In 2007, GM crops reached 114,3 million hectares worldwide. Of the 23 countries which grow GM crops, Argentina and Brazil stand out in South America, though transgenic crops are also expanding in Bolivia and Paraguay, for example. The biotech industry claims that GM crops have met the expectations of millions of farmers in developing countries, delivering benefits to consumers and society through more affordable food that require less pesticide and hence leads to a more sustainable environment. What corporations fail to mention is that 70 percent of GM crops grown are Roundup Ready soybean, a crop tolerant to Monsanto’s herbicide glyphosate, mainly grown by large-scale farmers for biodiesel and for export as animal feed to China and Europe. The impacts of soybean expansion in South America go beyond the typical effects of monocultures heavily sprayed with herbicides, but include deforestation, soil fertility mining, food insecurity and the expulsion of small farmers, thus augmenting rural conflicts.
Deforestation and the Fate of Farmers
The expansion of soybean is accompanied by massive transportation infrastructure projects that lead to the destruction of natural habitats over wide areas, well beyond the deforestation directly caused by soybean cultivation. In Brazil, soybean profits justified the improvement or construction of industrial waterways, railway lines and an extensive network of roads. These in turn have attracted logging, mining, ranching and other practices with severe impacts on biodiversity. The Rosario region on the Parana river in Argentina has become the largest soy agro-industrial processing area in the world, with all the environmental impacts that such infrastructure entails.
Soybean today occupies the largest area of any crop in Brazil (14,5 million hectares). In Argentina about 16 million hectares are devoted to soybean and the total production is more than 40 million tones. In Paraguay soybeans occupy more than 25 percent of all agricultural land. Soy cultivation has already resulted in the deforestation of 21 million hectares of forests in Brazil, 14 million hectares in Argentina, two million hectares in Paraguay and 600,000 hectares in Bolivia. In response to global market pressure for biofuels, Brazil alone will likely clear an additional 60 million hectares of land in the near future to grow more soybean for biodiesel and sugar cane for ethanol.
Soybean expansion also leads to extreme land and income concentration. In Brazil, soybean cultivation displaces 11 agricultural workers for every one who finds employment in the sector. Yearly, millions of people are displaced by soybean production and these landless people move to the Amazon and other regions where they clear pristine forests. In Argentina, the situation is quite dramatic as 60,000 farms went out of business, while the area of GM soybean almost tripled. In one decade, soybean area increased 126 percent at the expense of dairy, maize, wheat and fruit production. For the country, this means more imports of basic foods, hence loss of food sovereignty, and for poor small farmers and consumers, only increased food prices and more hunger.
As the soybean area rapidly expands, so does glyphosate use. In southern Brazil, for every kilogram of non-glyphosate herbicide reduced during the period of expansion of GM soybean, the use of glyphosate increased by 7.5 kilograms. In Argentina, Roundup applications reached the equivalent of an estimated 160 million liters in the 2004 growing season. Herbicide usage is expected to increase as weeds start developing resistance to Roundup. A recent study by Brazilian researchers found 13 weed species that have developed resistance to glyphosate. In Argentina, resistant biotypes of Johnsongrass, Verbena sp. and Ipomoea sp. and other weeds are also emerging, creating a typical treadmill in which Glyphosate generates weeds that are harder to control, which in turn require increased amounts of other herbicides such as 2,4-D. Instead of reducing the need for agrochemicals – as proponents once claimed – GM technology has increased their use.
Biotech companies claim that herbicides should not pose negative effects on humans or the environment. In practice, however, the large-scale planting of GM crops encourages aerial application of herbicides and only 1 percent of what is sprayed reaches the crop and the rest ends up in the soil and water bodies*. The companies contend that glyphosate degrade rapidly in the soil, do not accumulate in ground water, have no effects on non-target organisms, leave no residue in foods and water or soil. Yet glyphosate has been reported to be toxic to some non-target species in the soil – both to beneficial predators such as spiders, mites, and carabid and coccinellid beetles, and to detritivores such as earthworms, including mycorrizae and other microfauna, as well as to aquatic organisms, including microbial communities, frogs and fish.
Research has shown that glyphosate seems to act in a similar fashion to antibiotics, altering soil biology in yet unknown ways and causing effects such as: reduction of the ability of soybeans, clover and other legumes to fix nitrogen; the rendering of bean plants more vulnerable to disease. During the first year of glyphosate application on RR soya, a severe sudden death syndrome epidemic occurred (infection by the fungus Fusarium solani)in several RR cultivars; reduction of the growth of beneficial soil-dwelling mycorrhizal fungi, which are a key to helping plants extract phosphorous from the soil; changes to the microbial community in the inter-row soil in vineyards (caused by herbicide use in a 2.5 year study in Australia). Soil from plots that had been repeatedly treated with herbicide contained lower populations of cellulolytic bacteria, Pseudomonas spp. and fungi.
All above reported effects can alter nutrient cycling and other important processes in the soil thus reducing plant growth and health. In a study using outdoor tanks, researchers found that even when applied at concentrations that are just one-third of the maximum concentrations expected in nature, glyphosate killed 98 percent of all tadpoles within three weeks and 79 percent of all frogs within one day**. In Argentina researchers using artificial earthen mesocosms found that applications of Roundup decreased micro and nanophytoplancton in treated mesocosms.
Researchers have also showed that the reduction of weed biomass, flowering, and seeding parts under herbicide resistant crop management causes changes in insect resource availability with knock-on effects resulting in abundance reduction of several beetles, butterflies and bees. Counts of predacious carabid beetles that feed on weed seeds were smaller in transgenic crop fields. The number of invertebrates that are food for mammals, birds and other invertebrates were also found to be generally lower in herbicide resistant crop fields. The absence of flowering weeds in transgenic fields can have serious consequences for pollinators but also for pests’ natural enemies, which require pollen and nectar for survival, and which in turn can lead to enhanced insect pest problems.
The expansion of soybean monoculture threatens the ecological integrity and food sovereignty of countries as well as the rights of indigenous and rural communities. This industrial agricultural model violates economic, social, cultural and environmental rights and, as it expands, its destructive methods of operation degrade the environment through deforestation, soil erosion, contamination of water bodies and push farmers out of their lands, resulting in rural migration and further impoverishment of rural populations. The soy agroindustry is actually expanding and becoming stronger through the growing markets for processed foods, industrial livestock and the production of biodiesel demanded by the North.
Rural social movements such as Via Campesina and MST reject corporate attempts to continual expansion of GM soy monoculture. Farmers’ mobilizations have led to destruction of soybean fields and occupations of corporate facilities. For example, Syngenta Seeds’ experimental research center was taken over by MST in Parana last March 2006, after they discovered that the company was illegally growing GM soybeans within the boundary zone of the Iguaçu National Park.
The expansion of agricultural biotechnology into South America is exacerbating agrarian conflicts and historic tensions over land. More mobilizations of rural movements can be expected, as the grassroots movement opposing the advance of biofuel agribusiness and GM technology grows. Industrial farming threatens biodiversity and native seed varieties, violating the rights of consumers and small farmers by contaminating conventional and organic crops. If consumers in the North of the world want to continue enjoying their fair trade coffee and bananas, as well as the ‘good, clean and fair food’ from the South, they had better find ways to directly support these grassroots mobilizations, otherwise small farmers and the food they grow, so precious to northern consumers, are at danger of GM pollution and possible extinction.
*D. Pimentel and H. Lehman, The Pesticide Question, Chapman adn Hall, New York 1993.
** R.A. Relyea, “The Impact of Insecticides and Herbicides on the Biodiversity and Productivity of Aquatic Communities”, Ecological Applications 15 (2005) pp 618-627.
Miguel A. Altieri
Chile, lecturer in agroecology, University of California, Berkeley
This article was published on Slow Food Almanac. Click here to read the whole issue.