March 1, 2004, CropChoice/
commentary in New Statesman: British ministers, having
given the go-ahead for the experimental planting of GM crops,
ought to be able to look to Argentina for inspiration. This
is the country that has embraced GM technology most wholeheartedly.
Today, more than half of its arable land is covered with GM
soya, which was developed by Monsanto and is sold as Roundup
Ready (RR) because it has been engineered to be resistant
to Roundup, the company's trademarked glyphosate herbicide.
Yet something has gone wrong. Argentina's main agricultural
research institute has warned that, unless the move into RR
soya monoculture is reversed, 'a decline in agricultural production
will be inevitable'. And in January Monsanto abruptly halted
the sale of its GM soya seeds.
At first, GM technology seemed like a gift for farmers. The
pampas, an area of rich land that fans out for roughly 600
kilometres around Buenos Aires, were suffering from serious
soil erosion, caused partly by repeated ploughing. RR soya
seemed the solution: it allowed farmers to control weeds by
spraying glyphosate during the growing season and thus farm
without ploughing. The proliferation of weeds had earlier
made such no-till farming unsuccessful.
Driven by the huge demand on the world market for soya meal
as cattle fodder, farmers enthusiastically adopted the technology.
At the time, with encouragement from the IMF, Argentina had
adopted free-market economics. Soya looked like an ideal export
product where the country had 'comparative advantage'. Monsanto
sold Roundup at a special cheap price and exempted farmers
from royalty payments. The area under soya cultivation increased
by 60 percent in the second half of the 1990s; output more
After a currency collapse in December 2001, only export crops
remained profitable. Quick-witted businessmen set up investment
trusts that scoured the country in search of land to plant
with soya. Soya spread beyond the pampas into more environmentally
fragile areas in the north, joining fields in Brazil and Paraguay
to form a vast 'soya republic'.
About 150,000 small farmers, who had cultivated rice, maize,
lentils, potatoes, fruit and other food crops, were driven
off the land, hit both by low prices for their products and
by herbicide contamination from soya farmers' spraying. Land
ownership in Argentina is more concentrated today than at
any time in history. Moreover, new weeds, probably naturally
resistant to glyphosate and opportunistically occupying the
new ecological niche, are proliferating. RR soya, sprouting
inconveniently from seeds dropped during harvesting, is also
becoming a nuisance. Farmers tried upping the frequency and
strength of Roundup applications. Sales of glypho-sate rose
from 5.4 million litres in 1994 to 59.2 million litres in
1998, and probably to well over 100 million litres now.
Even so, the farmers have been losing the battle. So biotechnology
companies have come up with a new technical fix. Syngenta's
advert proclaims that 'soya is a weed' and advises farmers
to spray their fields, prior to planting, with two notoriously
damaging herbicides - Gramoxone (paraquat) and Gesaprim (atrazine).
These are exacerbating the damage to neighbouring farms.
I recently visited a peasant hamlet near the border with Paraguay.
The families' small subsistence plots have become islands
in a sea of soya. One day last year, soya farmers sprayed
one of the new mixtures on a nearby farm.
'The wind was in the north, so the toxic cloud got blown
on to our plots and into our houses,' recalled Sandoval Filemon.
'Our eyes immediately started smarting.' Over the next few
days chickens, pigs and goats died. Sows gave birth to deformed
or dead piglets. And almost all the crops were badly damaged,
said Eugenia, Sandoval's wife. Even today, the banana trees
produce stunted fruit.
Because of their heavy use of herbicides, soya farmers also
kill off bacteria in the soil, leading to more snails, slugs
and fungi. As the normal process of decomposition is interrupted,
some farmers have to brush dead vegetation off the land prior
to planting. Charles Benbrook, a US agricultural economics
consultant who has studied GM farming in Argentina, told me
that without big changes in farming practice, Argentinian
agriculture will not be sustainable for longer than another
Even Monsanto appears to have qualms. In response to my queries
about the sustainability of RR soya, it said it 'strongly
supports crop rotation', something that it has not encouraged
in practice. It is also trying belatedly to regain control
over the soya sector by charging royalties. But the farmers
are resisting, either by saving seeds at harvest time to plant
the following year or by buying RR seeds on the black market.
Monsanto suspended seed sales in January and could introduce
an extra 'terminator' gene into other GM crops to sterilise
seeds and stop hoarding.
The case of Argentina shows that genetic modification of
crops, by its very nature, permits farmers to indulge in irresponsible
practices such as deluging the soil with glyphosate, something
that would be impossible in conventional farming. In less
than a decade the rush into soya farming has driven thousands
of families off the land, created serious ecological and agronomic
imbalances, destroyed food security and led to dependence
on a technology controlled by a handful of multinational companies.
GM technology, though not wholly responsible, has played a
part while contributing only a temporary increase in yields
and a short-lived solution to the problem of soil erosion.
Sue Branford is co-author of Cutting the Wire: the story
of the landless movement in Brazil (Latin America Bureau,