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GM crops in Latin America

Soya, a plant that was virtually unknown throughout the world (outside China) until the 1940s, has transformed farming in Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Bolivia. Today these countries produce 136 million tons of soya, more than half the world’s total. 

The speed at which this crop has taken over arable land in these countries is astonishing. In Brazil the area under soya cultivation has rocketed from one million hectares in 1970 to 24 million hectares today. In Argentina the area has shot up from 95,000 hectares to 18 million hectares in the same period. In Paraguay, where the soya boom arrived a little later, it is the same story, with the area planted rising from virtually nothing in the 1970s to 2.7 million hectares today.

Most of the soya grown today is genetically modified. As we show in this newsletter, the social and environmental costs of this wholesale rush into GM soya have been horrific. Across South America hundreds of thousands of farmers, who earned their living by producing staple food crops for the local market, have been thrown off the land to make way for heavily-mechanised soya farming. Indeed, the main reason why GM soya – predominantly Monsanto’s Roundup Ready (RR) – has been so widely adopted is because it enables no-till farming which requires very little labour. Production of staple foods for the local market has suffered, while the soya is largely exported to Asia (particularly China) and Europe, with most of the beans used to fatten livestock.

Argentina is the country where the impact of the stampede into soya is most stark. In just a few years ‘ghost’ villages have been created, with whole communities forced off the land. Precious ecosystems have been destroyed. Doctors and other health officials have become so worried at the impact on the local population of Roundup and other herbicide ‘drift’, when winds blow the toxic chemicals onto local people and their homes, that they have repeatedly appealed to the authorities to ban aerial spraying. Read more.

Even so, as Diana Mills shows in a special analysis for LAB, the Cristina Fernández government has not wavered in its support for this ‘miracle crop’, which has greatly enriched farming elites. Its plan for agriculture envisages harvesting another 20 million tons of soya per annum by 2020, bringing the total to 71 million.  At the same time, it is backing a local initiative by soya producers to produce their own GM soya which, as well as being resistant to Roundup, will thrive in drought and saline conditions. Environmentalists are alarmed that this if this new soya variety proves viable, which is questionable, it will extend the soya take-over into yet more vulnerable ecosystems.Read more.

In Brazil the opposition to GMOs has for many years been vociferous and relatively effective. In a David-and-Goliath struggle, the non-governmental organisation, AS-PTA, which promotes agroecological farming among small farmers, took on Monsanto in the 1990s. Using a variety of tactics, it and other groups managed for many years to stop the company from steamrolling authorisation for its GM soya through Congress. The GM lobby responded by smuggling GM soya over the frontier from Argentina, almost certainly with the support of Monsanto, and in 2005, much to the anger of the campaigners, President Lula persuaded Congress to approve it, claiming that it was afait accompli.

Even today, relations between some members of the Workers’ Party (PT) and the GM lobby remain embarrassingly close: a blogger recently revealed that a bill about GMOs, brought to Congress by a PT federal deputy, was drawn up by Monsanto’s lawyer, as her name appeared as the author of the PDF document he presented!

LAB has an interview with Gabriel B. Fernandes, an agronomist with AS-PTA, in which he looks back at the years of struggle and expresses confidence that sooner or later their agroecological farming will win out, because it is becoming increasingly clear that chemical farming is not sustainable. Read more.

The struggle between campesinos and big soya farmers has been most violent in Paraguay, where over a hundred small farmers have lost their lives. In a special article for LAB, Claudia Pompa spoke to Magui Babalbuena from Conamuri, the National Coordination Committee of Indigenous and Rural Women, who speaks of the huge price paid by campesinos who have been threatened by gunmen and had their land deluged with toxic chemicals, some of which are classified as extremely dangerous by the World Health Organisation (WHO).  Read more.

Raúl Zibechi writes about the serious impact of pesticides used on the soya plantations on the environment and on people’s health in Uruguay. Read more. And Silvia Ribeiro laments that, despite all the growing evidence that GMOs are harmful, the Mexican government is pushing ahead with an eleventh hour attempt to get GMOs authorised before the elections in July. Read more.