15 years of GM Soybeans in Argentina

The true cost of monoculture

Intoxication, massive clearing, loss of biodiversity, forced evictions, land concentration and murder. The dark sides of 15 years of soy monoculture, a model driven by businesses and governments.


  • amicor Soybeans amicor

The only scientific evidence for the approval of GM soy in Argentina were research data provided by Monsanto. Monsanto produces both soy seed as well as the herbicide Roundup (glyphosate), a product that GM soy has been made resistant to. The ‘scientific’ dossier with data on Roundup Ready soy’s safety counts only 146 pages. The approval took place in record time: 81 days during the summer of 1996. Since then, RoundupReady soy is cultivated on a large scale - and the use of Roundup has also increased exponentially.

On Monday the 21st of March 2011, four days before the fifteenth anniversary of the approval, the Argentine Ministry of Agriculture sent out a press release that had been long-awaited by agribusiness: “The 2010/2011 grain harvest exceeds the magic limit of 100 million tonnes.” For years, it had been the dream of pesticide producers, grain traders, soy producers and the Ministry’s civil servants to reach this milestone. Today soy represents half of this harvest, 50 million tonnes. The surface cultivated with soy has increased from 6 to 19 million hectares, which represents 56 percent of the cultivated area in Argentina.

Soy exports have an annual return of 16,000 million dollars, but there are also other, less widespread consequences: 190 million liters of glyphosate are sprayed and there is an exponential increase in deforestation. 200,000 families were driven from their territories and there are conflicts over eight million hectares between soy producers on one side and peasants and indigenous peoples on the other. However, this production model is promoted as an economic success, and now even as “responsible”.

The Soy Economy: Profits for the few

This economic model is extremely dependent on soy production. The model is driven by large companies and transnational corporations that form an ‘agribusiness system’”. A large part of this model is controlled by a small number of companies and individuals”, explain Miguel Teubal and Thomas Palmisano in their book on the large influence of the soy sector on Argentine economy and politics . These are export companies such as Cargill and ADM, big soy producers like Grupo Los Grobo, seed companies as Monsanto and Syngenta, and investment groups called “sowing pools”.

Based on data from the Ministry of Agriculture, the economists provide precise figures on soy as an economic phenomenon: between 1997 and 2008 exports increased from $3.2 billion to $16.3 billion. The researchers point out that a handful of companies account for 85 percent of the business: Cargill, Noble Argentina, ADM, Bunge, LDC-Dreyfus, AC Toepfer, Nidera, Molinos Rio de la Plata, AGD and Vicentín.

“It was very convenient for the government to promote the soy model, because it improved the trade balance as well as tax collection, very necessary to meet external debt payment obligations”, stated Teubal and Palmisano. A large conflict on soy export taxes arose between the government and “el campo” (that is: agribusiness). But both conflicting parties had high interests in maintaining the soy model, which therefore remained untouched.

On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, in the European Union, more than 40 million tonnes of RoundupReady soy is annually imported from Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. This has been made very attractive because of an import tax of 0%, a result of historic trade negotiations between the USA and the EU. Cheap soy is mainly intended for factory farming. European and foreign markets are inundated by cheap meat, eggs and milk, which directly affects small farmers. Furthermore, factory farming causes severe environmental pollution.

Toxic rain

Scientific evidence is strong and consistent enough to recognize that exposure to pesticides increases the risk of an adverse impact on human health,” states the final declaration of the First Meeting of Doctors of ‘Pueblos Fumigados’ (sprayed villages), organized by Córdoba’s National University (UNC) in August 2010. This was the first time that a state university organized such a meeting. Molecular biologists, geneticists, epidemiologists, endocrinologists, and other medical specialists from ten provinces and six universities presented their work during two days. These experts linked the use of agrochemicals with different types of cancer, spontaneous abortions, birth defects and fertility problems through national and international research, and patient medical records.

They recalled that Argentina uses 300 million liters of chemicals each year, which is estimated to have a direct negative impact on 12 million people. They demanded that the national government ban aerial spraying and restrict ground spraying, and called for urgent implementation of the precautionary principle which is contained in Argentine law. This means that in case of possible environmental damage protective measures should be taken.

About a hundred villages situated in soy areas, united in the ‘Paren de Fumigar’ campaign (Stop the Spraying), have denounced the environmental and health effects of agrochemicals for more than a decade. Manifestations, road blockades, information campaigns and court filings have resulted in several important victories: the Court has already banned glyphosate spraying in te proximity of villages in the provinces of Formosa, Córdoba, Buenos Aires, Chaco and Santa Fe, all areas with large-scale soy monocultures.

The Urquiza neighborhood in the town of San Jorge is a good example. In 2009, the neighbors obtained two favorable rulings in the first and second instance to stop the spraying. In February 2011 the decision became final. This is the first case in Argentina, which reversed the burden of proof: it is no longer the affected families who must demonstrate the harmful effects, but the ones that use pesticides that should proof the product’s harmlessness. The hundreds of people of the ‘Pueblos Fumigados’ welcomed the news and they will continue to file new cases in court.

The campaign had another impact. In 2009 president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner signed a decree to establish a national committee to study pesticide impacts. However, an unambiguous conclusion was not reached and the need for further research on glyphosate’s harmfulness was affirmed. It is a complicated issue to demonstrate the harmfulness on human health, which requires a large epidemic study. But lab research with chicken embryos conducted last year by Andrés Carrasco of the Argentine National Council for Scientific and Technical Research (CONICET), resulted in clear indications that the exposure to glyphosate in the first weeks of pregnancy can lead to all kinds of birth defects - also for human beings.

Box: glyphosate’s approval

Roundup can be bought any where in the world, almost in any garden center. It has always been proclaimed as a relatively unharmful product, but this has been retracted. Monsanto was forced several times to remove the ‘environmentally friendly’ label from the packaging. In 1996, when RoundupReady soy cultivation started, both in Argentina as well as in the EU glyphosate’s maximum residu limits were at once raised from 0.1 mg/kg to 20 mg/kg, on Monsanto’s request. In the EU, Germany is responsible for the glyphosate-dossier. In 2012 a revision should have taken place to check whether the evaluation of this product is still in line with the latest scientific findings. However, because of ‘high work pressure’ the European Commission postponed this decision to 2015. The permanent commission of the EU member states qualified Andrés Carrasco’s research as irrelevant, because supposedly it was not conducted according to certain criteria. This matter was never spread in the European press, while it was widely published in the Argentine agrarian press.

More soy, less forest

The province of Córdoba is one of the pillars of the soy model. Monocultures have expanded to the detriment of forests and pasture lands. Soy expansion and the displacement of extensive cattle raising have increased the pace of both land conflicts and evictions, as well as deforestation.

The Argentine government promotes a ” Strategic Agribusiness Plan 2010-2016”, which is committed to increase soy production by another 20 million tonnes.
Marcelo Cabido and Marcelo Zak are researchers at the Multidisciplinary Institute of Plant Biology (Imbiv) of Córdoba’s National University and the CONICET. In their research they analyzed the relationship between deforestation, agriculture and biodiversity. They pointed out that according to the FAO (United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization), the Argentine deforestation rate is 0.8 percent per year, twice as high as in the Amazone area (0.38 percent). But in Córdoba they recorded a far more severe deforestation rate of 2.93 percent, almost four times the national average and thirteen times the global average (0.23 percent). “The speed with which Córdoba’s forests are disappearing, is unmatched worldwide, it even surpasses that of tropical forests in poor countries,” state the researchers. They stressed the direct relationship with the advance of the agricultural frontier, especially with the cultivation of annual crops, primarily soy.

Nationally, the outlook is not better. The latest national native forests inventory of the National Environment Secretariat shows that during the period of 2002-2006, 1,108,669 hectares of forest were lost. That is 277,000 hectares per year, equivalent to 760 hectares per day or 32 hectares per hour. However, this National Secretariat never formally expressed itself on the expansion of RoundupReady soy. Only in March 2008, during the conflict between the government and the soy producers on soy export taxes (Resolution 125), the Secretariat issued a twelve-page document on the advance of the agricultural frontier and confirmed what peasant movements and environmental organizations had already denounced for years: “Soy production leads to environmental problems like deforestation, soil degradation (…) The expansion of soy is a recent and powerful threat to biodiversity in Argentina.”

Reverse land reform

During the soy boom, and the governments of the past fifteen years, a reverse land reform was implemented in Argentina: in favor of big landowners and ‘sowing pools’, and to the detriment of indigenous people and peasants. As a direct consequence, according to the National Peasant and Indigenous Movement (MNCI), 200 thousand families were evicted from their ancestral territories mainly bound for the poor neighborhoods of the big cities. It also produced concentration of land ownership. The 2002 Census of Agriculture seems to agree on this point. Ten percent of the largest “agricultural establishments” own 78 percent of the land, while 60 percent of the smallest farms occupy only five percent of the country’s arable land. In 1988 there were 422,000 farms in the country, which dropped to 318,000 in 2002 (a decrease of 24.6 per cent). The National Research Institute for Agricultural Technology (INTA) summarizes it as follows: ” Land distribution is highly inequitable from the point of view of the agrarian structure, “

Evictions and repression

There are no official statistics of land conflicts in rural areas. The Argentine Chaco Agroforestry Network (Redaf), a multidisciplinary platform consisting of social movements, environmental NGOs and experts, presented a report in October 2010 that describes 164 land and environmental conflicts. These conflicts concern nearly eight million hectares (equivalent to almost 400 times the city of Buenos Aires) and 950 thousand people, mainly indigenous peoples and peasants. This report only takes into account six provinces in northern Argentina: Salta, Formosa, Chaco, Santiago del Estero and the north of Santa Fe and Córdoba. Most of the conflicts are concerned with the violation of land rights and they mainly started from the year 2000 onwards. The report puts forward that:”It coincides with the expansion of the agro-export model in the Chaco region, driven by the international demand of soy.”

On March 13, 2010, in the village of San Nicolas in the province of Santiago del Estero, Sandra “Ely” Juarez died after facing a bulldozer that headed for the land which her family has always lived on. Eight months later, on 23 November, during a police crackdown in the province of Formosa, Roberto Lopez, a member of the Qom community “La Primavera”, was killed. This ocurred during a road blockade in which they tried to enforce their claim on the right to their ancestral lands. Both murders remain unpunished. The State has the primary responsibility for resolving these conflicts, but according to indigenous peoples and peasant movements impunity reigns and there exists a lack of political will to solve the problems.

A responsible product?

The future is not promising. The Argentine government promotes a ” Strategic Agribusiness Plan 2010-2016”, which is committed to increase soy production by another 20 million tonnes. This will intensify the mentioned problems. On the European side, the Romanian Minister of Agriculture, Valeriu Tabara, a former Monsanto employee, advocates the approval of the cultivation of RoundupReady soy by 2012. Meanwhile, ever more voices, also in the European Parliament, arise against industrial farming and massive soy imports, and in favor of local forage production. Several environmental organizations have worked on the issue for years.

However, there is also another, more agribusiness-friendly initiative to supposedly solve the problems related to soy cultivation. The companies that dominate the soy chain, like Cargill, ADM, Bayer, Monsanto and Syngenta, have received an opportunity to show their ‘responsible’ face in the so-called “Round Table on Responsible Soy”. This Round Table is an initiative of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the Swiss supermarket chain COOP. They intended to develop a new label for ‘responsible’ soy. An essential condition for the companies involved, was that RoundupReady soy would be eligible for this label. In 2005, the talks started off with a first conference in Foz do Iguaçu in Brazil, on the border with Paraguay and Argentina. Protests arose immediately. Social and peasant movements organized a counterconference in the same location. The Round Table continued, but the resistance against it as well. In 2010, 230 social and environmental organizations once more signed a declaration against this project.

Six years after the first meeting, the criteria for this label have finally been agreed upon. Critics consider it an empty shell. Soy production is being ´greenwashed´, they claim. Most of the criteria are already contained in local laws. There are no clear goals for the reduction of pesticide use and ´responsible´ soy expansion is permitted, even in areas that will have to be deforested first.

No peasant, indigenous or social movements participate in the Round Table, and only a limited number of NGO´s do. Since the Round Table offers the certification of soy ´biodiesel´ for the European market, it contributes to further soy expansion. They were the first ones to apply at the European Commission, that is determining which label will be allowed to certify agrofuels, in order to achieve the biofuel targets of 10% by 2020.

The European industry, like forage lobby FEFAC, shows a double face. They participate in the Round Table, but at the same time they lobby at the EU to abolish the prohibition on non-permitted and therefore illegal genetically manipulated products in food and fodder. These companies have a clear objective: if the European people can be convinced with a ´panda-label´ that RoundupReady soy is ´responsible´, then the resistance against genetically manipulated crops and monocultures in general will decline. But whether they will succeed, remains to be seen.

Dario Aranda is a free-lance journalist and often writes for the Argentine newspaper Página12 (darioaranda.wordpress.com). Nina Holland works for Corporate Europe Observatory (www.corporateeurope.org, nina@corporateeurope.org).

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