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.
Argentina: Soy Republic
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
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 soy.
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 ours."
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 on credit.
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
Brazil: Lula’s Pragmatism
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
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 higher prices.
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 Ready soy.
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
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
Paraguay: The 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
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.”
Mexico: Illegal 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 y Culturas.
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.
Puerto Rico: 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
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
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
Resistance and Alternatives
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
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
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 Biosafety.
Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2005. All Rights Reserved.