The World’s Breadbasket

01 Oct 2008

Argentina is the second biggest producer of GMOs in the world. Its 19,846,000 hectares dedicated to genetically-modified agricultural products account for 17% of the global total. In first place is the United States and Brazil is third, with a number of other countries enthusiastically adopting these products, while others, where restrictions applied, are abandoning them. “In 2007 the number of GMO producers worldwide reached 2 million,” observes Dina Foguelman, ecologist and member of MAPO, Movimiento Argentino para la Producción Orgánica (Argentine Movement for Organic Production).

Legumes
The exponential development of transgenic products began 10 years ago with soy. This crop now covers 16.6 million hectares and is taking over both on soils considered among the most fertile in the world—such as the damp pampas—and on land in desert areas rejected by agriculture due to low fertility. The data are disturbing: GM crops grow on 63% of the 30 million hectares cultivated with different varieties of cereals and legumes, with a definite prevalence of soybean.
‘The technological package involves using Rg soybean, the herbicide glyphosate and direct sowing” explains Walter Pengue, director of the Master of Ecological Economics at the Faculty of Architecture in Buenos Aires and coordinator of the interdisciplinary academic group GEPAMA (Grupo de Ecología del Paisaje y Medio Ambiente): “Mixed cultivation is eliminated,” continues Pengue, “this transforms the pampas, and elsewhere, into a monoculture area. The new soybean crop is the basis for a model of intensive production which creates a sales value of 11 billion dollars.”
The technological change is focused on legume crops and ignores cereals. There has been a significant displacement of livestock farming towards marginal areas (the Chaco region in the north of the country, for example) or it is concentrated in small areas of the pampas specifically dedicated to fattening animals. In 10 years the production of cereals and legumes has tripled, increasing from 30 million to more than 100 million tonnes of product in the last year, without there being a significant reduction in livestock farming. “This process,” comments the agronomist, “is supported by a very favorable international market, which as in the case of China, is increasing demand and the variable, but rising prices, boost the value of raw material production.”

Past Splendors
Thanks to soy the country is perhaps returning to being the ‘breadbasket of the world’, to the great relief of producers who manage to combine efficiency and profits. Legume crops are also a shot in the arm for the shaky Argentine economy, which according to analysts, is benefiting greatly from exports. Soy has been so extensively adopted that it is hard to find a plot of land or rural roadside strip which doesn’t grow it.
At the same time natural forests—whether degraded by exploitation or in healthy state—are becoming a piece of natural heritage at risk of extinction. This emergency has prompted environmental organizations to conduct a long battle for the introduction of a law protecting the forest heritage. With support from over 1½ million citizens, law n. 26331 Presupuestos Minimos de Protección Ambiental de los Bosques Nativos (Minimum Requirements for the Environmental Protection of Natural Forests, of December 19, 2007) was issued, stipulating a moratorium on further felling until each province has implemented its own territorial regulations. The advance of land converted to growing crops has not respected the rich plant and animal resources which created various ecosystems.

Cereals Banned
In many areas the habitat has been seriously disrupted to make space for the enticing legumes, which promise excellent yields and attractive markets; cereal crops have been abandoned: wheat and corn or seedlings such as sunflower have been reduced to 4 million hectares and 2.6 million respectively. It should also be remembered that in many cases, for example corn and sunflower, not only GM seeds are involved.
“The owners of degraded fields,” says Foguelman, ‘can recover productivity if they plant soybean, since the legume will grow practically anywhere. They also benefit from increased rainfall due to climate change. So a lot of land has gained value’. Average producers who cannot afford the cost of agricultural methods based on technology, have begun to sell their plots of land. We are returning to a situation of ‘seed pools’, where producers are transformed into rentiers on their own land, and trusts are formed. In this invasion of soy it is interesting to note that Gustavo Grobocopatel, a businessman of the Los Grobos group, now owns 105,000 of completely cultivated land.
“Transgenic products,” states ecologist Dina Foguelman, “seem to be associated with direct sowing. Like every technology, this one has its pros and cons. If we look at the benefits, there is a reduction in the use of machinery and energy and, shortly afterwards, significant protection of the organic matter in the soil and a reduction of soil erosion. Furthermore it is said that in 10 years the system will have generated a million jobs. On the other hand, we don’t know the long-term advantages and as the land is not worked, chemical products are required to control infestations, with serious adverse effects on biodiversity.”

Gm Impact
GMOs jeopardize organic farming, so specific policies should be implemented to address this risk (in Argentina 3,000,000 hectares of land are certified organic). Foguelman explains that “GM technology is rejected by organic producers and prohibited through specific regulations. Where GMOs are used, there must be buffer areas between fields measuring 250 meters for corn and 800 for cotton. Exact figures have not been defined for soy, where contamination during transport is a problematic issue.”
Not many studies have been carried out in Argentina regarding the impact of transgenic organisms on health and soils. Experts say that there is not much money for research and negative data tends to be played down. “Our country,” says Foguelman, “is a guinea pig. Here the Administración Nacional de Medicamentos, Alimentos y Tecnología Médica (ANMAT), the National Agency for Drugs, Food and Medical Devices, does not require labeling, and in any case every common food product contains some GMOs. Fortunately the Instituto Nacional de Tecnología Agropecuaria (INTA), the National Institute for Agricultural and Livestock Technologies, has begun to provide more critical responses and comments. A technology is not a solution; the solution must be political.”

Retenciones
The boom in biofuels opens new prospects. The government and companies are pushing for them to be adopted, and this means more GMOs both for production of animal feed and for biofuels, which are derived from corn (bioethanol) and soy (biodiesel) in particular. ‘The state ‘lives off’ exported natural resources through the retenciones (withholding taxes)” comments Pengue. “The tax on soy granules has increased from 27.5 to 35% since November 2007; for oil the increase is from 24 to 32%; for wheat from 20 to 28%; for corn from 20 to 25%, for sunflower from 23.5 to 32%. The companies pay, seeing that they can then fuel the vicious circle that allows them to influence the production policies in the country. In addition they control the scientific and technological system, the legislative and even the judicial system.”
According to Pengue, for every three ships carrying grain and legumes from Argentina, one is for the state in the form of withholding taxes or export duties. “In the 2007 season,” adds Pengue “the amount reached 4,680 million dollars. Using these figures for the record production expected for the 2007-2008 season (97.7 million tonnes of cereals; 9.2 of oil and 34 of flour) and taking account of rising prices (they have increased 22% in one year) tax revenue can be forecast at 7,200 million dollars.” And this is not all. There is an increase in the use of chemical products, both herbicides, such as 2,4-D and paraquat, and glyphosate (whose consumption has risen from 1 million liters to over 180 million) and insecticides used for the ‘protective’ treatment of seeds.

Efficiency
It is difficult for this process to be stopped. Global demand for soy from Europe, China and India, and new demand for biofuels, is driving a search for new cultivable land. But Argentina has to address the still open question of territorial regulations, which is a strategic problem. Furthermore, there are spreading infestations of immune and resistant weeds, such as Aleppo grass (Sorghum halepense). The state has done very little, though it is responsible for dealing with the situation. While they admit the existence of the problem, companies are slow to give relevant information to the state. According to Pengue, the environmental protection system is inadequate, partial and not managed transparently. It is essential to introduce improvements and intervene at local level, with independent and responsible bodies carrying out research work to systematically determine the current situation. As Clive James, founder of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) has stated: “In Argentina, where it is not possible to expand cultivable land, unlike the situation in Brazil, the objective must be to increase productivity to the maximum. In the short term it is important to increase the efficiency of growing GM crops. The biofuel debate is an issue to be addressed in the longer term.”

Maria Teresa Morresi
Argentina, a journalist with La Nación, specialized in ecology, organic agriculture, social welfare and NGOs

This article is published in the Slow Food Almanac. Click here to read the whole issue.

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