of honest farmers and of the Brazilian
people. That is the true confrontation that brews in
the matter of GMOs.”
"If we can feed our people with products from
other, safer and healthier seeds, why take a risk with
GMOs? Just to guarantee Monsanto's profits?”
Invasion of the Brasiguayans
Paraguay, the world's fourth exporter of soy, is already
suffering from the onslaught of GE monoculture, in spite
of the fact that to this day its government has not
legalized such plantings.
This country has two million hectares planted in soybeans,
of which over half belong to the so-called "brasiguayans,”
as the tens of thousands of medium and large landlords
who migrated illegally from Brazil are referred to.
They break the law not only by settling illegally in
the country and setting up commercial farming operations,
but also by planting GMOs, which in Paraguay are illegal.
With the soy monoculture came intensive glyphosate
sprayings, repeating the experience of deforestation,
contamination, and poisoning that Argentina is living.
Particularly dramatic is the case of the colony of
Ka’aty Mirî, an indigenous hamlet of 16
families in the department of San Pedro practically
surrounded by soybean fields.
The National Coordinator of Indigenous and Rural Women
Workers accuse that in 2004, glyphosate sprayings resulted
in the deaths of three children and have also caused
stomach and lung problems, headaches and throat aches,
diarrhea and skin eruptions among its inhabitants. Premature
births and babies born with various illnesses have also
been reported. The colony also lacks access to clean
water because the creek they used to get the liquid
is now poisoned with glyphosate.
The newsletter of the organization Rel-UITA describes
a trip to Ka’aty Mirî, “As we moved
toward the colonies, the landscape changed drastically.
There are hardly any more forests or areas with trees,
only endless hectares planted with GE soy.
The small plants [cotton, cassava, and wheat] struggle
to survive and not die, destroyed by the highly poisonous
effect of toxic agrochemicals, while the [soy] crop
enjoys good health. It was pitiful to see how some of
the cotton leaves were 'burnt,' wilted and dry because
of the poison's action. Meanwhile, the growth of cassava
plants stopped and now are no larger than 10 to 15 centimeters,
when what is normal in that season is over 35 centimeters,
according to the peasants.”
Immigrants from the North
In Mexico the GMO invasion is manifesting itself in
a different way. The furtive arrival of GE corn from
the United States to local farm fields has been documented
since 2001. Farmers used samples of the imported grain
as seed without knowing what it was, and now it is spreading
uncontrolled, crossing with native and criollo maize
Peasant, environmental, progressive, civil society
sectors, and indigenous organizations warn that the
consequences of this genetic pollution for the environment,
human health, and global food security could be dire.
Previous IRC Americas reports have described the impacts
of GE corn in Mexico and civil society responses. Here
we present an update. In December 2004 the Mexican Senate
passed a biosafety bill that, like the one signed by
the Brazilian president, is highly favorable to the
biotechnology industry and legalizes genetic contamination,
according to Mexican civil society sectors.
The bill "is an aberration because it does not
create a framework of security for biological diversity,
food sovereignty, or protect the crops and plants of
which Mexico is center of origin and diversity and that
form the basis of nourishment of the campesino and indigenous
cultures that created them. Instead, it offers security
to the five transnational corporations that control
GMOs worldwide, of which Monsanto has 90 percent,”
accuses Silvia Ribeiro of the Action Group on Erosion,
Technology and Concentration.
Critics also point out that the approved law does not
provide for public hearings and yet gives corporations
the right to appeal if their applications for GE crop
authorization are not approved. It also exempts companies
from any liability for the genetic pollution caused
by their seeds. “It does not even consider notifying
those who could be contaminated and, in fact, holds
the victims responsible with no safeguard,” according
to a report in the magazine Biodiversidad, Sustento
In June 2004 the North American Commission for Environmental
Cooperation, an entity created by the North American
Free Trade Agreement, finished a scientific report on
the contamination of Mexican corn. The report, titled
"Maize and Biodiversity: The effects of genetically
engineered corn in Mexico,” proposes strengthening
the moratorium on the commercial planting of GE corn
in Mexico and keeping U.S. corn imports to a minimum,
as well as strengthening a monitoring system of traditional
crops and labeling GE products.
It also recommended improvements on the methods for
detecting and monitoring the advance of genetic contamination
of corn and its wild relatives; that U.S. GE corn be
labeled as such; and that those grains that cannot be
guaranteed as GMO-free be ground up so that they cannot
be used as seed.
Good Political Climate
Puerto Rico is one of the biotechnology industry's
favorite sites for GE crop experiments. According to
U.S. Department of Agriculture data, the island hosted
2,957 GE crop field tests between 1987 and 2002. This
figure is surpassed only by the states of Iowa (3,831),
Illinois (4,104), and Hawaii (4,566).
The enormous size difference must be taken in account:
Illinois and Iowa each measure over 50,000 square miles
while Puerto Rico has less than 4,000 sq. miles. Experiments
with GMOs in Puerto Rico are higher in number than those
carried out in California, which had 1,709 experiments,
although it is 40 times larger than Puerto Rico and
has a much bigger agricultural output.
"These are outdoor, uncontrolled experiments,”
affirmed Bill Freese of the environmental group Friends
of the Earth, commenting on the situation in Puerto
Rico. "These experimental GE traits are almost
certainly contaminating conventional crops just as the
commercialized GE traits are. And the experimental GE
crops aren’t even subject to the cursory rubber-stamp
'approval' process that commercialized GE crops go through,
so I think the high concentration of experimental GE
crop trials in Puerto Rico is definitely cause for concern.”
Why Puerto Rico? Various answers to this question were
offered in a symposium organized by the Agricultural
Extension Service on biotechnology held in the town
of San German in 2002. According to "Claridad,"
a local newspaper, several symposium participants stated
that the island's friendly tropical climate allows up
to four harvests a year, which makes it ideal for agronomists
and biotechnology corporations like Dow, Syngenta, Pioneer,
and Monsanto. These four companies joined together in
1996 to found the Puerto Rico Seed Research Association.
One of the participants gave a much more provocative
reason - he said that Puerto Rico has a "good political
climate.” The island's general population is ignorant
of the existence of GE crops and foods in its diets
and fields, which contributes to the "good political
climate" that the speaker alluded to.
Resistance against GMO agriculture is manifesting in
almost all Latin American countries from diverse sectors:
from indigenous peoples who work to preserve their millenarian
farming traditions and protect their seeds from genetic
contamination, from environmental sectors that warn
about the environmental impacts of GMOs and industrial
agriculture, from farmers who seek to practice a truly
ecological agriculture, and from progressive organizations
and agrarian reform movements.
These voices of protest are integrated into the movement
of opposition to the Free Trade Area of the Americas
and the neoliberal agenda.
Ecological or organic agriculture is positioning itself
as an alternative to GMOs and to the whole industrial
monoculture agriculture model controlled by transnational
agribusinesses. Brazil in particular has carved out
a lucrative niche in the international market for organic
tropical produce, becoming a veritable export powerhouse.
Agribusiness corporations and their spokespeople allege
that organic farming is perfectly compatible with GE
crops and that therefore both can be employed. But organic
producers and GMO opponents believe that the two models
of agricultural production cannot coexist and that as
the GE monoculture and agroecological production grow,
the moment will come when Latin America will have to
choose between one of the two paths.
Published in cooperation with the Americas Program
at the International Relations Center, formerly Interhemispheric
Resource Center, online at www.irc-online.org.
Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero is an analyst on biodiversity issues
for the IRC Americas Program. He is a Puerto Rican journalist,
senior fellow of the Environmental Leadership Program,
a research associate of the Institute for Social Ecology,
and founding director of the Puerto Rico Project on
Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2005. All