UK supermarkets and the destructive GMO soya boom in South America

Over the last year the UK’s six largest supermarkets have all quietly dropped their non-GMO feed requirement for poultry and eggs. Tesco, Sainsbury, Marks and Spencer, Morrison, ASDA and the Co-op are now selling chickens fed on genetically modified soya. Few consumers are aware of the change, for the retailers are not labelling their products as containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The Co-op and Tesco have also misled their customers by claiming that GM feed given to animals is not detectable in animal products.  This is not true. Several research studies have found that GM DNA from animal feed is present in the milk, meat, and eggs that people eat. This has been confirmed by the UK Government’s Food Standards Agency. If you would like to support a campaign to get the supermarkets to rethink their decision, sign the petition organised by GMO Action and write to the supermarkets.

This change is a matter of concern for all of us. Along with the possible health risk to consumers, there is the question of the horrific impact that the boom in GMO soya production is having on rural communities in South America, particularly Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil and Paraguay. Because the soya has been genetically modified to be resistant to glyphosate, the active agent found in Monsanto’s Round Up, it means that massive quantities of this herbicide are sprayed from the air throughout the growing season. Evidence is emerging that this has led to big increases in miscarriages, birth defects in babies and childhood cancers in nearby villages.

Raul and Maria Almeida Credit: Al JazeeraRaul, a six year old boy, is virtually paralysed from the head down. He lies snugly in the arms of his young mother, Maria Almeida, but she can’t stop the tears flowing as, sitting outside her home in the village of Saenz Peña in the north of Argentina, she says how much she would love to see him walk like his sister does. Raul is one of many children being born with congenital deformations in this town, which is surrounded by huge plantations of genetically modified soya.

Although no one can ever be sure in an individual case, many doctors are blaming the GMO soya boom for the alarming rise in health problems. Doctor Seveso, who works in the neonatal ward in the local children’s hospital, says that the number of congenital malformations in babies has increased from 14 per 10,000 live births in 1996 to 81 per 10,000 live births in 2008. Pointing to two graphs, she says that the sharp rise in malformations is mirrored very closely in the steep increase in the cultivation of GMO soya.

This story and others like it were recently told in an extraordinary documentary on Al Jazeera television. In the village of Ituzaingó, also in the north of Argentina, mothers became so worried by the number of children falling ill that they carried out their own epidemiological study and discovered that birth defects and cancers in children, particularly leukaemia and melanoma, were running at many times the national average.

They took their results to Andrés Carrasco, Argentina’s leading embryologist. He carried out laboratory studies and discovered a link between glyphosate and malformations. Carrasco was not surprised at his results: “We are applying 300 million litres of agro-chemicals, 200 million of which are glyphosate, on to our fields. We have to realise that this will cause harm, both to human health and to the natural environment.”

After a vigorous campaign, the mothers succeeded in getting a judge to ban aerial spraying around their village, a remarkable victory considering how strong the pro-soya lobby is in Argentina. But this isolated victory will not change the bigger picture. Argentina is adding another 10 million hectares of land to the 34 million hectares currently under cultivation. Most of this new land, which can only come from felling woods and forests, will be used to cultivate GMO soya and GMO cereals.

Since 1996 the Argentine government has given the go-ahead to 27 GMO crops. No other country in the world has adopted genetic modification on such a scale. GMO soya, cultivated in vast plantations, has depopulated huge areas. Travelling north by road from Buenos Aires one encounters one ghost village after another. Some farmers, like Gustavo Grobocopatel, the chief executive of Los Grobo and reportedly the world’s biggest soya farmer (having overtaken Brazil’s Blairo Maggi), have become extremely rich, but small-scale farmers are struggling even to stay on the land, as the big boys from the cities gobble up their plots. Even Grobocopatel is alarmed at the increase in health problems, saying somewhat defensively that he has been using only herbicides approved by the government.

Some agronomists believe that the soya boom will implode, as the chemical onslaught kills the soil. Already there are problems with the emergence of so-called ‘super weeds’, which have become resistant to glyphosate. The biotech companies have come up with a technical fix by making GMO seeds resistant as well to another herbicide, glufosinate. According to Andrés Carrasco, glufosinate has been shown to have a devastating impact on animals, producing convulsions and the death of brain cells. So nasty in fact that, while Argentina was approving five new seeds resistant to the glyphosate–glufosinate combination, the European Union had already banned the use of glufosinate within its territory.

Soya invading a cemetery in Brazil Credit: Carlos VicenteSoya has spread like a plague across Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Brazil and Bolivia over the last 20 years, destroying rural communities and demolishing valuable natural habitats. The model of monoculture agriculture it promotes is harmful in all its forms but there is little doubt that the GMO mode has particularly noxious consequences for people and habitats. Now, with the new GMO seeds, the deluge of toxic chemicals will get even worse.

It’s too late to save Maria Almeida’s little son but we as UK consumers can help to prevent the multiplication of similar cases by getting our supermarkets to re-impose their ban on GMO soya in animal feed. Brazilian farmers say that there is plenty of non-GMO soya on the market. Doing this will not solve all the problems but it will be a first step.

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