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THIRD WORLD NETWORK BIOSAFETY INFORMATION SERVICE

24  September 2003

Dear friends and colleagues,

RE: ARGENTINA’S GM SAGA

We would like to bring to you an update on the situation in Argentina, in particular with regard to its experience with GM crops, specifically GM soya.

The crop was adopted aggressively as a major export commodity as a means to earn the necessary foreign exchange in order to pay back its huge foreign debt. Today, GM soya covers an area of 13 million hectares in Argentina, an increase from 38,000 hectares in the 1970s, making it the second largest producer of the crop in the world, behind the US. Almost all soya grown in the country is now GM soya.

However, the ‘success’ of the GM soya story in Argentina is largely attributed to marketing by the seed companies involved, rather than scientific evidence and farmer experience, according to Pengue, an agricultural engineer at the University of Buenos Aires.

This is because its adoption comes with a high price. GM soya has exacerbated poverty and hunger, increased herbicides use, brought the threat of herbicide-resistant weeds, introduced new health hazards, destroyed agricultural land and livelihoods, and resulted in deforestation, as the following reports have exposed.

The situation is made worse by a campaign launched to promote soya as a healthy alternative to traditional foodstuffs such as meat and milk as a way to address the problems of poverty, a glut in soya, and a deficit of other agricultural products. The campaign was so well received that many people are consuming soya-based foods on a daily basis. However, too much intake of soya is detrimental to health and doctors have began to see problems emerging among the population such as symptoms of anaemia, hormonal disruption, weak bones, rotten teeth and malnutrition.

The economic problems of Argentina have not been solved with the introduction of GM soya but instead the costs—socio-economic, environmental and health - have been high and seem to be accelerating. It is hoped that other countries can draw on the experiences of Argentina and avoid taking the same route.

As such, we hope the articles below are useful to you.

 

With best wishes,

Lim Li Lin and Chee Yoke Heong

Third World Network

121-S Jalan Utama

10450 Penang

Malaysia

Email: twnet@po.jaring.my

Website: www.twnside.org.sg

 

Item 1

Argentina’s GM Woes

http://www.i-sis.org.uk/AGMW.php

 

Proponents claim that GM crops are necessary for fighting hunger in developing countries and decreasing the use of pesticides. The evidence shows otherwise. GM crops have exacerbated poverty and hunger, increased herbicides use, brought new health hazards, destroyed agricultural land and livelihoods, and resulted in deforestation. Report by Dr. Lilian Joensen in Buenos Aires, Argentina and Dr. Mae-Wan Ho in London, UK.

Within the past decade in Argentina, 160,000 families of small farmers have left the land, unable to compete with large farmers. GM soya has served to exacerbate this trend towards large-scale, industrial agriculture, accelerating poverty.

Roundup Ready (RR) soya clearly requires more, not less, herbicide than conventional soya. In 2001, more than 9.1 million kg of extra herbicide was used with GM soya compared with non-GM. The use of glyphosate doubled from 28 million litres in the period 1997/98 to 56 million litres in 1998/1999, and reached 100 millions in the last (2002) season.

RR soya crops also yield 5% to 10% less compared with the non-GM varieties grown under similar soil conditions, confirming findings in the United States. Scientists at the University of Arkansas showed that root development, nodule formation and nitrogen fixation worsened in some varieties of RR soya and the effects are exacerbated under strong drought conditions or in relatively infertile fields. That is because the symbiotic bacterium responsible for fixing nitrogen in soya, Bradyrhizobium japonicum, is very sensitive to drought and to Roundup.

Argentina started to transform its economy to an export-led focus on soya when it had to pay back foreign debt with money gained through export commodities. During the last quarter century, soybean production increased at an unprecedented rate from an area of 38 000 hectares in 1970 to approximately 13 million hectares today. Around 70% of the soybean harvested is converted in oil-processing plants, most of which is exported, providing 81% of the world’s exported soya oil and 36% of soybean meal.

Soya was identified as a buoyant market, and Monsanto’s offer of subsidized Roundup Ready Soya seed and heavily discounted glyphosate prices in 1996 proved irresistible to Argentinean farmers.

Practically all of 13 million hectares of soya crop are GM, in particular, RR soya. Bt cotton and Bt maize cover another million hectares between them. Monsanto is in the process of applying for a permit to grow RR maize.

Argentina is currently the second biggest producer of GM Soya in the World. The countryside has been transformed from traditional mixed and rotation farming, which secured soil fertility and minimized the use of pesticides, to almost entirely GM soya.

Financial problems for farmers are set to worsen with Monsanto now starting to charge royalties for their seeds, where before, it was allowing farm-saved seeds. Twenty-four million acres of land belonging to bankrupted small farmers are about to be auctioned by the banks.

With an increase in poverty, a glut in soya, and a deficit of other agricultural products, the government began to promote soya as a healthy alternative to traditional foodstuffs such as meat and milk. A campaign, Soja Solidaridad (Soya Solidarity) was launched. Soup kitchens served soya-based meals and cookbooks were written with soya-based recipes. As a result, many people are consuming soya-based foods on a daily basis.

There is a large body of scientific evidence showing that an unbalanced diet based on soya can have nutritionally damaging effects.  Too much soya can inhibit absorption of calcium, iron, zinc and vitamin B12, and doctors in Argentina are already seeing such symptoms. Among the most worrying observation is the early onset of puberty in girls, possibly linked to the high levels of phytoestrogen in soya.

Other health problems have been caused by the widespread increased use of glyphosate (Roundup). Glyphosate is entering the water supply. There are reports of crop sprayings by plane, dousing people and their homes. The more visible symptoms of this spraying include skin and eye irritations and recent field research (personal communications by local people and medical doctors) suggests that there is a great increase in the incidence of cancer within populations surrounding RR soya fields.

Peasants in Santiago del Estero, North Argentina, who have been living there for generations, say that they are being threatened by big land-owners linked to seed companies and supported by local police and parapolice-like forces. To intimidate the peasants, they set fire to the forests while shooting around the people in order to take their land for planting RRsoya.

Studies carried out by the University of Formosa Province have reported serious health problems in peasant communities due to pesticide fumigation on surrounding RRsoya fields. Their crop and animal production, which families depend on to survive, have been completely destroyed. A judge has forbidden the use of pesticides on RRsoya, but companies have flouted the prohibition and kept on fumigating.

Roundup resistant weeds have appeared. A list of the resistant weeds published to-date include Commelia erecta, Convulvulus arvensis, Ipomoea purpurea, Iresine difusa,  Hybanthus parviflorus,  Parietaria debilis,  Viola arvensis, Petunia axillaris, Verbena sp, Hybanthu sparviflorus, Tragopogon sp, Senecio pampeanus, Sonchu soleraceus, Sonchu sasper and Taraxa cumofficinale. 

Highly toxic herbicides, some of them banned in other countries, which glyphosate was supposed to replace, have had to be brought back in use in addition to glyphosate. These include 2,4D, 2,4DB, Atrazine, Paraquat, Metsulphuron Methyl, Imazethapyr. There are also reports of a fungus, new in Argentina (Phakopsora sp.) which is spreading and requiring additional fungicide.

In order to fight the “insect complex” that invade soya plantations (Nezara viridula, Piezodorus guildinii, Edessa meditabunda, Dichelops furcatus) producers are recommended to use endosulphan together with cipermetrine, which together are labeled as extremely toxic for bees and fish and very toxic for birds. Prices for the insecticides, including air-fumigation are specified in the recommendations.

Argentina’s balance of agricultural products has been seriously affected by the focus on a soya-led export economy. Production of traditional Argentinean products such as milk, wheat and meat has gone down, and the country now imports where it used to export. Other produce, such as lentils, peas, sweet maize, as well as different potato and sweet potato varieties have disappeared together with the industries linked to their processing.  Honey producers have been affected due to GM contamination, the loss of flora diversity, as well as well as death of bees by herbicide poisoning. These are not only bad for the country’s economy but also devastating for the health and nutrition of the entire population.

Soya plantations began in the Argentina Pampas, one of the six most agriculturally productive regions in the world. Its soils cover some 9 million hectares and used to be rich in nutrients and organic matter. The ‘no tillage‘ method was introduced 10 years ago to reduce soil erosion on farms. Seeds are planted directly into the soil, without the need for ploughing, and herbicides are used to remove weeds. For this reason, direct seeding is often promoted as an environmentally friendly farming technique.

When herbicide tolerant GM soya was introduced, it became very popular in Argentina, as it fit in perfectly with no tillage. The rate of adoption of GM soya has surpassed even the industry’s highest expectations. Farmers can now use glyphosate to remove weeds in combination with glyphosate-tolerant GM soya.

But problems soon appeared. Although direct seeding has reduced the rate of erosion, new diseases and pests have emerged, and the levels of nitrogen and phosphates in the soil were markedly reduced.  Most recently, herbicide-resistant weeds have appeared requiring the use of more poisonous herbicides as mentioned earlier.

Development of land for RR soya plantations has led to deforestation in Argentina, with serious impacts on biodiversity and water resources. “We have already lost more than 130,000ha of forest,” says the director of the Argentina’s Fundación Vida Silvestre (Wildlife Foundation), Javier Corcuera. “If we carry on like this we can expect more flooding and less natural resources for the population.”

The no-till technique promoted with RR soya as a means of reducing carbon dioxide emission actually produces worse damages by compaction of the ground, requiring more agrochemicals every year.

“In Argentina, the ‘success’ of the GM soya bean story must largely be attributed to marketing by the seed companies involved, rather than scientific evidence and farmer experience,” says Walter Pengue, agricultural engineer specialised in genetic improvement at the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Sources

El corralito de la soja transgénica, Jorge Rulli, Grupo de Reflexion Rural, Argentina, February 2003

http://argentina.indymedia.org/news/2003/08/124469.php

http://peru.indymedia.org/news/2003/07/1966.php

http://www.biodiversidadla.org/article/articleview/2354/1/15/

Barbecho Directo y nuevas malezas, Ing Agr Adolfo Boy,Grupo de Reflexión Rural, May 2003

Manejo de malezas en barbecho químico, Ing. Héctor Rainero INTA Manfredi, January 17th 2003, e-campo.com

Transgénicos y fracaso del modelo agropecuario argentino. Ing. Agr. Adolfo Boy, Grupo de Reflexion Rural, 2003

Nuevo ABC Rural, February 2003, 14-15

Nidera, Agroquímicos Zamba line brochures

http://www32.brinkster.com/grrlaplata/Royasoja.htm

http://www.chasque.net/rapaluy/endosulfan/Argentina.html

“Soya Republic” by Ben Backwell, The Ecologist, 22 January, 2003.

Pengue W, 2001, The impact of soya expansion in Argentina, Seedling, Volume 18, Issue 3, June 2001,

 

Item 2

THE IMPACT OF SOYBEAN EXPANSION IN ARGENTINA

by WALTER PENGUE

Seedling September 2001

www.grain.org/publications/seed-01-9-3-en.cfm

In the past two decades, soybean production has increased sharply in the Pampas region of Argentina. Genetically modified (GM) soybeans have been particularly popular to the extent that all soybean production is now GM. This article provides a resume of the original article by Pengue on the socio-economic and environmental implications of the exponential growth of transgenic soybean production in one of the world’s leading soybean-producing countries.

The Argentine Pampas is one of the six most agriculturally productive regions in the world. Its soils cover some 9 million hectares and are rich in nutrients and organic matter. During the last quarter of a century, soybean production has increased at an unprecedented rate from an area of 38,000 hectares in 1970 to 10 million hectares today. Around 70% of the soybean harvested is converted in oil-processing plants most of which is exported, providing 81% of the world’s exported soybean oil and 36% of soybean meal.

New technologies

Two major technological innovations have fuelled soybean’s exponential growth in Argentina: the farming technique known as direct seeding and the introduction of herbicide resistant soybeans.

1)   Direct seeding was introduced 10 years ago as a tool for reducing soil erosion on farms. Seeds are planted directly into the soil, without the need for ploughing, and herbicides are used to remove weeds. For this reason, direct seeding is often promoted as an environmentally friendly farming technique.

2)   Argentina has been eager to adopt GM crops, and produces 23% (in 2000) of the world market in GM products. Herbicide-resistant soybeans have been the most popular, of which 67% are sold by the company Nidera. Other companies involved in the GM soybean seed market include Dekalb, Monsanto, Pioneer Hi-Bred and some national companies such as Don Mario, La Tijereta and Relmo. The rate of adoption of GM soybeans has surpassed even the industry’s highest expectations.

Both these innovations have also had the advantage of complimenting each other. Direct seeding is particularly suited to the soybeans grown in Argentina as they are grown in rotation, most commonly with wheat. This in turn has ensured the highest adoption rate in the world of direct seeding. The rapid adoption of these two new techniques has also led to increased imports of specialised machinery and herb-icides. Both techniques are dependent on the use of herbicides, such as glyphosate, which explains the rise in sales from 1.3 million litres in 1991 to 59.2 million in 1998 of this herbicide (see table below).

A shock to the system

The combination of these two techniques has increased the level of intensive farming for export. The main aim has been to compete on the agricultural world market. This is not an easy task a market that is often distorted by the agricultural subsidies received in many countries. And Argentina has been relatively successful ... but at a price.

The initial problem that direct seeding was supposed to address was the serious soil erosion and the subsequent loss of soil fertility. Although direct seeding has reduced the rate of erosion, other problems have arisen from the further intensifications of agriculture that it requires. These include the emergence of new diseases and pests, a marked reduction of the levels of nitrogen and phosphates in the soil, and - most recently - herbicide-resistant weeds.

Already, in the Pampas, there are several types of weeds that are suspected of being tolerant to the recommended doses of glyphosate. Some of these require a doubling of the application, with a consequent increase in herbicide use. The herbicides have also been affecting ecosystems adjacent to the areas of application and aquatic ecosystems, which receive the runoff from the treated zones.

PROBLEMS AHEAD FOR ROUNDUP READY SOYBEANS

Roundup Ready (RR) soybean has been a great commercial success. More than 60% of soybean in the US this year will be planted with RR varieties, only five years after its introduction in 1996. Although it is more expensive, farmers adopted the technology because it greatly simplified weed management. RR systems achieve it by allowing the farmer to spray a wide spectrum herbicide - glyphosate (Roundup) - over the growing soybean plants, killing the majority of weeds, but leaving the herbicide-resistant RR soybean untouched for the most part.

Contrary to industry’s claims, RR soybean clearly requires more, not less, herbicide than conventional soybean. This conclusion is firmly backed up by comparisons in the field of the total weight of active herbicide applied to an average acre of RR soybean as against conventional soybean (1 acre = 0.405 hectare). Looking ahead to the harvest of 2001, it is likely that the average acre of RR soybean will be treated with approximately 0.5 lb (0.23 kg) more active herbicide ingredient than conventional soybean. The result is that this year more than 20 million pounds (9.1 million kg) of extra herbicide will be applied to the harvest.

Evidence shows that RR soybean crops produce 5% to 10% less yield per acre as against other identical varieties grown under similar soil conditions. The reasons for this drop in performance are beginning to become clear. Scientists at the University of Arkansas showed that root development, node formation and nitrogen fixation worsened in some varieties of RR soybean and the effects are worse under strong drought conditions or in relatively infertile fields. This problem arises because the symbiotic bacteria responsible for nitrogen fixation in soybean, (Bradyrhizobium japonicum), is very sensitive to drought and also to Roundup.

It is remarkable that the first research data documenting the sometimes-serious depression of nitrogen fixation in RR soybean fields did not appear until 2001. By this time, more than 100 million acres of Roundup Ready soybeans had already been planted in the US. The US regulatory system is better at avoiding problems that dealing with them once a technology is entrenched, with profits and market shares to defend. In the case of RR soybeans, the regulatory system’s ability to seek out risks and resolve uncertainties was, in effect, silenced because regulators had little to go on in formulating their questions.

Source: Charles Benbrook (2001), “Troubled Times Amid Commercial Success for Roundup Ready Soybeans: Glyphosate Efficacy is Slipping and Unstable Transgene Expression Erodes Plant Defenses and Yields” AgBioTech InfoNet Technical Paper Number 4, May 3.

Goodbye to the rural economy

Indicators show that the country has reached many of its economic goals, but has failed to incorporate many social and environmental benefits. These include the disappearance of small and medium-sized businesses (farmers and industry), an increase in urban and rural unemployment (7.1% in 1989, 15.4% in 2000), increased population migration, and low wages.

In the 1990s, the number of people living below the poverty line in Buenos Aires grew from 2.3 to 3.5 million. In 2000 the number of beggars and homeless people increased from 325,000 to 921,000, and some 15 million out of a population of 37 million people in the country are considered to be poor. Unemployment is increasing, incomes for almost 70% of the population in the region are going down, and fewer people are eligible for unemployment benefit and economic aid.

The benefits of introducing transgenic soybeans have been largely limited to large-scale producers. Smaller producers have been hampered by pressure from taxation, banks, and access to and dependence on agricultural inputs. This had led to a concentration of farms (increase of farm size), a shift towards high-tech innovation and productivity and a move away from quality. More than 60,000 agri-cultural establishments disappeared from the Pampas between 1992 and 1999, while at the same time there has been an increase in farm size, from 250 to 350 hectares.

The need for government support

The dramatic rise in the planting of GM soybeans in Argentina may well not live up to peoples’ expectations. Studies in the US demonstrate that the soybeans do not live up to their promises of fewer inputs and greater yields (see box opposite). The dramatic increase in herbicides documented in Argentina over the last five years bear witness to the “fewer inputs” myth. In Argentina, the ‘success’ of the GM soyabean story must largely be attributed to marketing by the seed companies involved, rather than scientific evidence and farmer experience. Given that GM soybeans are still an ‘experimental’ crop, the industry has done a good job of convincing farmers of its benefits with little evidence of performance.

The increased influence of corporations in agriculture is not limited to determining what farmers plant. Agricultural research is becoming dominated by the private sector; the take-over of science and technology by an increasingly small part of society. Developing countries are becoming the mere recipients of technology imported form the North. In Argentina, INTA (the National Institute of Agricultural Technology) has historically played a fundamental role in the country’s agricultural research. Although its work was clearly biased towards increased production and concentrated in certain regions, the hybrids produced by the institute were adapted to local conditions. Today, the organisation has limited resources, extension workers have left and, like that of many other scientific and technical organisations, its role is now inadequate.

In the absence of other recognised alternatives to industrial agriculture, an alternative type of farming is emerging from the farmers them-selves. This alternative model is based on technologies that are intensive in their use of human resources, low use of inputs, and addresses both domestic and export markets. For example, the Prohuerta programme supplies seeds which produce organic vegetables and poultry to sustain approximately three million Argentineans living under extreme conditions of poverty in urban, peri-urban, and to a lesser extent, rural areas. There is an increasing demand for “green” products, especially amongst those with higher incomes and Argentina is in a good position to respond given its extensive certified organic production.

It is now necessary for the government of Argentina to discuss much more broadly the true costs and benefits of different production models. Though GM soybean may dominate agriculture in the Argentine Pampas, alternatives are desperately needed to provide both for the Argentinean environment and rural population.

Walter Pengue is an agricultural engineer specialised in genetic improvement at the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina. He can be contacted at wapengue@sinectis.com His fully referenced paper (in Spanish) “Expansión de la soja en Argentina. Globalización, Desarrollo Agropecuario e Ingeniería Gené-tica - un modelo para armar” can be obtained from GRAIN’s website (www.grain.org/publications/t-pengue-sp.cfm) or on request.

Reference for this article: Pengue W, 2001, The impact of soya expansion in Argentina, Seedling, Volume 18, Issue 3, June 2001, GRAIN Publications

Copyright notice: GRAIN publications may be reproduced, translated and disseminated freely. We ask only that the original source be acknowledged and that a copy of your reprint be sent to GRAIN.

Website link: www.grain.org/publications/seed-01-9-3-en.cfm

What is Seedling? Seedling is the quarterly newsletter of GRAIN. It provides thought-provoking articles on all aspects of GRAIN’s work and more. To receive Seedling in paper or electronic format (on a CD Rom), or to inform us of a change of address, please contact GRAIN at the address below.

GRAIN, Girona 25 ppal, Barcelona E-08010, Spain.

Item 3

Soya Republic

Author: Ben Backwell, The Ecologist, 22 January, 2003.

As the people of Argentina are driven by economic collapse to the point of starvation, a new solution is being imposed upon them. Ben Backwell reports on a country being forced fed genetically modified soya designed not for humans, but for cattle.

“There is no justification for hunger in a country with one of the greatest levels of food production per inhabitant,” says the text on the slick website of the Soya Solidarity campaign. Underneath, a few shiny clean soya beans in front of the smiling face of a child. “Its time that we replace attitudes based in egoism, bureaucracy, corruption, indifference and “don¹t interfere” with those of solidarity, ethics, action, and fundamentally dignity,” gushes the statement.

It goes on in a similar tone. to describe soya “Argentina’s principle crop”, as “a high quality food for human consumption, given that it contains proteins of a high biological value, rich in all the essential amino acids that can practically replace meat in our diet. For cultural reasons, the custom of consuming soya has not been developed. Now the moment to do so has arrived. This can be part of the solution for the hunger that many Argentines are suffering.”

The statement concludes with an appeal for producers to donate soya for needy families, with the help of transport operators, storage centres and the media, “whose job is to let everyone know about this project and publicise recipes for the use of soya as food.”

Friends in high places

Solidarity Soya’s main sponsors are the Direct Sowing Producer’s Association (AAPRESID), which groups together the large GM producers, Cargill, Chevron Texaco, the Argentine Exporters Association, the Grain Storage Association, the Vegetable Oil Chamber, the Rosario Agricultural Stock Exchange, and the powerful Sociedad Rural, which represents Argentina’s large landowners.

It is supported by powerful media interests such as Argentina’s biggest daily newspaper Clarín and the glossy magazine Gente  which called the Solidarity Soya campaign “a brilliant idea which could change history”.  Héctor Huergo, a well known columnist for Clarín, called soya “a complete food, which just needs to enter into our culture.” He went on to suggest that the government could save money on its social spending by supporting soya handouts instead of unemployment cheques. “Why spend 350 million pesos if we could save this through out solidarity scheme?” asks Huergo.

The campaign has also been supported by media personalities such as the charismatic priest and founder of the Happy Children program, Padre Julio Grassi, also currently on trial for child abuse and recipient of generous government handouts during the rule of the corrupt ex-President Carlos Menem.

“Many times I prayed to God and the Virgin because I couldn¹t feed the children,”declared Grassi in Gente magazine. “That’s why the soya donations from APPRESID were a blessing from God.”

According to Solidarity Soya’s website, the campaign has so far directly benefited hundreds of thousands of people in Greater Buenos Aires, Córdoba, Santa Fe, Formosa, Rosario, San Juan and Patagonia  thanks to diesel fuel supplied by Texaco-Chevron  through literally thousands of churches, communal soup kitchens, boy scout groups, rotary clubs, neighbourhood assemblies, local councils, and political “point men”. It has donated some 677,000 kilos of soya in the last year, and is now directly feeding 700,000 people, and indirectly some 300,000 more, according to one of the coordinators of the campaign, Ezequiel Schnyder.

With its extensive social assistance network the Catholic Church has been a key actor in extending Solidarity Soya. When contacted by anti-GM groups alarmed at the effect of the campaign, Catholic charity Cáritas refused requests for meetings and sent a written reply saying that “there is no proof that soya, because it is GM, causes health problems for its consumers.”

And while they may not be willing to talk about soya’s risks, they are more than happy to distribute it. The Three Times Ådmirable Mother orphanage and its 800 children will soon be running a soya plant capable of producing 30,000 soya rations per day, which will be distributed throughout the soup kitchens of the city of La Plata, Buenos Aires Province. The project will be run by Father Carlos Cajade, with technical support from La Plata University. The former street children that live in the orphanage will act as workers in the plant, as well as, of course, eating from the plant¹s produce.

The campaign has also “persuaded” large soya producers to donate one tonne out of every 1,000 they produce to schools, neighborhood soup kitchens, churches and hospitals. The campaign then employs a network of promoters that travel the country giving seminars on how to prepare and cook soya beans into steaks, pasties, juices stews and so on.

Given the almost complete ignorance amongst Argentina’s urban population about agricultural affairs, even many Buenos Aires neighbourhood assemblies have been happy to promote soya as a “natural” substitute for the traditional staples of pasta, meat and cheese, which have become prohibitively expensive for most Argentines. One of the key tactics of Solidarity Soya has been to donate crushing machines to schools to produce soya “milk”, now that school canteens can no longer afford to give children a glass of milk per day. The campaign is also in the process of donating a huge plant in the Buenos Aires provincial capital of La Plata in order to make soya flour for pasta and other foods. The plant  run by a local catholic priest - will feed 800 poor children as well as other sections of the surrounding population.

The result is a disaster. “Mothers in the provinces are giving soya “milk” to their children thinking that it can replace real milk,” says Jorge Rulli, a grey-bearded former political activist and member of the Rural Reflexion Group, who spends much of his free time visiting neighbourhood assemblies to counter pro-soya propaganda. “The result is anaemia, hormonal disruption, weak bones, rotten teeth, malnutrition.” The GM feedstock soya which is now being consumed in Argentina is also extremely high in agro chemical traces.  Typical traces are 20 ppm of Glyphosate compared to just 0.2 ppm in soya grown for human consumption, according to a specialist in GM soya Luis Sabini Fernández. Furthermore, the human body can only absorb limited quantities of soya as it is highly acidic. Argentine strains of soya were developed to be consumed as oils, or by animals in their unfermented state.  “There is no way that soya can act as a staple without leading to physical deterioration,” says Rulli.

“Milking” it

A government-sponsored congress on nutrition earlier this year produced a document entitled Criteria for the incorporation of Soya. it explicitly warns that “Soya should not be denominated as “milk” as it it in no way constitutes a substitute for the latter”. The document also warns against presenting soya as a “panacea”, and that it should only be consumed in moderate quantities as part of a balanced diet. It goes on to say: “because of its high concentration of fitates, it interferes with the absortion of iron and zinc, and is not a good source of calcium.” It warns against giving soya juice to children of two years and under, pregnant women, and indigenous people because of their deficit in iron and calcium.

“Because of the fundamental role played by milk in the early years, its substitution by the misnamed soya “milk” is completely negative,” says Andres Britos, from the Argentine Centre for the Study of Infant Nutricion (CESNI). “Lack of calcium will inhibit growth and lead to badly formed bones, while the lack of absorbable iron in soya can lead to anaemia.” Britos warns that soya proteins are not as complete as those contained by meat, and warns that high levels of estrogen in soya may lead to premature development of the sexual organs if it is consumed in “exaggerated” quantities.

Despite this, the government has turned a blind eye while the Soya Solidarity campaign does exactly that. In many areas, government bodies such as the National Farming Technology Institute (INTA) participate in the campaign, ignoring the guidelines spelt out above. The governor of Buenos Aires state, Felipe Solá, who was Agriculture Secretary when GM was introduced, is a firm supporter of the soya complex, and has even been prepared to use his own family as an example of the supposed benefits of a soya diet. The immediate effects in terms of the impact of this sudden introduction of soya in place of traditional foods has yet to be measured, as its effects are only now emerging in the crumbling hospitals of Argentina’s provinces.

And quite apart from the open promotion of soya as staple food, much of the cheaper food sold in supermarkets already contains up to 50 per cent soya to add consistency and volume  in everything from hamburgers to biscuits and pasta fillings.

According to Teubal, the imposition of the soya model is creating a kind of “dietary apartheid” where the rich continue to eat the same diversity of foodstuffs as before, and the poor are given “second rate soya”.

“The point is that this whole change of model is a business,” he says. “It has nothing to do with people’s needs. Technology is not neutral, and GM will not resolve the problem of hunger, in the same way that the Green Revolution didn’t before.”

For Rulli, the effects may be even worse. “We are addicted to Soya. We have been assigned a role in the world as a producer of soya and in many ways we are now a laboratory. We are seeing all kinds of things due to toxicity: precocious sexual development, early pregnancies, and at the same time, stunted growth. Hormonal disruption will end up making the population less aggressive, creating a new, more docile kind of citizen.”

Soya Republic

This propoganda is the latest development in the transformation of Argentina from a food producing nation to a supplier of feed for the livestock of wealthy nations. Its instrument is GM Soya. Its architects are the giant agro industrial corporations and the biotech firm Monsanto. And its supporting actors are a host of organisations, rural producers, NGOs and individuals who are disingenuously promoting soya as a miracle food that can solve the problems of Argentina’s poor.

“People keep rsaying we are “the breadbasket of the world”, but they are missing the point,” says Rulli. “We have become, not a “banana republic” but a “soya republic”, a monoculture that is destroying people’s livelihoods, and preparing the way for famine.”

Economy of Scale

The statistics are startling. In 1994/95 5.9 million hectares were dedicated to soya. By 1999/2000 that number had risen to 7.2m. By the latest estimates, the amount of land used for Soya is now as high as 12.7m ha.

The volume of soya produced has grown in the last 10 years from 10m tonnes to an estimated 30m in 2002, making Argentina the world’s second largest producer of GM soya, behind the US, and the world’s largest exporter. Soya cultivation has spread like a cancer, both in traditional grain production areas and in the frontier agricultural regions such as Tucumán, Salta, Santiago del Estero and El Chaco. The onslaughtis carrying all before it, affecting even regions such as the forest of Yunga, now disappearing at a rate of 1000ha per year, to be replaced by the green uniformity of Soya.

“We have already lost  for ever  more than 130,000ha of forest,” says the director of the Argentina’s Fundación Vida Silvestre (Wildlife Foundation), Javier Corcuera. “If we carry on like this we can expect more flooding and less natural resources for the population.”

While Argentines go hungry, the lion’s share of the soya production goes to European feed lots, to sustain the “phantom hectares” of cattle production that could not exist if it were not Argentina and other feedstock producers.  The rest is exported as oils, to Asia.

Soya production has been expanding since the 1980s. The process accelerated, however, in 1996 with the introduction of Monsanto’s GM seed, Round Up Ready (RR). RR’s introduction occurred without any form of public debate in Argentina’s parliament and was retrospectively given legal sanction by the Ministry of Agriculture. The Result: Argentina is by far the most successful country for Monsanto in terms of take up of its product, with over 95 per cent of producers using RR.

“The direct planting and the GM soya go hand in hand,” explains Professor Miguel Teubal, investigator at the Rural Studies Group of the University of Buenos Aires. “With the introduction of GM soya and direct sowing, producers can carry out two harvests per year. They leave the left overs and the weeds of the first season in place, and plant soya on top of it. To kill any thing still living, they put large quantities of Glyphosate on top of it.”

The Glyphosate-based herbicide is called Round Up, and produced by Monsanto.  The GM seed has been engineered for one thing only: to resist the Glyphosate. The seed’s name is Round Up Ready and it is also produced by Monsanto, whose revenues in Argentina rose from $386m in 1998 to $584m in 2001  nearly 10 per cent of its total earnings. Seemingly anticipating Argentina’s financial collapse and devaluation at the end of 2001, last year Monsanto opened a $136m production plant for Round Up in Zárate, Buenos Aires Province.

In a worrying tendency, investigators at Conicet, the government sponsored academic research council, say that Glyphosate use per hectare shows signs of significant increase in the mere five years or so that RR has been used, indicating that weeds are already becoming resistant to its use. The effect on biodiversity of massive sustained use have yet to be calculated.

“The main “advantage” for producers is not that the GM soya improves yields, or reduces agro-chemical use, but that it reduces labour costs,” says Teubal. Producers no longer have to plough or prepare the soil, nor use several types of fertilisers of herbicides. All a producer has to do is employ someone to take regular measure a sample of crops for weed and parasite levels and, if necessary, telephone a crop spraying service to make another flypass. Indeed, in a government survey carried out in the state of Córdoba, 71 per cent of farmers said one of the main advantages of RR was that “it saves time”. This has led to a kind of “agriculture without producers”, reduced rural employment and sent further waves of displaced people into the shanty towns surrounding Argentina’s huge cities.

Ben Backwell is an investigative journalist based in Argentina.

 


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