According to the latest agricultural census, 40 per cent of farms smaller than 20 hectares disappeared in Uruguay between 2010 and 2011. The main reason, says Pablo Galeano, from the leading non-governmental organisation REDES*, is that foreign agribusiness is gobbling up land, putting it out of reach of ordinary Uruguayans. “The price of land has increased by 600 per cent in only ten years”, he says.
Monsanto recently signed an agreement with the National Institute of Agricultural Investigation (INIA). “This was done very quietly”, says Galeano. “Our job in REDES is to uncover these cases and, if we find something wrong, denounce it,” says Galeano.
The agreement says that the INIA project to improve the soya bean crop will incorporate GMOs from Monsanto. “So INIA is allowing Monsanto to take Uruguayan soya bean seeds to their laboratory in Costa Rica where they will insert GMOs into the seeds and then bring them back to Uruguay to be used by the farmers.”
This will mean that Monsanto will effectively have control over, and make money out of, soya farming in Uruguay. “As part of the agreement Monsanto is asking to have intellectual property rights over this GMO technology in Uruguay”, he explains.
Monsanto is thus turning Uruguay into a Monsanto ambassador abroad. “It [Monsanto] is also asking that the countries to which these GMO crops are exported deregulate the entry of GMO products”, he says. “As Uruguay needs to export its soya, it ends up lobbying for what Monsanto wants.”
“The companies are imposing GM seeds”
Agribusiness lobbies heavily for its technology and, with it, patent regimes, says Galeano. This is giving traditional farmers a big headache because the new technology is, effectively, a way of privatising plant genetic resources. “In fact, it is already really hard for a farmer to find non-genetically modified maize seeds on the market. The seed stores prefer to sell GM maize seeds, because they are between 50 per cent and 150 per cent more expensive than non-transgenic seeds, so are thereby more profitable.” But, he says, it means that farmers no longer have the choice to buy non-GM seeds. “As you can see, far from the companies persuading farmers that GM seeds are better, they are being imposed on them,” explains Galeano.
As a result, REDES is part of a network of native seeds, in which farmers exchange seeds that they save from one harvest to another rather than buying new ones. They also help producers analyse their crops to detect if they are contaminated with GMO.
Agribusinesses and the environment
Galeano also believes that the massive expansion of foreign commercial farming is harming people and the environment. “Uruguay’s biosecurity is in danger because risk evaluations are based on reports that the companies provide, which are biased and insufficient. When scientific studies contradict these reports, the companies find a way of discrediting them.
“By law, public consultation has to be part of the evaluation process, but these public consultations have become a formality, carried out in such a limited way that people don’t even know they are happening.”
Soya monoculture involves a large amount of herbicide being sprayed from the air and this is damaging the soil, he says. As well as this, the herbicides are affecting the population with illnesses such as allergies and conjunctivitis. “Unfortunately here in Uruguay there is no research on the links between health problems and the use of herbicides”, says Galeano. “It’s different in Argentina where research has been done.”
Another problem, he goes on, are the synthetic fertilisers, which the big farmers use. This means that the water receives excessive nutrients, which leads to the growth of many microorganisms in the water.
One month ago tap water in Montevideo developed an unpleasant smell. The river that supplies water to the capital flows through a large soya-growing region and rainwater washes the fertilisers off the land into the river. The increase in nitrate and phosphate in the water had encouraged the growth of algae, which was causing the bad odour.
“Over the last month there has been a lot of discussion about this issue”, says Galeano. “Whilst the problem was only in the countryside, no one cared. But now the capital has been affected, it has become a problem.”
*REDES Uruguay provides farmers and social movements with accessible information, helping them to deal with environmental conflicts. They recently campaigned for Uruguay to declare water as a human right. REDES has a radio station called Radio Mundo Real.