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Transgenics sweep nation
Andrés Gaudin
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Increasing soy demand leads to greater soil damage, land concentration and campesino migration as transgenic soy farming spreads.

One year ago, the Southern Common Market (Mercosur) displaced the United States as the world´s largest grain producer, bolstered by growing global demand for transgenic grains, particularly soy for animal feed. The trade bloc´s production in 2007 reached 105 million tons of soy — 72 percent of global supply.

Even though campesina and indigenous organizations, family cooperatives and environmental groups in the Southern Cone have warned about the risks transgenic monoculture poses — unemployment, poverty, food sovereignty, health, climate and soil degradation — governments in the region continue to push these genetically-modified crops for a simple reason.

Export taxes on soy, wheat, corn and sunflower seeds will totaled some US$70 billion for Mercorsur this year.

Strong global demand for the grain, especially from giant economies like China and India, along with European governments´ decision to stop using animal feed made from cow bones and intestines in order to stem mad cow disease, replacing it with soy, have led Argentina to increase its soy production, says Argentine agronomist Jorge Rulli.

Soy was far from an enticing crop option in the 1960s. It was not required in the global market and it was worth less than wheat or corn.

In the mid-1990s, however, transgenic soy erupted with a strain patented by US multilateral Monsanto. In Argentina, the company launched a massive campaign luring farmers with an attractive offer: the seed and an herbicide cheaper than any other seed on the market.

The seeds were immune to glyphosate and other herbicides patented by Monsanto itself, did not require crop rotation and needed very little man power, wrote Argentine researcher Reneé Isabel Mengo in an article published in Ecoportal last February, titled “The Republic of Argentina: Social, Environmental and Productive Impact of the Soy Expansion.”

Defenders of these seeds say that they can easily be planted mechanically, and right on top of the previous harvest and plenty of herbicides could be used without harming the crop.

Social drama
But there is a social drama behind these benefits, one marked by migration and poverty, along with the deterioration of the environment.

Many experts say that this planting method is accompanied by a growing use of herbicides, causing desertification of the soil, forcing rural populations to seek work in big cities as plantation sizes grow, and land becomes concentrated in fewer hands.

“It´s a high price to pay,” Mengo said. “Very few workers are needed, so what could be seen as a practical benefit ended badly: this kind of cultivation compacts the land, accumulation of organic materials which cannot be mineralized [turned into nutrients], the soil temperature drops, there is a reduction in nitrogen.”

She added that microscopic flora and fauna suffer changes, bacteria life is destroyed, causing an increase in fungus growth, and destroying soil.

Government studies have found:

  • Eight in every 10 unemployed Argentines who live in the poverty belts around the three largest cities — Buenos Aires, Cordoba and Rosario — are campesinos displaced by soy;
  • The concentration of land in hands of foreign investors and companies between 2002 and 2007 have caused the disappearance of 24.5 percent of the country´s farms, or 4 million hectares (9.88 million acres).
  • The need for new soy-growing lands has caused the felling of 1.1 million hectares (2.72 million acres) of native forest, with an average of 760 hectares (1,880 acres) a day between 2002 and 2007.
  • Soy has also displaced traditional livestock farming areas in Argentina, a traditional meat-producing country. It has seen its cattle stock fall from 54 million heads in the mid-1990s to 44 million currently
  • Direct planting uses high quantities of herbicides and pesticides. 

Mengo notes that while there are no concrete figures on herbicide and pesticide use, says that her findings on farm soils show that they are receiving no less than 140 million liters of glyphosate a year and a similar quantity of other herbicides prohibited in the world — atrazine, 2,4-DB, paraquat, imazetapyr — used to kill pests and unwanted life that has grown resistant to glyphosate.

Toxic cocktail
Transgenic soy is not recommended for human consumption, according to the Argentine Pediatric Society. Its studies show that it impedes absorption of calcium, iron, vitamin B-12 and zinc, along with other impacts such as early puberty in girls, which are possibly linked to the high levels of phytoestrogen in the plant.

Studies in the public university in the northern province of Formosa revealed a higher incidence of cancer in populations near the soy plantations fumigated with glyphosate as well as the destruction of the ancestral production of food in the native communities of this and other northern provinces´ indigenous communities.

Soy plantations attract swarms of insects, and multinational companies, both producers of transgenic seeds and herbicides and pesticides, such as Monsanto, Syngenta, Basf, Cargill, Nidera, Bayer, Dow Chemical, Dupont and many others — suggest large doses of endosulfate and cypermethrin, a toxic mix that is lethal to bees, fish and birds.

“That toxic cocktail recommended by the soy farming monopoly has broken our agricultural equilibrium,” said Rulli, who calls the mix a social catastrophe and disastrous for food, as a result of lower production of other products such as lentils, sweet corn, peas, carrots and many types of potatoes and yams.

“The ecosystem is affected by this system of contamination: seagulls and other birds disappear because of the lack of rotation of the land, hares are poisoned, partridges lay sterile eggs, the earthworms that oxygenated the soil die,” said Mengo. “There are areas where birds have already disappeared, along with the guinea pigs and butterflies.”
—Latinamerica Press.

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