9-Misc: Argentina became a "soya republic"
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TITLE: Soya Republic
SOURCE: The Ecologist, UK, by Ben Backwell
DATE: Jan 22, 2003
------------------ archive: http://www.gene.ch/genet.html ------------------
As the people of Argentina are driven by economic collapse to the point
of starvation, a new solution is being imposed upon them. Ben Backwell
reports on a country being forced fed genetically modified soya designed
not for humans, but for cattle.
'There is no justification for hunger in a country with one of the
greatest levels of food production per inhabitant,' says the text on the
slick website of the Soya Solidarity campaign. Underneath, a few shiny
clean soya beans in front of the smiling face of a child. 'Its time that
we replace attitudes based in egoism, bureaucracy, corruption,
indifference and "don't interfere" with those of solidarity, ethics,
action, and fundamentally dignity,' gushes the statement.
It goes on in a similar tone. To describe soya 'Argentina's principle
crop', as 'a high quality food for human consumption, given that it
contains proteins of a high biological value, rich in all the essential
amino acids that can practically replace meat in our diet. For cultural
reasons, the custom of consuming soya has not been developed. Now the
moment to do so has arrived. This can be part of the solution for the
hunger that many Argentines are suffering.'
The statement concludes with an appeal for producers to donate soya for
needy families, with the help of transport operators, storage centres and
the media, 'whose job is to let everyone know about this project and
publicise recipes for the use of soya as food.'
Friends in high places Solidarity Soya's main sponsors are the Direct
Sowing Producer's Association (AAPRESID), which groups together the large
GM producers, Cargill, Chevron Texaco, the Argentine Exporters
Association, the Grain Storage Association, the Vegetable Oil Chamber,
the Rosario Agricultural Stock Exchange, and the powerful Sociedad Rural,
which represents Argentina's large landowners.
It is supported by powerful media interests such as Argentina's biggest
daily newspaper Clarín and the glossy magazine Gente - which called the
Solidarity Soya campaign 'a brilliant idea which could change history'.
Héctor Huergo, a well known columnist for Clarín, called soya 'a complete
food, which just needs to enter into our culture.' He went on to suggest
that the government could save money on its social spending by supporting
soya handouts instead of unemployment cheques. 'Why spend 350 million
pesos if we could save this through out solidarity scheme?' asks Huergo.
The campaign has also been supported by media personalities such as the
charismatic priest and founder of the Happy Children program, Padre Julio
Grassi, also currently on trial for child abuse and recipient of generous
government handouts during the rule of the corrupt ex-President Carlos
Menem. 'Many times I prayed to God and the Virgin because I couldn't feed
the children,' declared Grassi in Gente magazine. 'That's why the soya
donations from APPRESID were a blessing from God.'
According to Solidarity Soya's website, the campaign has so far directly
benefited hundreds of thousands of people in Greater Buenos Aires,
Córdoba, Santa Fe, Formosa, Rosario, San Juan and Patagonia - thanks to
diesel fuel supplied by Texaco-Chevron - through literally thousands of
churches, communal soup kitchens, boy scout groups, rotary clubs,
neighbourhood assemblies, local councils, and political 'point men'. It
has donated some 677,000 kilos of soya in the last year, and is now
directly feeding '700,000' people, and 'indirectly' some 300,000 more,
according to one of the coordinators of the campaign, Ezequiel Schnyder.
With its extensive social assistance network the Catholic Church has been
a key actor in extending Solidarity Soya. When contacted by anti-GM
groups alarmed at the effect of the campaign, Catholic charity Cáritas
refused requests for meetings and sent a written reply saying that 'there
is no proof that soya, because it is GM, causes health problems for its
And while they may not be willing to talk about soya's risks, they are
more than happy to distribute it. The Three Times Ådmirable Mother
orphanage and its 800 children will soon be running a soya plant capable
of producing 30,000 soya rations per day, which will be distributed
throughout the soup kitchens of the city of La Plata, Buenos Aires
Province. The project will be run by Father Carlos Cajade, with technical
support from La Plata University. The former street children that live in
the orphanage will act as workers in the plant, as well as, of course,
eating from the plant's produce.
The campaign has also 'persuaded' large soya producers to donate one
tonne out of every 1,000 they produce to schools, neighborhood soup
kitchens, churches and hospitals. The campaign then employs a network of
promoters that travel the country giving seminars on how to prepare and
cook soya beans into steaks, pasties, juices stews and so on.
Given the almost complete ignorance amongst Argentina's urban population
about agricultural affairs, even many Buenos Aires neighbourhood
assemblies have been happy to promote soya as a 'natural' substitute for
the traditional staples of pasta, meat and cheese, which have become
prohibitively expensive for most Argentines. One of the key tactics of
Solidarity Soya has been to donate crushing machines to schools to
produce soya 'milk', now that school canteens can no longer afford to
give children a glass of milk per day. The campaign is also in the
process of donating a huge plant in the Buenos Aires provincial capital
of La Plata in order to make soya flour for pasta and other foods. The
plant - run by a local catholic priest - will feed 800 poor children as
well as other sections of the surrounding population.
The result is a disaster. 'Mothers in the provinces are giving soya
"milk" to their children thinking that it can replace real milk,' says
Jorge Rulli, a grey-bearded former political activist and member of the
Rural Reflexion Group, who spends much of his free time visiting
neighbourhood assemblies to counter pro-soya propaganda. 'The result is
anaemia, hormonal disruption, weak bones, rotten teeth, malnutrition.'
The GM feedstock soya which is now being consumed in Argentina is also
extremely high in agro chemical traces. Typical traces are 20 ppm of
Glyphosate compared to just 0.2 ppm in soya grown for human consumption,
according to a specialist in GM soya Luis Sabini Fernández. Furthermore,
the human body can only absorb limited quantities of soya as it is highly
acidic. Argentine strains of soya were developed to be consumed as oils,
or by animals in their unfermented state. 'There is no way that soya can
act as a staple without leading to physical deterioration,' says Rulli.
A government-sponsored congress on nutrition earlier this year produced a
document entitled Criteria for the incorporation of Soya. it explicitly
warns that 'Soya should not be denominated as "milk" as it it in no way
constitutes a substitute for the latter'. The document also warns against
presenting soya as a 'panacea', and that it should only be consumed in
moderate quantities as part of a balanced diet. It goes on to say:
'because of its high concentration of fitates, it interferes with the
absortion of iron and zinc, and is not a good source of calcium.' It
warns against giving soya juice to children of two years and under,
pregnant women, and indigenous people because of their deficit in iron
'Because of the fundamental role played by milk in the early years, its
substitution by the misnamed soya "milk" is completely negative,' says
Andres Britos, from the Argentine Centre for the Study of Infant
Nutricion (CESNI). 'Lack of calcium will inhibit growth and lead to badly
formed bones, while the lack of absorbable iron in soya can lead to
anaemia.' Britos warns that soya proteins are not as complete as those
contained by meat, and warns that high levels of estrogen in soya may
lead to premature development of the sexual organs if it is consumed in
Despite this, the government has turned a blind eye while the Soya
Solidarity campaign does exactly that. In many areas, government bodies
such as the National Farming Technology Institute (INTA) participate in
the campaign, ignoring the guidelines spelt out above. The governor of
Buenos Aires state, Felipe Solá, who was Agriculture Secretary when GM
was introduced, is a firm supporter of the soya complex, and has even
been prepared to use his own family as an example of the supposed
benefits of a soya diet. The immediate effects in terms of the impact of
this sudden introduction of soya in place of traditional foods has yet to
be measured, as its effects are only now emerging in the crumbling
hospitals of Argentina's provinces.
And quite apart from the open promotion of soya as staple food, much of
the cheaper food sold in supermarkets already contains up to 50 per cent
soya - to add consistency and volume - in everything from hamburgers to
biscuits and pasta fillings.
According to Teubal, the imposition of the soya model is creating a kind
of 'dietary apartheid' where the rich continue to eat the same diversity
of foodstuffs as before, and the poor are given 'second rate soya'.
'The point is that this whole change of model is a business, he says. 'It
has nothing to do with people's needs. Technology is not neutral, and GM
will not resolve the problem of hunger, in the same way that the Green
Revolution didn't before.'
For Rulli, the effects may be even worse. 'We are addicted to Soya. We
have been assigned a role in the world as a producer of soya and in many
ways we are now a laboratory. We are seeing all kinds of things due to
toxicity: precocious sexual development, early pregnancies, and at the
same time, stunted growth. Hormonal disruption will end up making the
population less aggressive, creating a new, more docile kind of citizen.'
This propoganda is the latest development in the transformation of
Argentina from a food producing nation to a supplier of feed for the
livestock of wealthy nations. Its instrument is GM Soya. Its architects
are the giant agro industrial corporations and the biotech firm Monsanto.
And its supporting actors are a host of organisations, rural producers,
NGOs and individuals who are disingenuously promoting soya as a miracle
food that can solve the problems of Argentina's poor.
'People keep rsaying we are "the breadbasket of the world", but they are
missing the point,' says Rulli. 'We have become, not a "banana republic"
but a "soya republic", a monoculture that is destroying people's
livelihoods, and preparing the way for famine.'
Economy of Scale
The statistics are startling. In 1994/95 5.9 million hectares were
dedicated to soya. By 1999/2000 that number had risen to 7.2m. By the
latest estimates, the amount of land used for Soya is now as high as 12.7m ha.
The volume of soya produced has grown in the last 10 years from 10m
tonnes to an estimated 30m in 2002, making Argentina the world's second
largest producer of GM soya, behind the US, and the world's largest
exporter. Soya cultivation has spread like a cancer, both in traditional
grain production areas and in the frontier agricultural regions such as
Tucumán, Salta, Santiago del Estero and El Chaco. The onslaughtis
carrying all before it, affecting even regions such as the forest of
Yunga, now disappearing at a rate of 1000ha per year, to be replaced by
the green uniformity of Soya.
'We have already lost - for ever - more than 130,000ha of forest,' says
the director of the Argentina's Fundación Vida Silvestre (Wildlife
Foundation), Javier Corcuera. 'If we carry on like this we can expect
more flooding and less natural resources for the population.'
While Argentines go hungry, the lion's share of the soya production goes
to European feed lots, to sustain the 'phantom hectares' of cattle
production that could not exist if it were not Argentina and other
feedstock producers. The rest is exported as oils, to Asia.
Soya production has been expanding since the 1980s. The process
accelerated, however, in 1996 with the introduction of Monsanto's GM
seed, Round Up Ready (RR). RR's introduction occurred without any form of
public debate in Argentina's parliament and was retrospectively given
legal sanction by the Ministry of Agriculture. The Result - Argentina is
by far the most successful country for Monsanto in terms of take up of
its product, with over 95 per cent of producers using RR.
'The direct planting and the GM soya go hand in hand,' explains Professor
Miguel Teubal, investigator at the Rural Studies Group of the University
of Buenos Aires. 'With the introduction of GM soya and direct sowing,
producers can carry out two harvests per year. They leave the left overs
and the weeds of the first season in place, and plant soya on top of it.
To kill any thing still living, they put large quantities of Glyphosate
on top of it.'
The Glyphosate-based herbicide is called Round Up, and produced by
Monsanto. The GM seed has been engineered for one thing only: to resist
the Glyphosate. The seed's name is Round Up Ready and it is also produced
by Monsanto, whose revenues in Argentina rose from $386m in 1998 to $584m
in 2001 - nearly 10 per cent of its total earnings. Seemingly
anticipating Argentina's financial collapse and devaluation at the end of
2001, last year Monsanto opened a $136m production plant for Round Up in
Zárate, Buenos Aires Province.
In a worrying tendency, investigators at Conicet, the government
sponsored academic research council, say that Glyphosate use per hectare
shows signs of significant increase in the mere five years or so that RR
has been used, indicating that weeds are already becoming resistant to
its use. The effect on biodiversity of massive sustained use have yet to
'The main "advantage" for producers is not that the GM soya improves
yields, or reduces agro-chemical use, but that it reduces labour costs,'
says Teubal. Producers no longer have to plough or prepare the soil, nor
use several types of fertilisers of herbicides. All a producer has to do
is employ someone to take regular measure a sample of crops for weed and
parasite levels and, if necessary, telephone a crop spraying service to
make another flypass. Indeed, in a government survey carried out in the
state of Córdoba, 71 per cent of farmers said one of the main advantages
of RR was that 'it saves time'. This has led to a kind of 'agriculture
without producers', reduced rural employment and sent further waves of
displaced people into the shanty towns surrounding Argentina's huge cities.
Ben Backwell is an investigative journalist based in Argentina.