GENET archive


2-Plants: GM soya disaster in Latin America

------------------------------- GENET-news -------------------------------

TITLE:  GM Soya Disaster in Latin America
SOURCE: The Institute of Science in Society, UK, Press Release
DATE:   6 Sep 2005

------------------ archive: ------------------

GM Soya Disaster in Latin America
Hunger, Deforestation and Socio-Ecological Devastation

Prof. Miguel A. Altieri, University of California, Berkeley and Prof.
Walter A. Pengue, University of Buenos Aires, Argentina

The fully referenced version of this article is posted on ISIS members'
website Details here http://

Hollow triumph of GM crops

In 2004, the biotech industry and their allies celebrated the ninth
consecutive year of expansion of genetically modified (GM) crops. The
estimated global area of approved GM crops was 81 million hectares, a
growth of 15 per cent over the previous year. In 22 countries, they
claim, GM crops have met the expectations of millions of large and small
farmers in both industrialized and developing countries; delivering
benefits to consumers and society at large through more affordable food,
feed and fiber that require less pesticide and hence more environmentally
sustainable [1].

It is difficult to imagine how such expansion in GM crops has met the
needs of small farmers or consumers when 60 percent of the global area of
GM crops is devoted to Roundup Ready herbicide-tolerant crops. In
developing countries, GM crops are mostly grown for export by big
farmers, not for local consumption. They are used as animal feed to
produce meat consumed mostly by the relatively wealthy.

The new soya republics in Latin America

The Latin America countries growing soybean include Argentina, Brazil,
Bolivia, Paraguay and Uruguay. The expansion of soybean production is
driven by prices, government and agro-industrial support, and demand from
importing countries, especially China, which is the world's largest
importer of soybean and soybean products. The expansion is accompanied by
massive transportation infrastructure projects that destroy natural
habitats over wide areas, well beyond the deforestation directly caused
by soybean cultivation. In Brazil, soybean profits justified the
improvement or construction of eight industrial waterways, three railway
lines and an extensive network of roads to bring inputs and take away
produce. These have attracted private investment in logging, mining,
ranching and other practices that severely impact on biodiversity that
have not been included in any impact assessment studies [2]. In
Argentina, the agro-industry for transforming soybean into oils and
pellets is concentrated in the Rosario region on the Parana river. This
area has become the largest soy-processing estate in the world, with all
the infrastructure and the environmental impacts that entails.

Soybean deforestation

The area of land in soybean production in Brazil has grown on average at
3.2 percent or 320 000 hectares per year since 1995, resulting in a total
increase of 2.3 million hectares. Soybean today occupies the largest area
of any crop at 21 percent of the cultivated land. The area has increased
by a factor of 57 since 1961, and the volume of production by a factor of
138. In Paraguay, soybeans occupy more than 25 percent of all
agricultural land. In Argentina, in 2000, soybean cultivation area
reached 15 million hectares and the total production was 38.3 million
tonnes. All this expansion is at the expense of forests and other
habitats. In Paraguay, much of the Atlantic forest has been cut [3]. In
Argentina, 118 000 hectares of forests have been cleared in Caco State,
about 160 000 hectares in Salta, and in Santiago del Estero a record
223 000 hectares. In Brazil, the cerrado and the savannas are falling
victim to the plow at a rapid pace.

Expulsion of small farmers and loss of food security

Biotech promoters always claim the expansion of soybean cultivation as a
measure of the successful adoption of the transgenic technology by
farmers. But these data conceal the fact that soybean expansion leads to
extreme land and income concentration. In Brazil, soybean cultivation
displaces 11 agricultural workers for every one who finds employment in
the sector. This is not a new phenomenon. In the 1970s, 2.5 million
people were displaced by soybean production in Parana, and 0.3 million in
Rio Grande do Sul. Many of these now landless people moved to the Amazon
where they cleared pristine forests. In the cerrado region, where
transgenic soybean is expanding, there is relatively low displacement
because the area is not widely populated [4].

In Argentina, the situation is quite dramatic as 60 000 farms went out of
business while the area of Roundup Ready soybean almost tripled. In 1998,
there were 422 000 farms in Argentina while in 2002 there were only
318 000, a reduction of a quarter. In one decade, soybean area increased
126 percent at the expense of dairy, maize, wheat and fruit production.
In the 2003/2004 growing season, 13.7 million hectares of soybean were
planted but there was a reduction of 2.9 million hectares in maize and
2.15 million hectares in sunflowers [5]. For the biotech industry, huge
increases in the soybean area cultivated and more than a doubling of
yields per unit area are an economic and agronomic success. For the
country, that means more imports of basic foods, therefore loss of food
sovereignty, and for poor small farmers and consumers, increased food
prices and more hunger [6].

Millions of hectares of Roundup Ready soybean were planted in Brazil in
the period 2002-2003, while a moratorium was in effect. How did the big
multinationals manage to expand cultivations of transgenic crop so
extensively in developing countries? During the early years of
introducing transgenic soybean into Argentina, Monsanto did not charge
farmers royalties to use the technology. But now that farmers are hooked,
the multinational is pressuring the government for payment of
intellectual property rights, despite the fact that Argentina signed UPOV
78, which allows farmers to save seeds for their own use. Nevertheless,
Paraguayan farmers have just signed an agreement with Monsanto to pay the
company $2 per tonne.

Soybean cultivation degrades the soil

Soybean cultivation has always led to erosion, especially in areas where
it is not part of a long rotation. Soil loss has reached an average rate
of 16 tonnes per hectare per year (t/ha/y) in the US Midwest, far greater
than is sustainable; and soil loss levels in Brazil and Argentina are
estimated at between 19-30 t/ha/y depending on management, slope and
climate. No-till agriculture can reduce soil loss, but with the advent of
herbicide tolerant soybean, many farmers now cultivate in highly erodible
lands. Farmers wrongly believe that with no till systems there is no
erosion, but research shows that despite improved soil cover, erosion and
negative changes in soil structure can still be substantial in highly
erodible lands if weed cover is reduced.

Large-scale soybean monocultures have rendered Amazonian soils unusable.
In areas of poor soils, fertilizers and lime have to be applied heavily
within two years. In Bolivia, soybean production is expanding towards the
east, and in many areas soils are already compacted and suffering severe
soil degradation. One hundred thousand hectares of land with soils
exhausted due to soybean were abandoned for cattle-grazing, which in turn
further degrades the land. As land is abandoned, farmers move to other
areas where they again plant soybeans and repeat the vicious cycle of
soil degradation.

In Argentina, intensive soybean cultivation has led to massive soil
nutrient depletion. It is estimated that continuous soybean production
has extracted about 1 million metric tons of nitrogen and about 227 000
metric tons of phosphorous. The estimated cost of replenishing this
nutrient loss via fertilizers is US$ 910 million [5]. Increase of
nitrogen and phosphorus in several river basins of Latin America is
certainly linked to the increase of soybean production.

A key technical factor in the rapid spread of soybean production in
Brazil was soybean's pseudo-symbiotic relationships with nitrogen-fixing
bacteria living in root nodules that allowed soybean to be produced
without fertilizers. This claimed productive advantage of soybeans in
Brazil can quickly disappear in the light of findings reporting direct
toxic effects of the herbicide glyphosate on the nitrogen-fixing
rhizobium bacteria; which would make soybeans dependent on chemical
fertilizers for nitrogen. Moreover, the common practice of converting
uncultivated pasture to soybeans results in a reduction of the
economically important rhizobia, again making soybean dependent on
synthetic nitrogen.

Soybean monocultures and ecological vulnerability

Ecological research suggests that the reduction of landscape diversity
caused by the expansion of monocultures at the expense of natural
vegetation has led to insect pest outbreaks and disease epidemics. In
such poor and genetically homogenous landscapes insects and pathogens
find ideal conditions in which they can grow unchecked by natural
controls. This leads to increased used of pesticides, which after a while
are no longer effective due to the development of pest-resistance or
ecological upsets typical of the pesticide treadmill. Pesticides also
cause major problems of soil and water pollution, elimination of
biodiversity and human poisonings. The humid and warm conditions of the
Amazon are also favourable for fungal growth, resulting in the increased
used of fungicides. In Brazilian regions under tillage soybean
production, the crop is increasingly being affected by stem canker and
sudden death syndrome.

Soybean rust is a new disease, increasingly affecting soybeans in South
America, requiring increased fungicide applications. In addition, since
1992, more than 2 million hectares have been infected by cyst nematodes.
Many of these pest problems are linked to the genetic uniformity and
increased vulnerability of soybean monocultures, and also to the direct
effects of Roundup on the soil ecology, through the depression of
micorrhizal fungal populations and the elimination of antagonists that
keep many soil-borne pathogens under control [7].

A quarter of all pesticides applied in Brazil are used on soybean, which
in 2002 amounted to 50 000 tonnes. As the soybean area rapidly expands,
so does the growth in pesticide use; it is now increasing at a rate of 22
percent per year. While biotech promoters claim that one application of
Roundup is all that is needed for whole season weed control, studies show
that in areas of transgenic soybean, the total amount and number of
herbicide applications have increased. In the USA, the use of glyphosate
rose from 6.3 million pounds in 1995 to 41.8 million pounds in 2000, and
now the herbicide is used on 62 percent of the land devoted to soybeans.
In Argentina, Roundup applications reached an estimated 160 million litre
equivalents in the 2004 growing-season. Herbicide usage is expected to
increase as weeds start developing resistance to Roundup.

Yields of transgenic soybean average 2.3 to 2.6 t/ha in the region, about
6% less than conventional varieties, and are especially low under drought
conditions. Due to pleiotropic effects (stems splitting under high
temperatures and water stress) transgenic soybean suffer 25 percent
higher losses than conventional soybean. Seventy-two percent of the
yields of transgenic soybeans were lost in the 2004/2005 drought that
affected Rio Grande do Sul, and a 95 percent drop in exports is expected
with dramatic economic consequences. Most farmers have already defaulted
on 1/3 of government loans.

Other ecological impacts

By creating crops resistant to its herbicides, a biotech company can
expand the market for its patented chemicals. The market value of
herbicide-tolerant crops was $75 million in 1995; by 2000, it was
approximately $805 million, more than 10-fold increase. Globally, in
2002, herbicide- tolerant soybean occupied 36.5 million hectares making
it by far the number one GM crop in terms of area [1]. Glyphosate is
cheaper than other herbicides, and although it reduces the use of other
herbicides, companies sell altogether much more herbicide (especially
glyphosate) than before. The continuous use of herbicides and especially
of glyphosate (or Roundup, Monsanto's formulation) with herbicide-
tolerant crops, can lead to serious ecological problems.

It has been well documented that when a single herbicide is used
repeatedly on a crop, the chances of herbicide- resistance developing in
weed populations greatly increases. About 216 cases of pesticide
resistance have been reported in one or more herbicide chemical families [8]

Given industry pressures to increase herbicide sales, the acreage treated
with broad-spectrum herbicides will expand, exacerbating the resistance
problem. The increased use of glyphosphate will result in weed
resistance, even if more slowly. This has already been documented with
Australian populations of annual ryegrass, quackgrass, birdsfoot trefoil,
Cirsium arvense, and Eleusine indica [7]. In the Argentinian pampas,
eight species of weeds, among them two species of Verbena and one species
of Ipomoea, already exhibit resistance to glyphosate [5].

Herbicide resistance becomes more of a problem as weeds are exposed to
fewer and fewer herbicides. Transgenic soybean reinforces this trend on
account of market forces. In fact, weed populations can even adapt to
tolerate or "avoid" certain herbicides. For example, in Iowa, populations
of common waterhemp have demonstrated delayed germination, which allows
them to avoid planned glyphosate applications. The GM crop itself may
also assume weed status as volunteers. For example, in Canada, volunteer
canola resistant to three herbicides (glyphosate, imidazolinone, and
glufosinolate) has been detected, a case of stacked, multiple resistance.
And now farmers have to resort to 2,4-D to control the volunteer canola.
In northern Argentina, there are several "strong weeds" than cannot be
controlled with glyphosate, forcing farmers to resort to other herbicides.

Biotech companies claim that when properly applied, herbicides should not
pose negative effects on humans or the environment. In practice, however,
the large-scale planting of GM crops encourages aerial application of
herbicides and much of what is sprayed is wasted through drift and
leaching, affecting human beings as well as soil mycorrhizal fungi and
earthworms. The companies contend that glyphosate degrade rapidly in the
soil, do not accumulate in ground water, have no effects on non-target
organisms, leave no residue in foods and water or soil. Yet glyphosate
has been reported to be toxic to some non target species in the soil--both
to beneficial predators such as spiders, mites, and carabid and
coccinellid beetles, and to detritivores such as earthworms, including
microfauna as well as to aquatic organisms, including fish [9].

Glyphosate is a systemic herbicide (i.e. it is absorbed into and moves
through the whole plant), and is carried into the harvested parts of
plants. Exactly how much glyphosate is present in the seeds of HT corn or
soybeans is not known, as grain products are not included in conventional
market surveys for pesticide residues. The fact that this and other
herbicides are known to accumulate in fruits and tubers because they
suffer little metabolic degradation in plants, raises questions about
food safety, especially now that more than 37 million pounds of this
herbicide are used annually in the United States alone [8]. Even in the
absence of immediate (acute) effects, it might take 40 years for a
potential carcinogen to act in enough people for it to be detected as a
cause (see "Glyphosate toxic and Roundup worse" and "Roundup kills frog",
SiS 26

Moreover, research has shown that glyphosate seems to act in a similar
fashion to antibiotics by altering soil biology in a yet unknown way and
causing effects such as [8,9]

Reducing the ability of soybeans and clover to fix nitrogen.

Rendering bean plants more vulnerable to disease.

Reducing growth of beneficial soil-dwelling mycorrhizal fungi, which are
key for helping plants extract phosphorous from the soil.

In the farm-scale evaluations of herbicide resistant crops recently
completed in the United Kingdom, researchers showed that reduction of
weed biomass, flowering, and seeding parts under herbicide resistant crop
management within and in margins of beet and spring oilseed rape involved
changes in insect resource availability with knock-on effects resulting
in abundance reduction of several beetles, butterflies, and bees. Counts
of predacious carabid beetles that feed on weed seeds were also smaller
in transgenic crop fields. The abundance of invertebrates that are food
for mammals, birds, and other invertebrates were also found to be
generally lower in herbicide resistant beet and oilseed rape [10]. The
absence of flowering weeds in transgenic fields can have serious
consequences for beneficial insects (pest predators and parasitoids),
which require pollen and nectar for survival. Reduction of natural
enemies leads unavoidable to enhance insect pest problems.


Soybean expansion in Latin America represents a recent and powerful
threat to biodiversity in Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia.
Transgenic soybeans are much more environmentally damaging than other
crops because in addition to the effects from the production methods that
involve heavy herbicide use and genetic pollution, they require massive
transportation infrastructure projects (waterways, highways, railways,
etc), which impact on ecosystems and make wide areas accessible to other
environmentally unsound economic and extractive activities.

The production of herbicide resistant soybean leads to environmental
problems such as deforestation, soil degradation, pesticide and genetic
contamination, as well as socio-economic problems such as severe
concentration of land and income, expulsion of rural populations to the
Amazonian frontier and to urban areas, compounding the concentration of
the poor in cities. Soybean expansion also diverts government funds
otherwise usable in education, health, and alternative, far more
sustainable agroecological methods.

The multiple impacts of soybean expansion also reduce the food security
potential of target countries. Much of the land previously devoted to
grain, dairy products or fruits has been diverted to soybean for exports.
As long as these countries continue to embrace neoliberal models of
development and respond to demand from the globalized economy, the rapid
proliferation of soybean will increase, and so will the associated
ecological and social impacts.


European NGO Network on Genetic Engineering

Hartmut MEYER (Mr)
In den Steinäckern 13
D - 38116 Braunschweig

P: +49-531-5168746
F: +49-531-5168747
M: +49-162-1054755
E: coordination(*)
W: <>

   GENET-news mailing list