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2-Plants: Farming in Argentina - The green desert

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TITLE:  Farming in Argentina - The green desert
        Pros and cons of the soya boom
        [CAM905.gif-file attached]
SOURCE: The Economist
DATE:   26 Aug 2004 

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Farming in Argentina
The green desert
Pros and cons of the soya boom

PINTO, a small village in northern Argentina, has the air of a place
under siege. As he watches bulldozers in a neighbouring property ripping
up trees and scrub to make way for soya plants, Adolfo Farias, a local
peasant farmer, draws parallels with the Spanish conquest. He says the
loss of the forest is changing the local climate, causing both droughts
and flooding, while cropdusters spraying pesticides have wiped out the
village's cotton crops and poisoned its water. "They are destroying the
land," he claims.

Mr Farias's complaints form the dark side of a farming miracle. Since
1997, Argentina's already efficient farmers have more than doubled crop
yields. Soya production has tripled: the crop now covers around half of
the country's arable land. Soya accounted for a quarter of total exports
last year, and brought the government $1.5 billion in export taxes. Farm
exports have been the mainstay of the swift recovery from Argentina's
economic collapse of 2001-02.

This boom rests on innovations such as direct sowing. This method
eliminates ploughing, limiting erosion and maintaining humidity. But it
requires more use of fertiliser. Genetically modified seeds, especially
of soya, are in widespread use.

Welcome though it has been, the soya boom arouses some worries. One is of
a glut: the world price of soya has fallen by 40% from its March peak,
mainly because of lower demand in China. The other is that monoculture
and less crop rotation risks exhausting the soil.

To some, these concerns look overblown. Argentine farmers are swift to
switch crops according to market conditions. Ernesto Ambrosetti, an
economist at the Rural Society, the main farmers' lobby, points out that
they turned to soya partly as the safest bet during Argentina's recent
political and economic turmoil. As bank lending returns, and if soya
prices fall, farmers will switch to crops such as maize, which offer
lower returns but return nutrients to the soil. "They know you can't keep
planting soya year after year," he says.

Others are less sanguine. Miguel Teubal, an economist at the University
of Buenos Aires, reckons that two dairy farms a day are disappearing to
make way for soya. Since milk production involves big investments in
equipment, they have probably gone for good. The same applies to fruit
orchards or cattle fences uprooted to make way for soya. Jobs have gone
as modern, mechanised farms replace traditional ones. By one estimate,
over 100,000 smallholders have given up in the last decade. Mr Teubal
also blames soya for the fact that food prices are rising faster than
overall inflation--though food is still relatively cheap in Argentina.

Environmentalists abhor what they call the "green desert" of soya.
Argentina has lost three-quarters of its native forest to farming over
the past century. But in places like Pinto, the problems of peasant
farmers owe much to politics. In April, the federal government stepped in
to run Santiago del Estero, because of abuses by the local governor.
Pablo Lanusse, the province's new administrator, denounced many of the
land clearances as illegal.

Defenders of high-tech farming insist that existing laws, if enforced,
are sufficient to preserve the environment. They point out that
glyphosate, the herbicide used with GM crops, is safer than the
alternatives and degrades on contact with the soil. The government
apparently shares that view: it recently approved GM maize. The
modernisation of Argentine farming looks unstoppable. On balance, it has
been positive for the country. But for many of the families who have
lived on the land for centuries, change is painful.



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