WHY ARGENTINA CAN'T FEED ITSELF - HOW GM SOYA IS DESTROYING LIVELIHOODS AND THE ENVIRONMENT
The latest Ecologist magazine is out and has some excellent material on the GM issue which it labels "today's most pressing environmental issue".
It includes a GM NEWS IN BRIEF section with multiple items, a news piece on the planned European Commission directive on seed contamination, a deconstruction of a recent pro-GM article by Prof Philip Stott, and two fascinating articles on Argentina's efforts to feed itself.
Here's the first which looks at the real impact on Argentina of GM soya. It totally gives the lie to the claim that that GM crops mean "high yield agriculture" and as such is environmentally beneficial because it removes the need to take more land into production. On the contrary, the article explains, this is low-yield agriculture - the yields with GM soya are actually reduced, as independent research has repeatedly demonstrated in the US.
But GM soya has made it possible to increase production by bringing vast new swathes of land into cultivation:
"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."
Further excerpts from the article:
[GM soya 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.
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.
'The ecosystem has been ruptured and new resistant weeds are appearing,‚ says agronomist Adolfo Boy. ŚWe have not created a self-regulating, sustainable system, but one that requires larger and larger volumes of pesticide...'
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)
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