The High Costs of GM Soy


Dear Friends and colleagues,

RE: The High Costs of GM Soy

The rapid adoption of GM soy may have brought about wealth to those who grow the crop but the “green gold” is also the source of despair to many living in its midst and to the environment.

Since GM soy came onto the scene in South America it has become common to hear of reports of people suffering from the devastating consequences of herbicide intoxication. Most of the GM soy grown is resistant to the herbicide RoundUp which therefore allows for its widespread use to kill weeds without harming the soy crop.

Besides the health effects the enthusiasm for the crop has also meant that more and more land is needed, often crowding out many rural communities and indigenous peoples from their land as well as resulting in encroachment on forests and natural habitats leading to biodiversity loss.

Such effects are happening in Paraguay (Item 1) and Argentina (Item 2) but the story is easily replicated across many parts of South America where GM soy has come to rule the vast lands in the continent.

With best wishes,

Third World Network
131 Jalan Macalister,
10400 Penang,
Website: and To subscribe to other TWN information mailing lists:


Item 1

GM soy: the high cost of the quest for ‘green gold’
Louise Gray
The Telegraph, 17 May 2011

*Scientists and villagers in rural Paraguay are questioning the health and environmental impact of GM soy. Louise Gray reports.

The green shack where Petrona Villasboa lives in Itapua is surrounded by shimmering fields. It represents a lucrative golden harvest for some but, for this grieving mother, it has become a symbol of death. The crop that dominates this impoverished area of rural southern Paraguay is genetically modified (GM) soy, and she blames it for her son’s death. “Soy destroys people’s lives,” Petrona says. “It is a poison. It is no way to live.”

Sitting outside her home, the mother of eight describes the day in January 2003 when 11-year-old Silvino Talavera arrived home. He had cycled to the stalls by the nearest main road to buy some meat and rice for a family meal.

“I was washing clothes down by the river, and he came to tell me that as he’d ridden along the community road, which runs through the soy fields, he’d been sprayed by one of the ‘mosquitoes’,” she says. (”Mosquitoes” are what locals call the pesticide or herbicide crop-spraying machines pulled by tractors.) “He smelt so bad that he took his clothes off and jumped straight in the water.”

Petrona did not think much more about it. For peasant communities living amid the soy fields, chemical spraying is a frequent occurrence. But later that day, she says the whole family fell ill after eating the food that Silvino had bought.

“Silvino was violently sick. He said, ‘Mummy, my bones ache’ and then his skin went black’,” she says.

By the time they had begged a lift to the nearest hospital. Silvino was unable to move. His stomach was pumped, but he had lost consciousness. Petrona was told her son was ”paralysed by intoxication”. All doctors could do was to offer pain relief. Within a few hours he was dead.

His family were in no doubt that his death was caused by his exposure to the crop spray, but no autopsy was carried out. It was only after years of campaigning that Petrona managed to have the case heard in court. In 2006, two farmers were each sentenced to two years in jail for manslaughter. According to Petrona, the men, who are her neighbours, have never served their sentence, and she continues to fight for justice.

Now Silvino’s story has been taken up by environmentalists concerned about the spread of GM crops in parts of the world where communities have little power to fight back when big agri-businesses arrive in town.

The latest figures from the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications show that almost 150 million hectares of land was planted with GM crops last year, 10 per cent more than in 2009. The fastest growing areas are in Brazil, Argentina and other South American countries where GM soy grows fast, needs little input and is in demand. In 2010, some 33 million tons of soy (GM and non-GM) were exported to Europe, mostly for animal feed. Britain took three million tons, but the Food Standards Agency is unable to say how much was GM.

The economies of these developing countries are receiving a boost, but groups such as Friends of the Earth (FoE) are concerned by this “soya boom”. It is not only the “Frankenfoods” fears about the long-term effects of transgenic seeds in the food chain. FoE claims that “green gold” is displacing small farmers from their land and may even be poisoning communities.

On a recent visit to Paraguay with FoE, I saw trees burning in areas of deforestation and met people who claim to have been “poisoned” by chemicals used to grow GM crops.

Over the past 12 months in Paraguay, the area planted with soy has grown to a record 2.6 million hectares, and most of it is GM. The World Land Trust estimates that more than 90 per cent of the Atlantic Rainforest in the south has been lost to make way for crops, taking with it thousands of unique bird and plant species and endangered animals, such as the jaguar.

Now agri-businesses and large-scale farmers are targeting the Gran Chaco, an area of dry forest that is just as important to wildlife. In a short flight over the vast area, there was clear evidence of deforestation, in the long lines of trees felled for burning.

The impact on communities is also cause for concern, according to FoE. Thousands of people claim to have been driven off the land that has sustained them for centuries. In the main square in the capital Asuncion, indigenous people have set up camp, and tarpaulin shacks by the sides of the road are a common sight now. FoE estimates that 100,000 people have been driven into the urban slums because of the expansion of soy production in Paraguay.

In Itakyru, in the east of the country, a forest community claims that poisons “rained from the sky”, resulting in women and children being taken to hospital.

Amnesty International has confirmed that a number of communities have complained that aerial spraying is being used to force people to leave their homes so that the land can be reclaimed for soy production. This has resulted in civil disturbance, with armed men brought in to guard crops.

Dr Miguel Lovera, head of Paraguay’s environment agency, Senave, says aerial spraying should not have been carried out in areas where indigenous people were living. He also agrees Silvino was certainly killed by ”acute intoxication with pesticides”.

A small Paraguayan 2006 study reported in the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics found women living within 1km of sprayed fields were twice as likely to give birth to a child with deformities.

Dr Lovera’s greatest concern about the GM soy boom his country is enjoying is the irresponsible use of chemicals used to protect the GM crops from weeds and infestation.

Most of the GM soy planted in Paraguay is a variant known as RoundUp Ready Resistant, which is resistant to a common weed killer, glyphosate. Farmers can use it without harming the crop, and biotech companies claim they use less because only weeds are targeted.

Dr Lovera says the amount of pesticide used in Paraguay has grown tenfold over the past 10 years to 200 million tons in 2006. This is not a problem in itself as glyphosate, if used as directed, is safe, according to manufacturers. But Dr Lovera says that the huge profits to be made from growing GM soy, local corruption and a lack of regulation is driving many farmers to buy cheaper brands, mixing chemicals with no idea of the consequences, and spraying near people’s homes.

He is leading the Paraguayan Government’s efforts to stop farmers spraying within fifty metres of people’s homes, in a strong wind or in high temperatures.

“The picnic is over,” he says. “Farmers should start being serious and professional, and comply with the law.”

British consumers have a role to play, too, according to Oskar Rivas, the Environment Minister in Paraguay’s new socialist government. GM soy might not be grown in the UK but it is part of our daily diet. A recent investigation by The Daily Telegraph found that every supermarket in Britain stocks meat and dairy from animals that could have been fed GM soy, as well as possibly being used in brands including Cadbury and Unilever.

“You have the right to demand cheap milk and meat but you also have the right to demand milk and meat from environmentally sound sources,” says Señor Rivas.

While Sr Rivas accepts it is too late to stop GM being grown in Paraguay, he insists that more non-GM could also be grown. He points to the lead taken by Parana state in Brazil, where the local government is promoting non-GM soy as a premium crop.

New initiatives, such as the Round Table on Responsible Soy, backed by the World Wildlife Fund, will encourage this sort of production by issuing a new label for soy – including GM – in a sustainable way. Some British supermarkets are already signing up. In addition, Friends of the Earth International is working with a local charity, Sobrevivencia, to teach communities environmental law and organic farming techniques.

“At the moment we are all losing out,” says Paraguayan Sr Rivas. “With a different structural process we could all win.”


Item 2

15 years of GM soybeans in Argentina
The true cost of monoculture
Dario Aranda and Nina Holland
Mondiall News, 7 June 2011

*Intoxication, massive clearing, loss of biodiversity, forced evictions, land concentration and murder. The dark sides of 15 years of soy monoculture, a model driven by businesses and governments.

The only scientific evidence for the approval of GM soy in Argentina were research data provided by Monsanto. Monsanto produces both soy seed as well as the herbicide Roundup (glyphosate), a product that GM soy has been made resistant to. The “scientific” dossier with data on Roundup Ready soy’s safety counts only 146 pages. The approval took place in record time: 81 days during the summer of 1996. Since then, RoundupReady soy is cultivated on a large scale – and the use of Roundup has also increased exponentially.

On Monday the 21st of March 2011, four days before the fifteenth anniversary of the approval, the Argentine Ministry of Agriculture sent out a press release that had been long-awaited by agribusiness: “The 2010/2011 grain harvest exceeds the magic limit of 100 million tonnes.”
For years, it had been the dream of pesticide producers, grain traders, soy producers and the Ministry’s civil servants to reach this milestone. Today soy represents half of this harvest, 50 million tonnes. The surface cultivated with soy has increased from 6 to 19 million hectares, which represents 56% of the cultivated area in Argentina.

Soy exports have an annual return of 16,000 million dollars, but there are also other, less widespread consequences: 190 million liters of glyphosate are sprayed and there is an exponential increase in deforestation. 200,000 families were driven from their territories and there are conflicts over eight million hectares between soy producers on one side and peasants and indigenous peoples on the other. However, this production model is promoted as an economic success, and now even as “responsible”.

The Soy Economy: Profits for the few

This economic model is extremely dependent on soy production. The model is driven by large companies and transnational corporations that form an ‘agribusiness system’”. A large part of this model is controlled by a small number of companies and individuals”, explain Miguel Teubal and Thomas Palmisano in their book on the large influence of the soy sector on Argentine economy and politics . These are export companies such as Cargill and ADM, big soy producers like Grupo Los Grobo, seed companies as Monsanto and Syngenta, and investment groups called “sowing pools”.

Based on data from the Ministry of Agriculture, the economists provide precise figures on soy as an economic phenomenon: between 1997 and 2008 exports increased from $3.2 billion to $16.3 billion. The researchers point out that a handful of companies account for 85 percent of the
business: Cargill, Noble Argentina, ADM, Bunge, LDC-Dreyfus, AC Toepfer, Nidera, Molinos Rio de la Plata, AGD and Vicentín.

“It was very convenient for the government to promote the soy model, because it improved the trade balance as well as tax collection, very necessary to meet external debt payment obligations”, stated Teubal and Palmisano. A large conflict on soy export taxes arose between the government and “el campo” (that is: agribusiness). But both conflicting parties had high interests in maintaining the soy model, which therefore remained untouched.

On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, in the European Union, more than 40 million tonnes of RoundupReady soy is annually imported from Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. This has been made very attractive because of an import tax of 0%, a result of historic trade negotiations between the USA and the EU. Cheap soy is mainly intended for factory farming. European and foreign markets are inundated by cheap meat, eggs and milk, which directly affects small farmers. Furthermore, factory farming causes severe environmental pollution.

Toxic rain

Scientific evidence is strong and consistent enough to recognize that exposure to pesticides increases the risk of an adverse impact on human health,” states the final declaration of the First Meeting of Doctors of “Pueblos Fumigados” (sprayed villages), organized by Córdoba’s National University (UNC) in August 2010. This was the first time that a state university organized such a meeting. Molecular biologists, geneticists, epidemiologists, endocrinologists, and other medical specialists from ten provinces and six universities presented their work during two days. These experts linked the use of agrochemicals with different types of cancer, spontaneous abortions, birth defects and fertility problems through national and international research, and patient medical records.

They recalled that Argentina uses 300 million liters of chemicals each year, which is estimated to have a direct negative impact on 12 million people. They demanded that the national government ban aerial spraying and restrict ground spraying, and called for urgent implementation of the precautionary principle which is contained in Argentine law. This means that in case of possible environmental damage protective measures should be taken.

About a hundred villages situated in soy areas, united in the “Paren de Fumigar” campaign (Stop the Spraying), have denounced the environmental and health effects of agrochemicals for more than a decade. Manifestations, road blockades, information campaigns and court filings have resulted in several important victories: the Court has already banned glyphosate spraying in te proximity of villages in the provinces of Formosa, Córdoba, Buenos Aires, Chaco and Santa Fe, all areas with large-scale soy monocultures.

The Urquiza neighborhood in the town of San Jorge is a good example. In 2009, the neighbors obtained two favorable rulings in the first and second instance to stop the spraying. In February 2011 the decision became final. This is the first case in Argentina, which reversed the burden of proof: it is no longer the affected families who must demonstrate the harmful effects, but the ones that use pesticides that should proof the product’s harmlessness. The hundreds of people of the ‘Pueblos Fumigados’ welcomed the news and they will continue to file new cases in court.

The campaign had another impact. In 2009 president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner signed a decree to establish a national committee to study pesticide impacts. However, an unambiguous conclusion was not reached and the need for further research on glyphosate’s harmfulness was affirmed. It is a complicated issue to demonstrate the harmfulness on human health, which requires a large epidemic study. But lab research with chicken embryos conducted last year by Andrés Carrasco of the Argentine National Council for Scientific and Technical Research (CONICET), resulted in clear indications that the exposure to glyphosate in the first weeks of pregnancy can lead to all kinds of birth defects – also for human beings.

Box: glyphosate’s approval

Roundup can be bought anywhere in the world, almost in any garden center. It has always been proclaimed as a relatively unharmful product, but this has been retracted. Monsanto was forced several times to remove the ‘environmentally friendly’ label from the packaging. In 1996, when RoundupReady soy cultivation started, both in Argentina as well as in the EU glyphosate’s maximum residu limits were at once raised from 0.1 mg/kg to 20 mg/kg, on Monsanto’s request. In the EU, Germany is responsible for the glyphosate-dossier. In 2012 a revision should have taken place to check whether the evaluation of this product is still in line with the latest scientific findings. However, because of ‘high work pressure’ the European Commission postponed this decision to 2015. The permanent commission of the EU member states qualified Andrés Carrasco’s research as irrelevant, because supposedly it was not conducted according to certain criteria. This matter was never spread in the European press, while it was widely published in the Argentine agrarian press.

More soy, less forest

The province of Córdoba is one of the pillars of the soy model. Monocultures have expanded to the detriment of forests and pasture lands. Soy expansion and the displacement of extensive cattle raising have increased the pace of both land conflicts and evictions, as well as deforestation.

Marcelo Cabido and Marcelo Zak are researchers at the Multidisciplinary Institute of Plant Biology (Imbiv) of Córdoba’s National University and the CONICET. In their research they analyzed the relationship between deforestation, agriculture and biodiversity. They pointed out that according to the FAO (United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization), the Argentine deforestation rate is 0.8 percent per year, twice as high as in the Amazone area (0.38 percent). But in Córdoba they recorded a far more severe deforestation rate of 2.93 percent, almost four times the national average and thirteen times the global average (0.23 percent). “The speed with which Córdoba’s forests are disappearing, is unmatched worldwide, it even surpasses that of tropical forests in poor countries,”state the researchers. They stressed the direct relationship with the advance of the agricultural frontier, especially with the cultivation of annual crops, primarily soy.

Nationally, the outlook is not better. The latest national native forests inventory of the National Environment Secretariat shows that during the period of 2002-2006, 1,108,669 hectares of forest were lost. That is 277,000 hectares per year, equivalent to 760 hectares per day or 32 hectares per hour. However, this National Secretariat never formally expressed itself on the expansion of RoundupReady soy. Only in March 2008, during the conflict between the government and the soy producers on soy export taxes (Resolution 125), the Secretariat issued a twelve-page document on the advance of the agricultural frontier and confirmed what peasant movements and environmental organizations had already denounced for years: “Soy production leads to environmental problems like deforestation, soil degradation (…) The expansion of soy is a recent and powerful threat to biodiversity in Argentina.”
Reverse land reform

During the soy boom, and the governments of the past fifteen years, a reverse land reform was implemented in Argentina: in favor of big landowners and “sowing pools”, and to the detriment of indigenous people and peasants. As a direct consequence, according to the National Peasant and Indigenous Movement (MNCI), 200,000 families were evicted from their ancestral territories mainly bound for the poor neighborhoods of the big cities. It also produced concentration of land ownership. The 2002 Census of Agriculture seems to agree on this point. Ten percent of the largest “agricultural establishments” own 78% of the land, while 60% of the smallest farms occupy only five percent of the country’s arable land. In 1988 there were 422,000 farms in the country, which dropped to 318,000 in 2002 (a decrease of 24.6 per cent). The National Research Institute for Agricultural Technology (INTA) summarizes it as follows: ” Land distribution is highly inequitable from the point of view of the agrarian structure, ”

Evictions and repression

There are no official statistics of land conflicts in rural areas. The Argentine Chaco Agroforestry Network (Redaf), a multidisciplinary platform consisting of social movements, environmental NGOs and experts, presented a report in October 2010 that describes 164 land and environmental conflicts. These conflicts concern nearly eight million hectares (equivalent to almost 400 times the city of Buenos Aires) and 950 thousand people, mainly indigenous peoples and peasants. This report only takes into account six provinces in northern Argentina: Salta, Formosa, Chaco, Santiago del Estero and the north of Santa Fe and Córdoba. Most of the conflicts are concerned with the violation of land rights and they mainly started from the year 2000 onwards. The report puts forward that:”It coincides with the expansion of the agro-export model in the Chaco region, driven by the international demand of soy.”

On March 13, 2010, in the village of San Nicolas in the province of Santiago del Estero, Sandra “Ely” Juarez died after facing a bulldozer that headed for the land which her family has always lived on. Eight months later, on 23 November, during a police crackdown in the province of Formosa, Roberto Lopez, a member of the Qom community “La Primavera”, was killed. This ocurred during a road blockade in which they tried to enforce their claim on the right to their ancestral lands. Both murders remain unpunished. The State has the primary responsibility for resolving these conflicts, but according to indigenous peoples and peasant movements impunity reigns and there exists a lack of political will to solve the problems.

A responsible product?

The future is not promising. The Argentine government promotes a “Strategic Agribusiness Plan 2010-2016”, which is committed to increase soy production by another 20 million tonnes. This will intensify the mentioned problems. On the European side, the Romanian Minister of Agriculture, Valeriu Tabara, a former Monsanto employee, advocates the approval of the cultivation of RoundupReady soy by 2012. Meanwhile, ever more voices, also in the European Parliament, arise against industrial farming and massive soy imports, and in favor of local forage production. Several environmental organizations have worked on the issue for years.

However, there is also another, more agribusiness-friendly initiative to supposedly solve the problems related to soy cultivation. The companies that dominate the soy chain, like Cargill, ADM, Bayer, Monsanto and Syngenta, have received an opportunity to show their “responsible” face in the so-called “Round Table on Responsible Soy”. This Round Table is an initiative of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the Swiss supermarket chain COOP. They intended to develop a new label for “responsible” soy. An essential condition for the companies involved, was that RoundupReady soy would be eligible for this label. In 2005, the talks started off with a first conference in Foz do Iguaçu in Brazil, on the border with Paraguay and Argentina. Protests arose immediately. Social and peasant movements organized a counterconference in the same location. The Round Table continued, but the resistance against it as well. In 2010, 230 social and environmental organizations once more signed a declaration against this project.

Six years after the first meeting, the criteria for this label have finally been agreed upon. Critics consider it an empty shell. Soy production is being “greenwashed”, they claim. Most of the criteria are already contained in local laws. There are no clear goals for the reduction of pesticide use and “responsible” soy expansion is permitted, even in areas that will have to be deforested first.

No peasant, indigenous or social movements participate in the Round Table, and only a limited number of NGO´s do. Since the Round Table offers the certification of soy “biodiesel” for the European market, it contributes to further soy expansion. They were the first ones to apply at the European Commission, that is determining which label will be allowed to certify agrofuels, in order to achieve the biofuel targets of 10% by 2020.

The European industry, like forage lobby FEFAC, shows a double face. They participate in the Round Table, but at the same time they lobby at the EU to abolish the prohibition on non-permitted and therefore illegal genetically manipulated products in food and fodder. These companies have a clear objective: if the European people can be convinced with a “panda-label” that RoundupReady soy is “responsible”, then the resistance against genetically manipulated crops and monocultures in general will decline. But whether they will succeed, remains to be seen.



Dario Aranda is a free-lance journalist and often writes for the Argentine newspaper Página12 ( Nina Holland works for Corporate Europe Observatory (,

articles post