Environment News Service  [Printer-friendly version]
March 23, 2005


[Rachel's introduction: A protest letter signed by numerous groups --
including co-ops, social movements, and rural labor unions -- states
that the bill violates "the precautionary principle of the
Biodiversity Convention"...]

By Carmelo Ruiz Marrero

SILVER CITY, New Mexico, March 23, 2005 (ENS) -- Latin America is
being invaded by genetically engineered (GE) crops. The promoters of
these crops say they will help fight hunger, reduce agrochemical use,
and bring prosperity to farmers and rural communities in Latin
America. But so far experience has demonstrated that these novel crops
do not fight hunger, do not reduce agrochemical use, do not benefit
small farmers, and also create new forms of economic dependence.

Argentina: Soy Republic

No Latin American country has embraced GE crops as wholeheartedly as
Argentina. Recent years have witnessed an explosive growth in
Argentine farmland devoted to soybeans. Soybean production has risen
from 9,500 hectares in the early 1970s to 5.9 million hectares in
1996. The introduction of GE soy in the late 1990s sparked a further
expansion of soy production, which now surpasses 14 million hectares.
At least 95 percent of all this soy is genetically engineered. All GE
soy grown in Argentina is of the Roundup Ready variety, a product of
the U.S. based biotechnology corporation Monsanto.

Neoliberal ideologues and agribusiness people consider soy to be a
complete success and an economic boon for Argentina. They point out
that this crop brings large sums of badly needed foreign exchange to
pay the foreign debt. But the consequences of this "success" have been
wrenching for the environment and for the lives of the majority of

Other agricultural production is being displaced and pushed to
extinction as the country's farmland converts to soy monoculture.
Fields of lentils, yams, cotton, wheat, corn, rice, sorghum, leafy
greens, vegetables, fruit, dairy farms, and even the country's world-
famous cattle ranches are disappearing before the advance of soy.

This country, that once could feed itself and export prime-quality
beef, now imports basic food staples. Imported food is more expensive
and out of reach for much of the large, poor population. From 1970 to
1980 the percentage of Argentines living below the poverty line rose
from 5 percent to 12 percent. After the implementation of neoliberal
structural adjustment policies, the percentage went up to 30 percent
in 1998, and reached 51 percent in 2002. Today 20 million Argentines
live in poverty and 10 million of them go hungry.

More than 99 percent of Argentina's soy is exported to Asian and
European markets to feed cattle. The country has in effect sacrificed
its own beef production, prized all over the world for its singular
quality, for the benefit of its European competitors. From 1998 to
2003 the number of dairy farms decreased from 30,000 to 15,000.

In the words of agronomist and geneticist Alberto Lapolla, "The
Argentine nation has metamorphosed from being the world's breadbasket
to transform itself into a soy republic, a producer of forage crops,
so that countries with serious development policies can feed their
cattle and don't have to import it from other countries like ours."

Farmers and landowners switch to soybeans in response to a number of
economic pressures. First, local producers cannot compete against
massive and cheap agricultural imports that result from free trade
policies. Moreover, the structure of government incentives and
subsidies favors soybean growers. To further tip the balance, Monsanto
provides producers with expert advisers, seeding machinery for mass
soy production, and herbicide--all on credit.

The Roundup-Ready GE soy is modified to be immune to glyphosate, the
active ingredient of Monsanto's Roundup herbicide. The environmental
effect of this new agriculture has been devastating.

"The direct seeding system, with its high use of agrochemicals
(Roundup), has already produced in the monoculture zone a noticeable
biological desertification, with the disappearance of birds, rabbits,
crustaceans, mollusks, insects, etc... particularly affecting the
soil's microflora and microfauna, altering the microbiology of the
soil responsible for the processes that develop and recover the soil's
natural fertility by exterminating bacteria and other microorganisms,
allowing their replacement by fungi," warned Lapolla.

The expansion of soy has come at the expense not only of other crops
but also of forests and wilderness areas. To expand the monoculture,
land owners and agribusinesses are deforesting broad swaths of the
forested mountains at the foot of the Andes, known as the Yungas, and
of the Chaco, on the border with Bolivia and Paraguay.

In the province of Entre Rios, north of Buenos Aires and bordering
Uruguay, over one million hectares were deforested between 1994 and
2003 to make way for soy. This deforestation has caused disastrous and
unprecedented floods, especially in the province of Santa Fe.

The economic effect has been no less devastating. The direct seeding
of Roundup Ready soy monocultures creates unemployment since it hardly
requires any labor. While a hectare of apricots or a lemon grove of
the same extent require from 70 to 80 farm workers, soy employs two
people at most.

Those who have turned their backs on the soy model to engage in
traditional subsistence agriculture have found it nearly impossible
since the clouds of airplane sprayed glyphosate travel great
distances, leaving trails of death and destruction in their wake.

In Colonia Los Senes, in the province of Formosa, families that grew
peanuts, beets, and plantains, and had chickens, ducks, and hogs, saw
their lives changed in 2003 when they were flown over by airplanes
spraying herbicide on nearby soy fields. The inhabitants suffered
nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, stomach pains, allergies, and skin
eruptions. Painful spots and sores appeared on the children, sometimes
so painful they could not get up. Plantain plants grew abnormally,
animals died or gave birth to deformed offspring, and there were
reports of lakes filled with dead fish.

Facundo Arrizabalaga and Ann Scholl, lawyer and social anthropologist
respectively, note, "Soy is causing disintegration not only of the
very essence of the land but also of society. Shanty towns are
expanding on the outskirts of major cities with farmers displaced by
airplanes loaded with glyphosate, while agroindustrial giants take
over the land. Soy does not generate jobs, it is an agriculture with
no people, no culture. The rural exodus in recent years has increased
at an alarming rate: 300,000 farmers abandoned the countryside and
almost 500 towns have been left deserted. As a consequence, crime and
violence are increasing day by day, and with that, marginalization

Brazil: Lula's Pragmatism

The Roundup Ready soy monoculture is crossing Argentina's borders and
penetrating neighboring countries. In recent years, Brazil, the
grain's second worldwide producer, has experienced widespread
smuggling of RR soy seed from Argentina to the Brazilian state of Rio
Grande do Sul, where soy production is concentrated.

This illegal seed contraband has enjoyed the complicity, at least
passive, of agribusinesses and land owners, although importation is
clandestine and does not go through the normal procedure of government

Civil society groups like the Landless Workers Movement hold that GE
crops should be submitted to an environmental evaluation, as required
by the Brazilian Constitution. They also point out that Brazil is
obligated to carry out such assessments since it signed the Cartagena
Protocol on Biosafety, an international agreement that addresses the
possible risks of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Another concern is that this GE crop invasion could spoil the
competitive advantage of Brazilian produce in international markets,
since GMO-free products command higher prices.

During his electoral campaign, President Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva
promised to address the concerns of sectors that denounced the illegal
entry of GMOs into the country. Once in power, however, he leaned in
favor of pragmatism, and in October 2004 signed a bill that civil
society organizations claim favors the biotech industry and
legitimizes the violations of law committed by smugglers and illegal
users of Roundup Ready soy.

A protest letter signed by numerous groups -- including co-ops, social
movements like the Landless Workers Movement, rural labor unions like
the Family Farm Workers Federation, the Consumer Defense Institute,
ActionAid Brazil, and Pastoral Commission of the Earth -- states that
the bill violates "the precautionary principle of the Biodiversity
Convention" by liberating GE crops "with no previous study of the
environmental impact and risk to the health of consumers."

According to the letter's signatories, the clandestine introduction of
Monsanto's Roundup Ready seed "prevented the Brazilian population from
having the opportunity to choose whether or not it wanted to consume
GMOs and expose them to the environment. It also prevented measures to
guarantee the segregation an labeling of GE products and in that way
protect farmers who want to plant conventional seeds or promote
agroecological farming."

Landless Workers Movement leader Joao Pedro Stedile describes the
conflict, "On the one hand we have the profit and control motives of
the multinational companies' seed monopolies, like Monsanto, Cargill,
Bung, Du Pont, Syngenta, and Bayer. On the other we have the interests
of honest farmers and of the Brazilian people. That is the true
confrontation that brews in the matter of GMOs."

"If we can feed our people with products from other, safer and
healthier seeds, why take a risk with GMOs? Just to guarantee
Monsanto's profits?"

Paraguay: The Invasion of the Brasiguayans

Paraguay, the world's fourth exporter of soy, is already suffering
from the onslaught of GE monoculture, in spite of the fact that to
this day its government has not legalized such plantings.

This country has two million hectares planted in soybeans, of which
over half belong to the so-called "brasiguayans," as the tens of
thousands of medium and large landlords who migrated illegally from
Brazil are referred to. They break the law not only by settling
illegally in the country and setting up commercial farming operations,
but also by planting GMOs, which in Paraguay are illegal.

With the soy monoculture came intensive glyphosate sprayings,
repeating the experience of deforestation, contamination, and
poisoning that Argentina is living.

Particularly dramatic is the case of the colony of Kaaty Miro, an
indigenous hamlet of 16 families in the department of San Pedro
practically surrounded by soybean fields.

The National Coordinator of Indigenous and Rural Women Workers accuse
that in 2004, glyphosate sprayings resulted in the deaths of three
children and have also caused stomach and lung problems, headaches and
throat aches, diarrhea and skin eruptions among its inhabitants.
Premature births and babies born with various illnesses have also been
reported. The colony also lacks access to clean water because the
creek they used to get the liquid is now poisoned with glyphosate.

The newsletter of the organization Rel-UITA describes a trip to Kaaty
Miro, "As we moved toward the colonies, the landscape changed
drastically. There are hardly any more forests or areas with trees,
only endless hectares planted with GE soy.

The small plants [cotton, cassava, and wheat] struggle to survive and
not die, destroyed by the highly poisonous effect of toxic
agrochemicals, while the [soy] crop enjoys good health. It was pitiful
to see how some of the cotton leaves were 'burnt," wilted and dry
because of the poison's action. Meanwhile, the growth of cassava
plants stopped and now are no larger than 10 to 15 centimeters, when
what is normal in that season is over 35 centimeters, according to the

Mexico: Illegal Immigrants from the North

In Mexico the GMO invasion is manifesting itself in a different way.
The furtive arrival of GE corn from the United States to local farm
fields has been documented since 2001. Farmers used samples of the
imported grain as seed without knowing what it was, and now it is
spreading uncontrolled, crossing with native and criollo maize

Peasant, environmental, progressive, civil society sectors, and
indigenous organizations warn that the consequences of this genetic
pollution for the environment, human health, and global food security
could be dire.

Previous IRC Americas reports have described the impacts of GE corn in
Mexico and civil society responses. Here we present an update. In
December 2004 the Mexican Senate passed a biosafety bill that, like
the one signed by the Brazilian president, is highly favorable to the
biotechnology industry and legalizes genetic contamination, according
to Mexican civil society sectors.

The bill "is an aberration because it does not create a framework of
security for biological diversity, food sovereignty, or protect the
crops and plants of which Mexico is center of origin and diversity and
that form the basis of nourishment of the campesino and indigenous
cultures that created them. Instead, it offers security to the five
transnational corporations that control GMOs worldwide, of which
Monsanto has 90 percent," accuses Silvia Ribeiro of the Action Group
on Erosion, Technology and Concentration.

Critics also point out that the approved law does not provide for
public hearings and yet gives corporations the right to appeal if
their applications for GE crop authorization are not approved. It also
exempts companies from any liability for the genetic pollution caused
by their seeds. "It does not even consider notifying those who could
be contaminated and, in fact, holds the victims responsible with no
safeguard," according to a report in the magazine Biodiversidad,
Sustento y Culturas.

In June 2004 the North American Commission for Environmental
Cooperation, an entity created by the North American Free Trade
Agreement, finished a scientific report on the contamination of
Mexican corn. The report, titled "Maize and Biodiversity: The effects
of genetically engineered corn in Mexico," proposes strengthening the
moratorium on the commercial planting of GE corn in Mexico and keeping
U.S. corn imports to a minimum, as well as strengthening a monitoring
system of traditional crops and labeling GE products.

It also recommended improvements on the methods for detecting and
monitoring the advance of genetic contamination of corn and its wild
relatives; that U.S. GE corn be labeled as such; and that those grains
that cannot be guaranteed as GMO-free be ground up so that they cannot
be used as seed.

Puerto Rico: Good Political Climate

Puerto Rico is one of the biotechnology industry's favorite sites for
GE crop experiments. According to U.S. Department of Agriculture data,
the island hosted 2,957 GE crop field tests between 1987 and 2002.
This figure is surpassed only by the states of Iowa (3,831), Illinois
(4,104), and Hawaii (4,566).

The enormous size difference must be taken in account: Illinois and
Iowa each measure over 50,000 square miles while Puerto Rico has less
than 4,000 sq. miles. Experiments with GMOs in Puerto Rico are higher
in number than those carried out in California, which had 1,709
experiments, although it is 40 times larger than Puerto Rico and has a
much bigger agricultural output.

"These are outdoor, uncontrolled experiments," affirmed Bill Freese of
the environmental group Friends of the Earth, commenting on the
situation in Puerto Rico. "These experimental GE traits are almost
certainly contaminating conventional crops just as the commercialized
GE traits are. And the experimental GE crops aren't even subject to
the cursory rubber-stamp 'approval' process that commercialized GE
crops go through, so I think the high concentration of experimental GE
crop trials in Puerto Rico is definitely cause for concern."

Why Puerto Rico? Various answers to this question were offered in a
symposium organized by the Agricultural Extension Service on
biotechnology held in the town of San German in 2002. According to
"Claridad," a local newspaper, several symposium participants stated
that the island's friendly tropical climate allows up to four harvests
a year, which makes it ideal for agronomists and biotechnology
corporations like Dow, Syngenta, Pioneer, and Monsanto. These four
companies joined together in 1996 to found the Puerto Rico Seed
Research Association.

One of the participants gave a much more provocative reason -- he said
that Puerto Rico has a "good political climate." The island's general
population is ignorant of the existence of GE crops and foods in its
diets and fields, which contributes to the "good political climate"
that the speaker alluded to.

Resistance and Alternatives

Resistance against GMO agriculture is manifesting in almost all Latin
American countries from diverse sectors: from indigenous peoples who
work to preserve their millenarian farming traditions and protect
their seeds from genetic contamination, from environmental sectors
that warn about the environmental impacts of GMOs and industrial
agriculture, from farmers who seek to practice a truly ecological
agriculture, and from progressive organizations and agrarian reform

These voices of protest are integrated into the movement of opposition
to the Free Trade Area of the Americas and the neoliberal agenda.

Ecological or organic agriculture is positioning itself as an
alternative to GMOs and to the whole industrial monoculture
agriculture model controlled by transnational agribusinesses. Brazil
in particular has carved out a lucrative niche in the international
market for organic tropical produce, becoming a veritable export

Agribusiness corporations and their spokespeople allege that organic
farming is perfectly compatible with GE crops and that therefore both
can be employed. But organic producers and GMO opponents believe that
the two models of agricultural production cannot coexist and that as
the GE monoculture and agroecological production grow, the moment will
come when Latin America will have to choose between one of the two

[Published in cooperation with the Americas Program at the
International Relations Center, formerly Interhemispheric Resource
Center, online at www.irc-online.org.]

Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero is an analyst on biodiversity issues for the IRC
Americas Program. He is a Puerto Rican journalist, senior fellow of
the Environmental Leadership Program, a research associate of the
Institute for Social Ecology, and founding director of the Puerto Rico
Project on Biosafety.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2005.