Roundup ready soybean in Latin America: a machine of hunger, deforestation and socio-ecological devastation

Roundup ready soybean in Latin America: a machine of hunger, deforestation and socio-ecological devastation

Miguel A. Altieri
University of California, Berkeley
Walter A. Pengue
University of Buenos Aires, Argentina

The biotech industry and their research allies celebrated in 2004 the continual expansion of biotech crops for the ninth consecutive year at a sustained double-digit growth rate of 20%, compared with 15% in 2003. The estimated global area of approved biotech crops for 2004 was 81.0 million hectares and this is considered a triumph because they claim that in 22 countries, biotech crops have met the expectations of millions of large and small farmers in both industrial and developing countries. They also claim that biotech crops are also delivering benefits to consumers and society at large, through more affordable food, feed and fiber that require less pesticides and hence a more sustainable environment ( James 2004). It is difficult to visualize how such biotechnological expansion has met the needs of small farmers or consumers when 60% of the global area of transgenic crops ( 48,4 million hectares) is devoted to herbicide resistant (roundup ready), a crop mostly grown by large scale farmers for export ( not for local consumption) and in importing countries devoted for animal feed for meat production consumed mostly by wealthier sectors of the population.

In Latin America, countries producing soybean include Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay and Uruguay. The expansion of soybean is driven by prices, government and agroindustrial support and importing countries demand, especially China, the world’s largest importer of soybean and soybean products, a market that encourages rapid proliferation of soybean production. Soybean expansion is accompanied by massive transportation infrastructure projects that unleash a chain of events leading to destruction of natural habitats over wide areas beyond to the deforestation directly caused by soybean cultivation. In Brazil soybean profits justified improvement or construction of 8 industrial water ways, 3 railway lines and an extensive network of roads to bring inputs and take away produce. These have attracted private investment in logging, mining, ranching and other practices with severe impacts on biodiversity not accounted for by any impact assessment study ( Fearnside 2001). In Argentina, the agroindustrial cluster area for transformation of soybean into oils and pellets is concentrated in the Rosario region on the Parana river, turning it into the largest soy transformation area of the world, with all the associated infrastructure and the environmental impacts that these entail.

Soybean expansion and Deforestation

The area of land in soybean production has grown at a rate of 3.2% , and soybean today occupies the largest area of any crop in Brazil with 21% of the total cultivated land. The area planted to soybean has increased by 2,3 million hectares since 1995 for an average increase of 320,000 hectares per year. Since 1961 soybean increased 57 times and production volume increased 138 times. In Paraguay soybeans are planted on more than 25 % of all agricultural land in the country and in Argentina soybean acreage reached in 2000 almost 15 million hectares producing 38,3 million metric tons. All these expansion is occurring dramatically at the expense of forests and other habitats. In Paraguay much of the Atlantic forest is being cut ( Jason 2004). In Argentina 118,000 hectares of forests have been cleared to grow soybean, in Salta about 160,000 hectares and in Santiago del Estero a record of 223,000 hectares. In Brazil, the Cerrado and the savannas are falling victim to the plow at a rapid pace.

Soybean and the expulsion of small farmers and loss of food security

Biotech promoters always cite the expansion of soybean acreage as a measure of successful adoption of the transgenic technology by farmers. But these data hides the fact that soybean expansion leads to extreme land and income concentration. In Brazil, soybean cultivation displaces 11 agricultural workers for every one finding employment in the sector. This is not new as in the 1970s, 2,5 million people were displaced by soybean production in Parana state and 0,3 million in Rio Grande do Sul. Many of these landless people moved to the Amazon where they cleared pristine forests pushed by structural forces. In the cerrado region where transgenic soybean is expanding there is relatively low displacement because the area is not widely populated ( Donald 2004).

In Argentina the situation is quite dramatic as 60 thousand farms went out of business while the are of roundup ready soybean almost tripled. In 1998 there were a total of 422,000 farms in Argentina while in 2002 there were 318,000 farms, a reduction of 24,5 %. In one decade soybean acreage increased in 126 % at the expense of lands devoted to dairy, maize, wheat and fruit production. In the 2003/2004 growing season, 13,7 million hectares of soybean were planted at the expense of 2,9 million hectares of maize and 2,15 million hectares of sunflowers (Pengue 2005). Thus by biotech industry standards huge increases in the soybean area cultivated and more than a doubling of yields per unit area are considered an economic and agronomic success; for the country such increases mean more imports of basic foods , therefore loss of food sovereignty, and for poor small farmers and consumers such increases only mean increased food prices and more hunger ( Jordan 2001).

Soybean expansion in Latin America is also related to biopolitics and the power of multinationals. The manner in which since in the period 2002-2004, millions of hectares of roundup ready soybean were planted in Brazil ( while a moratorium was still in effect) raises questions about how big multinationals maneuvers to expand their products over extensive areas in developing countries.In the early years of transgenic soybean introduction into Argentina, Monsanto did not charge royalties to farmers to use the technology. Now that farmers are hooked, the multinational is pressuring the government for payment of intellectual property rights, despite the fact that Argentina signed UPOV 78 which allows farmers to save seeds for their own use. Paraguayan farmers have just signed an agreement with Monsanto to pay the company $2 per metric ton. Trends to control the seeds used by farmers is increasing, despite the fact that the company claimed that it would not charge for royalties when the crop was just expanding in the mid 1990s.

Soybean cultivation and soil degradation

Soybean cultivation has always led to soil erosion, especially in areas where soybean is not part of a long rotation. Soil loss reaches an average of 16 t/ha in the US Midwest, a rate that is still greater than is sustainable, and it is estimated that in Brasil and Argentina soil loss levels average between 19-30 t/ha depending on management , slope and climate. No –till agriculture can reduce soil loss, but with the advent of herbicide resistant soybean, many farmers now cultivate in highly erodible lands . Farmers wrongly believe that with no till systems there is no erosion, but research shows that despite improved soil cover, erosion and negative changes in soil structure can still be substantial in highly erodible lands if weed cover is reduced.

Large scale soybean monocultures have rendered Amazonian soils unusable. In areas of poor soils, within two years of cultivation fertilizers and lime have to be applied heavily. In Bolivia, soybean production is expanding toward the east and many such soybean growing areas are already compacted and soil degradation is severe. 100,000 hectares of land with soils exhausted due to soybean were abandoned for cattle grazing, which in turn further degrades the land. As soils are abandoned, farmers move to other areas to once again plant soybeans and thus repeat the vicious cycle of soil degradation.

In Argentina intensive soybean cultivation has led to massive soil nutrient depletion. It is estimated that continuous soybean production has extracted about 1 million metric tons of Nitrogen and about 227,000 metric tons of Phosphorous. The cost to replenish such nutrient loss via fertilizers would cost an estimated US$ 910 million ( Pengue 2005). Increases of N and P in several basins of Latin America is certainly linked to the increase of soybean production in the various rivers’ watersheds.

A key technical factor in the rapid spread of soybean production in Brazil was the development of soybean-bacteria combinations with pseudosymbiotic relationships that allowed soybean production without fertilizers. This productive advantage of Brazilian soybeans can quickly disappear in the light of findings reporting direct toxic effects of the herbicide glyphosate on the N fixing rizhobium bacteria, which potentially would render soybeans to depend on chemical N fertilization. Moreover the common practice of converting uncultivated pasture to soybeans results in a reduction of the economically important rhizobia, again making soybean dependent on synthetic N.

Soybean monocultures and ecological vulnerability

Ecological research suggests that reduction of landscape diversity due to the expansion of monocultures at the expense of natural vegetation have historically led to insect pest outbreaks and disease epidemics. In such species poor and genetically homogenous landscapes insects and pathogens find ideal conditions to grow unchecked by natural controls. The result is increased used of pesticides which after a while are not effective due to the development of pest resistance or ecological upsets typical of the pesticide treadmill. In addition pesticides lead to major problems of soil and water pollution, elimination of biodiversity and human poisonings. . In the Amazon high humidity conditions under warm conditions induce fungal populations, resulting in the increased used of fungicides. In Brazilian regions under till soybean production, the crop is increasingly being affected by stem canker and sudden death syndrome. Soybean rust is a new disease increasingly affecting soybeans in South America, fueled by humid conditions and monoculture uniformity, rust commands increased fungicide applications. Since 1992 more than 2 million hectares are now infected by cyst nematodes. Many of these pest problems can be linked to the genetic uniformity and increased vulnerability of soybean monocultures, but also to direct effects of roundup on the soil ecology, through depression of micorrizhal fungal populations and elimination of antagonists that keep many soil-borne pathogens under control (Altieri 2004).

In Brazil 25 % of all pesticides are used in soybean, which in 2002 received about 50,000 metric tons of pesticides. As the soybean area rapidly expands, so does the growth in pesticide use which is increasing at a rate of 22% per year. While biotech promoters claim that one application of roundup is all that is needed for whole season weed control, studies show that in areas of transgenic soybean the total amount and number of herbicide applications have increased. In the USA the use of glyphosate went up from 6,3 million pounds in 1995 to 41,8 million pounds in 2000, and now the herbicide is used on 62% of the land devoted to soybeans. In Argentina roundup applications reached an estimated 160 million liter equivalents in the 2004 growing season. Herbicide usage is expected to increase as weeds start developing resistance to Roundup.

Yields of transgenic soybean average 2,3 to 2,6 t/ha in the region but 6% less than in conventional varieties , and are especially lower under drought conditions. Due to pleiotropic effects ( splitting of stems under high temperatures and water stress) transgenic soybean suffer 25% higher losses than conventional soybean. 72% of the yields of transgenic soybeans were lost in the 2004/2005 drought that affected Rio Grande do Sul and it is expected a 95% drop in exports with dramatic economic consequences. Most farmers have already defaulted on 1/3 of government loans.

Other ecological considerations

By creating crops resistant to its herbicides, biotech companies can expand markets for its patented chemicals. Observers gave a value of $75 million for herbicide-resistant crops in 1995 and by the year 2000 the market was approximately $805 million, representing a 61 percent growth. Globally, in 2002 herbicide resistant soybean occupied 36.5 million hectares making it by far the number one GE crop in terms of area ( James 2004). Glyphosate is cheaper than other herbicides, and although it is reducing the use of other herbicides in the final analysis, overall companies sell much more herbicide ( especially glyphosate) than before .The continuous use of herbicides and especially of glyphosate (also known as “Roundup” by Monsanto), which herbicide-resistant crops tolerate, can lead to serious ecological problems . It is well documented that when a single herbicide is used repeatedly on a crop, the chances of herbicide resistance developing in weed populations greatly increases. About 216 cases of pesticide resistance have been reported in one or more herbicide chemical families (Rissler and Mellon 1996)
Given industry pressures to increase herbicide sales, acreage treated with broad-spectrum herbicides will expand, exacerbating the resistance problem. As the area treated with glyphosate expands , the increased use of this herbicide will result in weed resistance, even if more slowly. This has already been documented with Australian populations of annual ryegrass, quackgrass, birdsfoot trefoil, Cirsium arvense, and Eleusine indica. (Altieri 2004) In the Argentinian Pampas 8 species of weeds , among them 2 species of Verbena and one species of Ipomoea, already exhibit resistance to glyphosate (Pengue 2005).

Herbicide resistance becomes more of a problem as the number of herbicide modes of action to which weeds are exposed become fewer and fewer, a trend that transgenic soybean reinforces due to market forces. In fact, weed populations can tolerate or “avoid” certain herbicides such as the case in Iowa where common waterhemp populations demonstrated delayed germination and have “avoided” planned glyphosate applications. The GE crop itself may also assume weed status in crops that follow. For example, in Canada, volunteer canola resistant to three herbicides (glyphosate, imidazolinone, and glufosinolate) has been detected, a case of “stacked” or “multiple” resistance, and now farmers have to resort to 2,4-D to control the volunteer canola. In northern Argentina, there are several so-called “strong weeds” than cannot be controlled with glyphosate, forcing farmers to resort to other herbicides.

Biotech companies claim that when properly applied herbicides should not pose negative effects on humans or the environment. Large scale cropping of GE crops encourages aerial application of herbicides and much of what is sprayed is wasted through leaching affecting soil microorganisms such as mycorrhizal fungi and even earthworms. But companies contend that glyphosate degrade rapidly in the soil, do not accumulate in ground water, have no effects on non-target organisms, leave no residue in foods and water or soil. Glyphosate has been reported to be toxic to some non target species in the soil—both to beneficial predators such as spiders, mites, and carabid and coccinellid beetles, and to detritivores such as earthworms, including microfauna as well as to aquatic organisms, including fish . Glyphosate is a systemic herbicide (it moves through the plant phloem) and is carried into the harvested parts of plants. Exactly how much glyphosate is present in the seeds of HT corn or soybeans is not known as grain products are not included in conventional market surveys for pesticide residues. The fact that this and other herbicides are known to accumulate in fruits and tubers because they suffer little metabolic degradation in plants, raises questions about food safety, especially now that more than 37 million pounds of this herbicide are used annually in the United States alone (Rissler and Mellon 1996). Even in the absence of immediate (acute) effects, it might take 40 years for a potential carcinogen to act in enough people for it to be detected as a cause. Moreover, research has shown that glyphosate seems to act in a similar fashion to antibiotics by altering soil biology in a yet unknown way and causing effects such as:

∑ Reducing the ability of soybeans and clover to fix nitrogen.
∑ Rendering bean plants more vulnerable to disease.
∑ Reducing growth of beneficial soil-dwelling mycorrhizal fungi, which are key for helping plants extract phosphorous from the soil.

In the farm-scale evaluations of herbicide resistant crops recently completed in the United Kingdom , researchers showed that reduction of weed biomass, flowering, and seeding parts under herbicide resistant crop management within and in margins of beet and spring oilseed rape involved changes in insect resource availability with knock-on effects resulting in abundance reduction of several true bugs, butterflies, and bees. Counts of predacious carabid beetles that feed on weed seeds were also smaller in transgenic crop fields. The abundance of invertebrates that are food for mammals, birds, and other invertebrates, were also found to be generally lower in herbicide resistant beet and oilseed rape. The absence of flowering weeds in transgenic fields can have serious consequences for beneficial insects (pest predators and parasitoids) which require pollen and nectar for survival and optimal efficiency. Reduction of natural enemies leads unavoidable to enhance insect pest problems.


Soybean expansion in Latin America represents a recent and powerful threat to biodiversity in Brazil, Argentina,Paraguay and Bolivia. Transgenic soybeans are much more environmentally damaging than other crops because in addition to the effects derived from the production methods, mainly heavy herbicide use and genetic pollution, they require massive transportation infrastructure projects ( waterways, highways, railways, ect) which impact ecosystems and make wide areas accessible to other environmentally unsound economic and extractive activities.

Production of herbicide resistant soybean leads to environmental problems such as deforestation, soil degradation, pesticide and genetic pollution, as well as to socio-economic problems such as severe concentration of land and income, expulsion of rural populations to the Amazonian frontier and to urban areas, compounding the concentration of the poor in cities. Soybean expansion also diverts government funds otherwise usable in education, health and in the search for alternative agroecological methods.

The multiple impacts of soybean expansion also reduce the food security potential of target countries as much land previously devoted to grains, dairy or fruits is now devoted to soybean for exports. As long as these countries continue to embrace neoliberal models of development and respond to demand signals ( especially China) from the globalized economy, the rapid proliferation of soybean will increase, and so will the associated ecological and social impacts.


Altieri, M.A., 2004 Genetic engineering in agriculture: the myths, environmental risks and alternatives. Food First Books, Oakland.

Donald, P.F. 2004 Biodiversity impacts of some agricultural commodity production systems . Conservation Biology 18:17-37

Fearnside, P.M. 2001 Soybean cultivation as a threat to the environment in Brazil . Environmental Conservation 28: 23-28

James, C 2004. Global review of commercialized transgenic crops: 2004. International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Application Briefs No 23-2002. Ithaca , New York

Jason, C 2004 World agriculture and the environment. Island Press. Washington

Jordan, J.F. 2001 Genetic engineering, the farm crisis and world hunger. BioScience 52: 523-529

Pengue, W. 2005 Transgenic crops in Argentina: the ecological and social debt. Bulletin of Science , Tecnology and Society 25: 314-322

Rissler, J and M. mellon 1996 The ecological risks of engineered crops . MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.

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