Biotech crops invade Latin America

By Carmelo Ruiz Marrero

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

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 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 increases.”

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 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 (GMOs).


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 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?”

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 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.”

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 varieties.

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 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 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 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 Biosafety.

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