Argentina: The Track Record of GMOs

According to news reports, FAO officials accept that ending hunger will take several more years, yet there are pertinent parts of that reality that are not reported, such as the falsity of claims that the spread of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is “the only answer to hunger in the Third World”.

Argentina is currently living through the reality of the interaction between free trade, biotechnology and foreign debt (WTO/GMOs/IMF). The current situation is not the result of the “lack of capacity of backward farmers who reject technology”, on the contrary, the entire world is aware of the productive capacity of the fertile soil of the world’s largest pampas and of the agricultural tradition of the country that was once know as the “world’s granary”.

In the context of the mandates of the WTO, globalization favours export production, agriculture at an industrial scale, at low cost, commodities that have multiple uses, and that are managed by large companies that call themselves “food agribusiness”. This type of production is promoted in Argentina at high levels of government and is a component of the economic school of thought that assures that, by this production model, burdensome external debt can be paid.

As a result of the opening of the Argentinean economy, implemented beginning in 1990, agricultural producers witnessed the entry into the country of food products (many of them subsidized in their country of origin) at a price that made it impossible to compete against them in the framework of Argentina’s convertibility plan, which artificially placed the peso at a par with the US dollar.

As the area under cultivation expanded, a first effect was the abandonment of the mixed farming systems upon which sustainability was based: the rotation of crops and cattle (which recover soil fertility, providing security in the long run). Then, fences, mills, and ranching structures began to be removed, and land rapidly entered into a process of permanent crop production, in lots comprised of several small to medium farms (50 to 100 ha.) worked by a third party who leases the land in exchange for a percentage of the soya harvest. These contractors own bigger and faster machinery, which results in severe
erosion of the fertile pampas.

In the process, traditional agricultural market sectors have changed. Regional economies for local food products, such as vegetable gardens and dairy farms, have given over productive land to soya production.

The soya expansion has directly generated rural unemployment and, indirectly, disrupted markets for traditional products such as processed tomatoes, peas, lentils, sweet potatoes (Ipoema batatas), and sweet and starchy maize (Zea mays).

In the midst of this crisis of traditional production, Monsanto released a study on the acceptance of GMOs by farmers from several countries. According to the survey, conducted a year earlier by the American company Doane Marketing Research, Argentinean farmers showed greater acceptance of Round-up Ready than their American counterparts (Patiño 1998). Proselytized during two decades by research and agricultural extension institutions under the spell of the paradigms of the Green Revolution, Argentinean farmers were deemed the most receptive to promises of an agriculture based on “lower cost, lower effort, and less use of toxic agricultural chemicals to overcome their own crisis and world hunger.”

In 1996, Round-up Ready soya (genetically modified to resist applications of glyphosate) was released and thus, the promises made by the promoters of genetic engineering to the Argentinean farmers began to be put to the test. Back then, Argentinean soya production consisted of 13 million tons in an area planted to approximately 7 million hectares.
No-till farming commenced, promising to reduce the soil erosion caused by continuous agriculture. No-till farming and the use of glyphosate were part of the technological package that was immediately adopted. The first seeds resistant to Round-up (the brand name of Monsanto’s glyphosate) sold out, with the farmers that still remained in the fields and the contractors the first to adopt the no-till/GMO package.

However, in the 1999-2000 growing season, while the area under soya cultivation grew by 8%, there was a decrease of 16% in the sale of seeds. The explanation, known by everyone in the field, but that nobody wanted to talk about, was brown bagging (seed kept by farmers themselves for the next crop), a traditional recourse to reduce costs in crops such as soya, in which traits of the variety are inherited.

Following a complaint by North American farmers, the General Accounting Office of the United States (GAO) sent a commission to Argentina. The investigation revealed that in 1999 the price of RR soya seed in Argentina was US $12 to $15, while in the USA the same amount was priced at $20 to $23. Monsanto concedes that it charged more for soya seed in the USA but argued that the difference was unavoidable due to “weak protection of intellectual property rights and loose implementation of seed legislation in Argentina.” According to Monsanto, between 25% – 50% of Argentinean soya seed is sold in violation of the law, depreciating the price of RR soya in Argentina (GAO 1998).

Monsanto had patented its RR soya in the USA, but hadn’t done so in Argentina. The American Soy Association (ASA), source of the complaint that sparked the GAO investigation, demanded Monsanto suspend the provision of “free technology” in Argentina, while US farmers were paying a $6.50 premium per 25 kilogram bag of RR soya seed sold there.

After GAO released its report, St. Louis Dispatch journalist Bill Lambrecht reported that the ASA requested Monsanto to refund over $300 million to American farmers. Monsanto said no.

As result of the GAO report, in 2000 Monsanto patented its soya in Argentina. However, the strategy applied by Monsanto and its local subsidiaries – such as Nidera – was to allow farmers to multiply their seeds and thus flood the Argentinean fields with RR soya, due to its convenience in eliminating the requirement for labour. On the other hand, in 1996 glyphosate had its patent in force.

According to a survey conducted by the INTA Extension and Experimentation Unit and Cordoba’s College of Agronomy Engineers, the main factor in the adoption of genetically modified soy varieties was the belief that they reduce the cost of production (93% of respondents). In the survey, conducted among 80 farmers from the departments of Marcos Juarez and Union, the second reason for the adoption of RR soy (cited by 71% of respondents), was “savings in time” (del Pino, 1999). This reason is related to “convenience”, the term used by Pengue (1999) in his research on no-till farming.

In the specialized magazine Márgenes Agropecuarios (September 1, 1998, p. 38), the total cost per hectare of group IV no-till high tech soy in the north of Buenos Aires was US $214.7 using regular seed, and $243.4 for RR seed. With this information, is difficult to agree with those surveyed who claim to have lower costs.

In Argentina as well in the USA, seeds are the input with greatest relative impact over costs. Most remarkable is that, looking at the detailed cost, the gross margin for RR soya is US $288.9 per hectare, compared to $314.6 for regular seed, as reported in the publication.

In reality, it is clear that the reduction in costs was achieved thanks to brown bagging and to the elimination of labour in the tasks of field preparation and planting of soya.

Another fact that is not explained when talking about cost savings with RR soya is that, after the expiry of the glyphosate patent, the chemical began to be imported from China. Formulated locally for spraying, the off-patent Chinese glyphosate resulted in a 50% reduction of price for the farmer.

In mid-2002 Monsanto, which had opened a plant for the local production of glyphosate in the city of Zárate a few years before, sued 13 small companies selling Chinese-produced glyphosate, alleging dumping. As a result, these companies have halted the imports and it is foreseen that the US $3.50 price per litre will double. The price of Monsanto’s formulation and that of Nidera (its domestic subsidiary) as well as its new brand, Zamba, is set around US $7.50.

Weeds have multiplied as tolerance and resistance to glyphosate has increased, resulting in more frequent herbicide applications using higher spray concentrations. Sometimes very heavy applications of glyphosate are not enough during cultivation, which has resulted in the return of old herbicides, such as 2,4 D, to improve weed control. After harvest, RR soya itself turns into weeds that need to be controlled with herbicides, including the highly toxic Paraquat, banned in many countries.

It is well known that small and medium-scale Argentinean farmers are going through a financial crisis, with no access to credit and no possibility of using cheap seed. The farmers have been compelled to accept the ‘technology use/grower agreements’, offered by the seed companies. In these agreements, farmers pledge part of the their harvest in return for seed. This “solution” offered to the farmer has increased the flood of production. Persistence in the farmers’ tradition of producing their own seed was no longer possible, and farm seizures by government organizations, such as the National Institute of Seeds (INASE) increased. INASE was dismantled in 2000, but reconstituted this year, perhaps to serve the interests of multinationals. Now, the origin of bags of seeds must be justified, either with a sales receipt or declaration and payment of royalties. Otherwise, the seeds are confiscated.

Within the new paradigm of production that mandates growing at a large scale in order to reduce costs and maximize benefits, a new actor has emerged in the rural sector. These new entities are called “farming pools”, and they are fuelled by capital and people from outside the farming sector. The “farming pools” manage several thousands of hectares, some owned and some under cash lease, and produce very large amounts of soya.

Meanwhile, hunger is increasing in one of the planet’s more fertile countries. The food crops that Argentina used to know how to produce have been wiped out by a flood of soya, whose production grew 74.5% between 1996 and 2002. In the same period, official figures show decreases in the area sown with the following food crops: Rice: -44.1%, corn: -26.2%, wheat: -3.5%.

In the dairy sector, there was an effort by the research, development and extension institutes to improve production through the adoption of cutting edge technology. Dairy farmers assumed significant loans to improve cattle genetics, to acquire milking machines, to improve sanitary conditions and to establish pastures. However, without the protection of the state and at the mercy of pitiless globalization, they were unable to compete. In 1998 there were 30,141 diary exporters in Argentina. By 2002, only 15,000 remained. RR soya’s takeover of productive capacity has reached the point that Argentina now imports milk from Uruguay.

No-till farming, which expanded with the introduction of GMOs, is also very questionable as a sustainable practice. It has raised pests to critical levels, including nematodes (Baigorri et al, 1998), snails (Fernandez 1998; Zelarayán 1999), and the pill bug (Armadillium vulgare, reported by Trumpere & Linares 1999). This has led to an increase in the use of toxic inputs in no-till farming. It’s incredible, but moluscicides (carbamates, etc.) are now being used. And, surely, poisons for crustaceans will be deployed to control the pill bug.

We will shortly see biotechnology proposed that will include a gene against each of these pests, again using a reductionist approach to the complicated phenomena of these pests (Altieri 1998).

It is absurd to propose that Argentina is an example of successful adoption of GMOs. In this essay we have tried to summarize how the promises to Argentinian farmers were not fulfilled.

With RR soya, a high level of glyphosate is used, 10 times the amount applied at the outset of no-till farming. Additional herbicides have been added, such as the hormone disruptor 2,4D, which poses grave human health risks as well as paraquat, which is no longer used in the First World.

That Round-up Ready soya costs less to produce is an assertion that can no longer be proven because conventional soya production no longer exists. The practice of brown bagging – the farmer’s primary defence – continues, though it is now illegal and persecuted by authorities.

The de-protection of production of traditional food crops has generated unemployment, depopulation, expulsion and the migration of more than 250,000 rural families in the last 14 years. Their lands have passed into the hands of financial institutions that, working in “farming pools” concentrate millions of hectares into soya production.

Rural depopulation adds to the difficulties of urban centres, where industry is paralyzed, and the rural people relocated there have no means of escape from hunger and malnutrition.

For Argentina, genetically modified seeds are seeds of contradiction.

Altieri, M. 1998 Riesgos ambientales de los cultivos transgénicos University of California at Berkeley.

Baigorri, H. Y otros 1998 Estrategias para control de una superplaga. Super Campo Nº 41 February, p. 78 -81.

Benbrook, Charles. 1999. Where Is the Biotechnology Revolution Taking Oklahoma Agriculture and Will Farmers Be Happy When They Get There? Presentation before the Special Committee on the Agricultural Economy of the State of Oklahoma, 4 November.

Del Pino, Andrés.1999.¿Que tendrán las RR.? Mercado Rural, Nº 14, noviembre, p. 3.

Fernandez, G 1998 Cuidar el suelo para alimentar el mundo. Super Campo Nº 49, October, p. 38-43.

GAO 1998. Prices of Genetically Modified Seeds GAO/RCED/NSIAD -00-55 B-284201

Patiño, Javier P. 1998 Se abren las tranqueras para el maíz transgénico. Forrajes & Granos Journal Año 3 Nº 26 February, p. 107-110.

Pengue, Walter. 1999 Transgenic soybeans: Facing a sensitive Market. XXXVII Brazilian Conference of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology “The Agribusiness of Mercosul and The World Economy” First SOBER/IAAE Joint Symposium Foz do Iguacu – Paraná – Brazil August.

Pengue, Walter. 1998 Transgenic soybeans, no tillage and integrated pest management: Technological and environmental changing ASAE International meeting. Paper Nº 981038.

Trumpere. y M.Linares 1999 Bicho Bolita Nueva Amenaza para la Soja, Super Campo Nº 59 Agosto, p. 24-27).

Zelarrayán, E. 1999 Nemátode del Quiste. Una nueva plaga amenaza a la soja. INTA Desarrollo Rural del NOA Año III, Febrero 1999, p 2-3.

Translated and adapted from the Spanish.

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