Issue 218: February 2004

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Editor’s note: Once again we feel compelled to report an excessive amount of information about the continued assault of Monsanto on Creation and its inhabitants. The reports from Argentina, along with notes from elsewhere, paint a picture of an increasingly desperate corporation devoid of responsibility and any ethical or moral sense.
The question I keep asking myself is, How have we let Monsanto (and it could be any other corporation) assume such a dictatorial position in our food supply? The natural second question is, How can we prevent any other corporation playing the same role when Monsanto goes down the drain? – which it cannot do soon enough.

Not many years ago Argentina was the land of beef cattle and the gaucho. Its people were not hungry. This is no longer the case. Argentina is now the world’s third largest soybean producer after the USA and Brazil, and Brazil will likely become #1 this year. Land planted in soy has tripled over the last decade to nearly 32 million acres in 2003. Argentina exported nearly 25 million tons of soy meal and oil last year. Estimates are that only 18% of the soybean planted last autumn (spring in Argentina) on a total of 14 million hectares, was purchased through recognized retailers in Argentina.

Monsanto says it stopped selling RR soybean seeds (which are open-pollinated, thus making it possible for farmers to save seeds for replanting) in Argentina in December, and will now concentrate on Roundup Ready corn, which the government has not yet approved, and new varieties of sunflower seeds and sorghum which are hybrids, thus requiring that farmers buy new seeds every year.

Some analysts say the rapidly growing practice of farmers saving seed from a harvested crop for planting the next year – or for trading with or selling to neighbouring farmers – has pared Monsanto’s Argentine revenues from $580 million in 2001 to $300 million in 2002. Monsanto had about 15% of the soybean seed business, industry
sources say. Now that it has withdrawn, just three major companies remain – Netherlands – based Nidera and Asociados Don Mario and Relmo of Argentina. – B.K.

The following comes from Grupo de Reflexión Rural (Rural Reflection Group), Argentina

The decision by Monsanto to withdraw from the marketing of transgenic soya beans in Argentina turns out to be a shocking indicator of just how dependent the country has become on the multinational agricultural corporation. The top political echelons, the dominating media and public opinion are all in shock; they feel helpless, and they suspect there is something significant outside their radar screens that threatens to change their lives…

Those of us in the Grupo de Reflexión Rural who so many times have tried to forecast the ominous future of soya monoculture, now ask ourselves whether Monsanto is jumping ship before a terrible rust disease hits… or perhaps before the predicted collapse of Argentinian agricultural soils materializes. In addition, we wonder if what we are facing is a massive blackmail strategy by the Kichner Government to modify the constitutional rights of farmers to save their own seed…

At any rate, let us recall that Monsanto’s big business in Argentina had nothing to do with any royalites on seeds; rather it centred on the massive sales of its star Roundup herbicide. We also recall that Felipe Solá, as Minister of Agriculture in ’96, and currently Governor of the Province of Buenos Aires, licensed Roundup Ready soya with the understanding that Argentinian farmers be exempt from patent royalties on Monsanto products. This shines light not only on Solá’s complicity with the corporation and the thrust to introduce RR soya, but also on the fact that at the time Monsanto was focusing on the bolsa blanca, or ‘white bag’ (referred to as ‘brown bag’ seed in North America), that is, encouraging the distribution of uncertified seed among farmers to accelerate the spread of RR soya.

This is exactly what Monsanto has been doing in Brazil. During the 1990s in the Sate of Río Grande do Sul, at the time when Governor Dutra of the PT boasted that he presided over the only territory free of transgenics, Monsanto was giving away glyphosate to those farmers who could produce a label proving they were using RR soya. Of course, these seeds were illegally purchased from Argentina. Monsanto was not worried about patent infringement because the goal was to strategically dominate the region with their products, or, in other words, appropriate the food sovereignty of the communities. Through the bolsa blanca exporters bought off the Argentine farmer by subsidizing their production. This is how soya production was and continues to be a profitable business in Argentina.

For years Monsanto looked away, indifferent, when the North American farm organizations lamented the unequal competition from the “Soya Republic”– where farmers did not pay for seed, where glyphosate cost a third of its US price, and where the government paid no attention whatsoever to the terrible impact of this production system on soils and ecosystems. For Monsanto we were THEIR territory, we were THEIR laboratory, where the poor and the indigent were fed though large donations of transgenic soya beans…

Now that they have access to all of the territory and now that they have made us dependent on this drug, they will charge for the seed patents, which in fact they have already been doing through the contracts that farmers sign, contracts that turn farmers merely into tenants for seeds they do not own.

However, they know only too well that when dealing with an open-pollinated crop like soya, control is out of reach because farmers can easily keep their own seed and because the absent State cannot even think about changing farmers’ tradition of seed exchange. It is more likely that Monstanto’s new business will centre on corn, sorghum, and transgenic RR oilseeds where hybrids prevailand farmers have no choice but to buy seed every season.... Argentina remains a forage nation and a laboratory country, whose Minister of Finance, Lavagna, has acknowledged without hesitation that his Ecolatina Consulting enjoys the patronage of Monsanto as its principal client.

As a result of the soya monoculture, Argentina is heading straight towards a massive catastrophe involving desertification, a widespread water table collapse, major population migration, disappearance of rural culture, massive deforestation, and a growing vulnerability to foreign trade linked to soya by-products.

– Jorge Eduardo Rulli, GRR Grupo de Reflexión Rural (Rural Reflection Group), Argentina, 21/1/04, translated by Ricardo Ramirez

“Republiqueta Sojera” (Soya Republic), is the name that NGOs in Argentina have used to warn the population of the dangers of the aggressive Roundup Ready soya expansion that has been sweeping across the country over the last 10 years. This name was used in an ironic way as a critique to the export oriented agricultural model being adopted.

But on December 27th 2003 an advertisement sponsored by Syngenta in the rural section of the Argentine “La Nación” newspaper came as a shock to us. It shows a map of the “República Unida de la Soja” (United Soya Republic) – a territory spanning Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia and Brazil that is covered by RR soya. ...

While Monsanto profits on seed, glyphosate and other increased pesticides sales, Syngenta has also found a niche in the RR soya business. In another advertisement in the same newspaper, Syngenta says “soya is a weed” in reference to the RR soya that is left behind from prior harvest and grows during the non-planting season. In order to solve this “weed” problem, they promote the use of the highly toxic paraquat marketed by Syngenta.

– Lilian Joensen, Grupo de Reflexión Rural

Argentina, once known as the world’s best beef producer and the breadbasket of the world, today is now sometimes called the Oil Republic or Soya Republic – the paradigm of an agricultural model based on the production of GM crops.

The effects can be seen in the disappearance of thousands of farming units, with consequent massiverural exodus to the cities; a large increase in the area of land devoted to cropping at the expense of pasturing cattle; increase in oilseed production, mainly soya, at the expense of traditional crops; and deforestation. Despite frequent warnings against RR soya monoculture, millions of hectares have been devoted to this oilseed, leading to an agriculture without farmers. The absence of protective national agricultural policies has led to the loss of phytogenetic patrimony [heritage of plant diversity].

At the beginning of the 1980s, world market prices for grains and oilseeds increased. Soon cattle raising/cropping cycles were abandoned in favour of a permanent crop cultivation system, which was more lucrative, since the production of soybean in rotation with wheat, maize or sunflower allowed 3 harvests in 2 years.

With the new global open economy, traditional agronomic production thus found itself severely affected by external market fluctuations. In 1991, at the start of the Menem administration, the internal monetary policy, commonly known as convertibility, further affected rural producers, who suddenly found that their grains previously valued in pesos, had the same value in US dollars.

These policies conspired to produce a complete lack of competitiveness for Argentinean primary exports. Without a national agricultural framework which could protect middle and small producers from external market fluctuations, farmers had to choose between quality production and variety, or the apparently cheap route offered by the biotechnology industry, namely the production of competitive commodities for export. In this way, Argentina lost crop varieties for which the country was market leader, such as Maíz Plata (Silver Maize) and Candeal wheat, and fell steeply into the production of GMOs, primarily RR soya.

In 1992 the then under-secretary of Agriculture, Carlos Ingaramo, indicated that 200,000 producers had to disappear from the rural areas and that productive units with less than 200 hectares were not viable to compete globally. These comments were consistent with the neoliberal model applied by the Menem administration during the ’90s. The preliminary results of the agricultural Census of 2002 shows farming production units reduced since 1988 by 24.5 %; there are now 103,405 fewer farms. There is also an enlargement of the these units, from 421 hectares in 1988 to 538 in 2002.

The greatest change in the agricultural model occurred in 1996 with the introduction of the RR soya bean. This introduced the so-called seeding pools (pooles de siembra), renting land from impoverished farmers to plant crops, invariably soya.

Small farmers, due to increasing interest rates and lower crop prices, are not able to stay in business (actually 24 millions acres are about to be auctioned by banks). As a temporary solution, farmers have access, as the last resort, to credits given by suppliers who will sell them a complete package, including GM seeds. Because commodity prices are lower every year, financial recovery is impossible despite large yields, so these small farmers frequently face bankruptcy. At best they still retain the land but have no way to get inputs, so they must offer their land for rent: every year it becomes a cheaper deal for the seeding pools.

Surveys performed during 2001 confirm that 7,000 families every year are being pushed off the land. The exodus of the rural population logically coincides with an enormous concentration in the ownership of land devoted to the production of commodities. As a counterpart, migration to the cities has produced a great increase in the poor and hungry urban population in the belts of misery of the great cities.

Although one of the main arguments in favour of GM crop production is that it reduces the use of herbicides, Argentina has proved the contrary. The package sold for RR soy production includes RR soybeans, machinery for no-tillage cultivation and three winter applications of glyphosate and 2,4D in chemical fallow. RR soya absorbs 32% of the distribution of pesticide sales, while maize, corn and sunflower absorb 25.5%. The rest is distributed among pasture, horticulture, fruit, citrus fruits, cotton, etc. It is a normal practice to deliver pesticides from aeroplanes. This has meant that many rural towns and cities are suffering from pesticide health consequences both in human populations and in their crop and animals.

While no-till agriculture was supposed to decrease soil erosion, it has meant substantial changes in the ecosystem, such as the appearance of new diseases, insects and pests, an increase in contamination, and emergence of resistance in weeds and insects.

According to some Argentine agronomists, another problem with this production system is the continuous nutrient extraction from the soil. This means that in 20 years, nitrogen deficiencies will limit yield in 60 to 70% of the cultivated areas of Argentina, while phosphorus deficiency will affect 70% of the cultivated areas and 60% in the case of the best soils. At present, increasing amounts of fertilisers are being used. Traditional cropping/cattle rotation, a natural and efficient system of allowing the soil to recover, is falling into disuse, with disadvantages both from the economical and ecological points of view.

If GM crops are meant to fight hunger in the world, the Argentinean case again proves that the opposite happens when this model is applied. Argentina has over 13,000,000 hectares of GM crops, mainly RR soya. This model has expelled people from the rural areas to the cities, pushing them into extreme poverty since they cannot produce their own food. In a country where poor people never died of hunger, since they were able to cultivate their crops and grow their animals, now hunger is a daily occurrence. The GM crop agricultural model needs almost no human handcraft. Machines can do almost all the work from sowing to harvest. RR soy may have won the competition against traditional high quality crops; this has also meant the loss of traditional crops such as diverse species of sweet potatoes or sweet maize, and has resulted in the closure of production units for the processing of these crops, leaving no jobs for people in those areas.

One such crop is lentils, which have always been an important part of our diet. Now we have to import them, for example from Canada, since we do not produce enough for ourselves. The same is true of peas. 150,000 of the 300,000 pre-existing dairy production units have been closed. Now Argentina is importing milk. Cotton production, in which Argentina used to be more than self sufficient, is not enough to cover the needs of the national textile industry and must be imported.

Food aid programs for the poor are based on RR soya, which has proved to have inhibitory effects on iron,calcium, zinc and B12 vitamin uptake. The concentration of phytoestrogens is also too high. A few years ago Argentina used to produce varied and healthy food for 8 times its population. Now, in ‘beef country,’ the poor are being fed with crops used for animal feed in the first world.

– Lilian Joensen and Stella Semino, Grupo de Reflexión
Rural, Argentina

 

#218: February 2004 TOC
Argentina: the last Roundup - how Roundup Ready soy is destroying Argentina's
  agriculture, ecology, and economy
More on Monsanto: Blackmail and other crutches, GE Wheat, Schmeiser vs. Monsanto
The state of (non)labelling in Canada
Stolen Seeds: a new publication - the Ram's Horn is proud to announce a piece of
  essential reading from Devlin Kuyek
About the Forum on the Patenting of Life /Forum sur le brevetage du vivant
Public Money pays for Biotech Industry PR: dogged researcher Brad Duplisea
  uncovers more details
GE Resistance in Japan: Ray Epp reports on new local initiatives in Japan