Argentina, the GM paradox

Argentina, the GM paradox

Argentina’s disastrous experience with genetically engineered crops should be an object lesson to developing countries which cling to the illusion that this technology will foster genuine development, says an activist.

By Lilian Joensen

ARGENTINA was once known as the grain barn of the world and the beef country. Today hunger and extreme poverty are a common sight throughout its cities. When travelling across the countryside, it strikes one that something has changed over the past few years. For the people in the city, it is difficult to point out exactly what is different. It just does not look like it used to. The actual causes have been kept hidden from the common citizen.
In the 1990s, during the neo-liberal government of Carlos Menem, the political economy stimulated by the IMF and World Bank led to privatisation of water, electricity, railways, oil, gas, mining, etc. The economy was informally dollarised under the so-called ‘convertibility plan’, which set the value of a peso (the national currency) equal to a dollar. It became cheaper to import, and the national industry did not endure competition and soon succumbed, while transnational capital was given free rein. Cuts to the public sector led to an extreme deterioration in the health and educational areas for the majority of the population.
Scientific research at universities and other public institutions was taken over by transnational biotechnology corporations, and an orgy of GM experimentation started to take place.
Soon the agro-industry (Monsanto, Aventis, Dow, Bayer, Cargill, etc) was let free to control Argentina’s agricultural politics. This happened with the support of the National Advisory Committee on Agricultural Biotechnology (CONABIA), which gave the green light to hundreds of GMO field trials across the country. Contracts with the biotech companies were passed through an Administrative Resolution without the participation of the Congress. While this happened, the population was kept ignorant of what was going on.

RRsoya monoculture

As a consequence, today Argentina is producing glyphosate-resistant soya (RRsoya) in over 13 million hectares of its territory. This enormous expansion of RRsoya monoculture has occurred at the expense of traditional high-quality crops and cattle production. A country that used to produce a surplus of varied and healthy food for eight times its population, today has to import milk, lentils, peas, cotton, etc.
RRsoya-based agriculture needs to be intensive and implies a package of GM seed, no tillage machinery and the weedicide, glyphosate. Smaller production units have been unable to survive competition. Over 500 rural towns have disappeared and the model has led to an agriculture system without farmers. Thousands of producers and land workers have been expelled from the rural areas to the cities, concentrating the marginal urban population in the so-called poverty belts. Land and capital concentration in the hands of companies related to agri-business are a main consequence. The corporations have acquired an immense power over national political decision-making, dominating the mass media too.
Many of the companies involved in RRsoya production are foreign. When they do not own the land, they rent it from farmers, often for only one season. They exploit the plots with no concerns about the future, deforesting, poisoning and exhausting the soil.
Argentina’s traditional agriculture was based on cropping-cattle rotation, which was a natural and efficient system of allowing the soil to recover. This system had advantages both from the economic and ecological points of view, since several crops could be cultivated each year, no fertilisers were used, and it minimised the use of pesticides and secured an important level of employment for the rural population.
Today, only seven years since RRsoya expansion started, the disastrous effects are obvious.

Environmental effects

Intensive farming of RRsoya increased the use of glyphosate from 28 million litres in 1997/98 to over 100 million litres this last season. The increased use of glyphosate has led to the emergence of resistant weeds. So far, no less than 14 species have been described which are tolerant to glyphosate, so now other herbicides are being used. Among them are 2,4D; 2,4DB and atrazine (this last chemical will be banned from use in the European Union in 18 months). Paraquat is recommended to be used during the chemical fallow period, so that RRsoya grains that have been left from the prior harvest do not grow out of the expected season. Paraquat is also banned in many countries, with Malaysia being the latest developing country to do so.
Due to the several insect plagues that affect RRsoya monoculture, endosulphan is one of the insecticides recommended by ‘experts’. Mirex is also being used.
Fumigation from aeroplanes is a common practice for companies involved in RRsoya production. This is done with no regard to wind, temperature or humidity conditions.


Communities all over the country are suffering the effects of agrotoxics. Their voices are starting to be heard, though there are efforts by agri-business to keep them silent by using paramilitary and local police forces to threaten the people. The companies usually sponsor most of the newspapers, radio and television programmes so the bigger media almost never reflect the reality of what is happening in the rural areas.
In Lomas Senes, in Formosa province in northern Argentina, peasants woke up one morning in February this year to find that all their crops had been destroyed overnight by aerial fumigation of a neighbouring RRsoya plantation. Typical poisoning symptoms were observed in the people and their animals, after a toxic cloud passed. Scientists from Formosa University were there to conduct studies and reported the damages. A judge forbade fumigations for six months. The producers disregarded the prohibition and the peasants sequestrated an aeroplane. After negotiation with the local police, they agreed to free the pilot, but kept the machine.
In the Ituzaingo quarter, in Cordoba city, some mothers started to organise themselves when they realised that abnormally many cases of leukaemia and other cancers as well as different uncommon diseases were affecting children and adults. After several months of protests, the Ministry of Health of Cordoba province had to perform studies and they found pesticide residues in water tanks on the houses, among other places. The Ituzaingo quarter is surrounded by RRsoya fields. The women of Ituzaingo have tried to stop the fumigations several times and they have been threatened by anonymous telephone calls telling them to stop the resistance.
Dr Dario Gianfelici, a rural medical doctor in Parana city in Entre Rios province, has been denouncing a significant increase in abnormal pregnancies and birth defects in the population he has been seeing. He also observed the same symptoms in animals in the area. He links these abnormalities directly to the fumigation of surrounding RRsoya fields.
Studies conducted by professionals from a maternity hospital in Buenos Aires province found pesticide residues in mother milk in 90.5% of the cases.


The Yungas forest comprises 2% of the Argentine territory but it holds 50% of the country’s biodiversity. Prognoses are indicating a serious threat of extinction to the forest in five years if deforestation due mainly to RRsoya and sugarcane continues at the prevailing rate.
Deforestation in the Yungas has also undermined the efforts taken by health workers to prevent vector-borne diseases such as tegumentary leishmaniasis. This disease has reached epidemic levels in Salta province several times, since 1997. This is one more example of the effect of bad agricultural practices, led by the companies’ desire for quick profits, and the costly consequences for the state and the people in the Third World countries.
Deforestation in north Argentina and around the Salado River basin, as well as soil impermeability due to deterioration by pesticides used in no tillage chemical fallow, are part of the main causes that led to the great floodings that affected the central and northern regions of Argentina this last year.
The whole country watched, with the deepest sadness and astonishment, how hour by hour, the waters covered the roofs of the houses in the old traditional city of Santa Fe in the province that first chose the RRsoya pathway. People ran away with their dogs in their arms. Children took only their school homework in the hurry, crying for their lost pets. People who had escaped the currents walked in shock like zombies not knowing what to do or where to go, trying to find their relatives. All these are images that will remain in our memories for a long time.
Further up north, the peasants of Santiago del Estero (MOCASE) have been resisting the RRsoya invasion in their province, though local police and paramilitary forces have been kidnapping, torturing and killing them. Despite the fact that the forests where they have lived for generations are being set on fire in order to force them to leave their land for some companies to plant RRsoya, the peasants are determined to stay and not give up. They know that if they leave, what awaits them is a life of misery and hunger in the cities. They belong to the forest. They are part of it and they are taking care of it. The forest feeds their bodies and their souls and is part of their culture. They know that. They also know that if they had not been there to defend it, today nobody would know and trees and animals would have been devastated to make way for more RRsoya madness.

Food security and sovereignty

In Argentina, varied crops were cultivated according to the different characteristics of each region. Diverse industrial food production was also dependent on the various forms of crop and cattle production. This secured jobs for the people in rural areas. Though the people were poor and the system unfair, at least food was not a problem. Not even in the cities. Diverse food meant also diverse cultures throughout the country. And mainly, farmers kept the seeds.
Through the commoditisation and intensification of agriculture, food variety was lost. Farmers could not afford the machines required for no tillage so they started to rent their land to private companies who decided what to pay for them to produce. Farmers lost access to the seeds. Tens of thousands became indebted to the agri-companies which themselves provided loans and acquired the land. Local markets were not profitable, and since the global market required quantity and not quality, RRsoya won out.
It is important to point out that soya has never been part of the Argentine food culture. RRsoya expansion meant the irreversible loss of high-quality and diverse food production, both for the local market and for export.
Today Argentina has to import food that was traditionally produced and consumed in the country. Food has become extremely expensive for the population. For those who are employed, the salaries have not increased since the 2001 economic collapse. But food prices have increased, affected by the currency devaluation. This has meant that 54% of the Argentine population, which has been characterised for decades as consisting of a strong middle class, live today below the poverty line.
Cotton production has also decreased to the point that it must be imported, affecting the incipient textile industry that started to grow since devaluation. While the needs of the national industry are estimated to be 130,000 tons, this year’s cotton harvest could only provide half of it. Conversion from cotton production to RRsoya is responsible for this.
Hunger and under-nourishment are a major problem today in Argentina. Food aid programmes for the poor are based on RRsoya, though soya has proved to have inhibitory effects on iron, calcium, zinc and B12 vitamin uptake. The concentration of phytoestrogens is also too high. And some families have nothing else other than RRsoya to eat. A few years ago, Argentina used to produce varied and healthy food for its population many times over. Today, in the beef country the poor are being fed with crops used for animal feed in the First World.
Argentina is today locked in a vicious circle. RRsoya produces hunger, and to solve this problem more RRsoya is produced, since the whole economy has become dependent on it. The newly elected government is realising that RRsoya monoculture is not a viable system, but the biotechnology corporations have taken over Argentina’s food production. What the government does not realise yet is that the situation cannot be defined as a temporary crisis – it is a catastrophe. Deep structural changes in the national agronomic policies are needed, directed to the internal market, and favouring small production units and the industry related to them.
The Secretary of Agriculture is proposing to force by law a return to cropping-cattle rotation. The no tillage-RRsoya producers associated with the agri-industry are fighting back. They have the seeds, the land and the machinery and they decide what and how to produce.

The paradox

The biotech lobby has since the beginning proposed GM production as the way to reduce pesticide use and increase food production to solve the problem of hunger in the Third World.
That they chose Argentina of all the Third World countries, is the great paradox. The surface area of Argentina is 2,780,400 km2 and the last census showed a total population of 36,260,130 (though over 89% of the people live in the cities today). Hence Argentina is not overpopulated. Argentina did not traditionally use chemical pesticides and fertilisers and the people did not starve. The country had a sound agricultural production system of varied and healthy food that provided enough to feed its population and a considerable surplus of quality crops and animal feed for export.
Today poisoning with agrotoxics, deforestation and starvation have become the main problems, and Argentina finds itself trapped in an agricultural model that is defined by the needs of agri-business and not of the people. All common sense has been lost. To free itself from this trap, if possible, will take years at least. Even if the biotech transnationals left the country, Argentina will have to recover the seeds and the soil, which has been rendered infertile by the intensive production required for RRsoya.
The importance of the Argentine GM experiment as the greatest failure ever tried in the Third World cannot be stressed enough. GM is a dangerous threat to the developing countries and the Argentine case must be held out as an example not to be followed ever by other developing countries, especially the poor ones. GM increases the use of agrotoxics. GM makes the Third World countries dependent on the biotech corporations. GM in the Third World means only huge and quick profits for agri-business and hunger, death and dependence for the people.
The world cannot go on talking about potential risks. What the Argentine case can testify to today after only seven years of massive GM experimentation all over the country is: Do not follow the GM pathway. Our experience is an example of what must not be done.

Dr Lilian Joensen is a member of the Grupo de Reflexi¢n Rural in Argentina. She worked as a molecular biologist with the Dr Mario Fatala Chaben National Institute of Parasitology in Argentina from 1991 to 2003. Her area of research is Chagas’ disease, a vector-borne parasitic disease that affects the poor in rural areas in Latin America.


1. Argentina: barbecho químico y una nueva maleza. Ing. Agr. Adolfo Boy, GRR, June 2003
2. Transgénicos y fracaso del modelo agropecuario argentino. Por Ing. Agr. Adolfo Boy, 2003
3. Expansión de la soja en Argentina.Globalización, Desarrollo Agropecuario e Ingenier¡a Genética: Un modelo para armar. Walter A. Pengue, 2001
7. Duane J Gubler. Resurgent Vector-Borne Diseases as a Global Health Problem. Emerging Infectious Diseases.
8. Salomón O D et al. Leishmaniosis tegumentaria en un Area con niveles epidémicos de transmisión, Salta, Argentina, 1998. Medicina (Buenos Aires) 2001; 61: 284-290
10. http://www.argentina.indymedia.
11. 0010.htm
12. Der Parsehian, S ; Grandi, C. Contaminantes organoclorados en leche materna en Argentina. Libro de resúmenes del 33er Congreso Argentino de Pediatr¡a, Mar del Plata, 1 al 4 de Octubre del 2003

articles post