WHY ARGENTINA CAN'T FEED ITSELF

- how GM soya is destroying livelihoods and the environment in Argentina
The Ecologist, Vol. 32 No. 8, October 2002

'Our brief history of submission to the world bio-technology giants has
been so disastrous that we fervently hope other Latin American nations
will take it as an example of what not to do.'
So speaks Jorge Eduardo
Rulli, one of Argentina's leading agronomists, only six years after the
country decided to embrace GM technology.

When Monsanto arrived in Argentina in 1996 with the first of its GM
crops, Round-Up Ready (RR) soya beans, it made attractive promises to
Argentine farmers. The RR soya bean has a special gene making it
resistant to Monsanto's powerful Round-Up pesticide. The latter kills
virtually everything else that grows. Monsanto said its GM technology
would make soya farming cheaper and easier. Farmers would only have to
use the one pesticide, and they could apply it at any stage in the
plant's development. Yields would be higher and costs lower. Argentine
farmers were captivated by the sales talk. About 90 per cent agreed to
adopt the technology, which gave Monsanto an even higher take-up rate in
Argentina than in the US. So what has gone wrong since?

At first sight, nothing at all. Since the adoption of GM, Argentina's
soya crop has doubled to 27 million tons, making the country the third
largest producer of the commodity (after the US and Brazil) in the
world. Exports have increased rapidly. But a closer look reveals a
different story.

The growth in output is exclusively the result of an increase in the
area of land under soya bean cultivation. Despite the early promises, RR
soya beans have had five-six per cent lower yields than conventional
soya. Nor has there been the much-heralded decline in pesticide
application. Because of the evolution of vicious new weeds, farmers have
had to use two or three times more pesticides than previously. Overall,
total costs have risen by 14 per cent. Soya prices have dropped as a
result of increased global production, and most farmers are actually
worse off.

FARMING WITHOUT FARMERS

There are other less obvious, but even more serious, consequences. The
only undisputed advantage to RR soya is that it saves time. Farmers do
not have to carry out all the traditional tasks of ploughing and
harrowing the land. Instead, through so-called 'direct tilling' they can
sow soya seed directly on the land after applying pesticide. This means
a single farmer can be responsible for a much larger area - something
that has become necessary with the fall in world soya prices.

No longer able to compete, small-scale Argentine farmers are going
bankrupt.

Greenpeace Argentina says the number of the country's farmers has fallen
by about a third over the last decade.
Some 500 market towns, once
bustling with activity, have become completely empty. 'We're moving into
the age of farming without farmers,' despairs Rulli.

Even more alarming is the ecological damage. Native woods have
disappeared as the soya front has advanced. Sales figures suggest that
each year farmers are deluging the 10 million hectares of land under GM
cultivation with 80 million litres of herbicide. This is killing off all
forms of life except RR soya and is interrupting the normal biological
cycles of growth
. The soil is turning into a kind of cinder or sand -
neither of which, says Rulli, can retain moisture. Not surprisingly, the
country is suffering from severe flooding.

In the past farmers used to grow soya in the summer and wheat in the
winter. The non-GM soya used to capture nitrogen from the air, helping
to retain the fertility of the soil. The rotation reduced the prevalence
of weeds. But today the RR soya, which does not have the ability to
capture nitrogen, is grown all the year round. 'The ecosystem has been
ruptured and new resistant weeds are appearing,' says agronomist Adolfo
Boy. 'We have not created a self-regulating, sustainable system, but one
that requires larger and larger volumes of pesticide, which the farmers
deliver. They know it won't kill the RR soya. It has become a vicious
circle.'

Soya is not bringing wealth to Argentina. 'We are being occupied by the
seed multinationals that have patented life and are forcing us to pay
tribute to them,'
says Rulli. 'The more we produce the poorer we
become.'

The people forced off the land by the changes migrate to the cities.
They have little hope of finding a job, for Argentina is engulfed in the
most serious crisis in its history. Economic output is predicted to fall
by at least 15 per cent this year. Rulli believes there is only one real
solution. 'We have to change the rural model, re-populate the
countryside and start producing healthy food,' he says.

As yet, there is little sign of this happening. President Duhalde is
trying to hold the country together until elections in March 2003. To
prevent widescale rioting the government is providing the most needy
with free food baskets. One might have thought that it would have
purchased the food being given out from Argentina's hard-pressed small
farmers. Not a chance. It is importing cheap food from abroad, and - the
final humiliation - encouraging impoverished families brought up on beef
steaks to eat the very RR soya which is doing so much damage to their
country.

Sue Branford is the co-author with Jan Rocha of Cutting the Wire - the
story of the landless movement in Brazil (Latin American Bureau, 2002)