ready soybean in Latin America: a machine of hunger, deforestation and
Altieri -University of California, Berkeley And Walter A. Pengue -University
of Buenos Aires, Argentina
The biotech industry and their research allies celebrated in 2004 the
continual expansion of biotech crops for the ninth consecutive year
at a sustained double-digit growth rate of 20%, compared with 15% in
2003. The estimated global area of approved biotech crops for 2004 was
81.0 million hectares and this is considered a triumph because they
claim that in 22
countries, biotech crops have met the expectations of millions of large
and small farmers in both industrial and developing countries. They
also claim that biotech crops are also delivering benefits to consumers
and society at large, through more affordable food, feed and fiber that
require less pesticides and hence a more sustainable environment (James
2004). It is difficult to visualize how such biotechnological expansion
has met the needs of small farmers or consumers when 60% of the global
area of transgenic crops (48,4 million hectares) is devoted to herbicide
resistant (roundup ready), a crop mostly grown by large scale farmers
for export (not for local consumption) and in importing countries devoted
for animal feed for meat
production consumed mostly by wealthier sectors of the population.
In Latin America, countries producing soybean include Argentina, Brazil,
Bolivia, Paraguay and Uruguay. The expansion of soybean is driven by
prices, government and agroindustrial support and importing countries
demand, especially China, the world's largest importer of soybean and
soybean products, a market that encourages rapid proliferation of soybean
production. Soybean expansion is accompanied by massive transportation
infrastructure projects that unleash a chain of events leading to destruction
of natural habitats over wide areas beyond to the deforestation directly
caused by soybean cultivation. In Brazil soybean profits justified improvement
or construction of 8 industrial water ways, 3 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
with severe impacts on biodiversity not accounted for by any impact
assessment study (Fearnside 2001). In Argentina, the agroindustrial
cluster area for transformation of soybean into oils and pellets is
concentrated in the Rosario region on the Parana river, turning it into
the largest soy transformation area of the world, with all the associated
infrastructure and the environmental impacts that these entail.
Soybean expansion and Deforestation
The area of land in soybean production has grown at a rate of 3.2%,
and soybean today occupies the largest area of any crop in Brazil with
21% of the total cultivated land. The area planted to soybean has increased
by 2,3 million hectares since 1995 for an average increase of 320,000
hectares per year. Since 1961 soybean increased 57 times and production
volume increased 138 times. In Paraguay soybeans are planted on more
than 25 % of all agricultural land in the country and in Argentina soybean
acreage reached in 2000 almost 15 million hectares producing 38,3 million
metric tons. All these expansion is occurring dramatically at the expense
of forests and other habitats. In Paraguay much of the Atlantic forest
is being cut (Jason 2004). In Argentina 118,000 hectares of forests
have been cleared to grow soybean, in Salta about 160,000 hectares and
in Santiago del Estero a record of 223,000 hectares. In Brazil, the
Cerrado and the savannas are falling victim to the plow at a rapid pace.
Soybean and the expulsion of small farmers and loss of food
Biotech promoters always cite the expansion of soybean acreage as a
measure of successful adoption of the transgenic technology by farmers.
But these data hides the fact that soybean expansion leads to extreme
land and income concentration. In Brazil, soybean cultivation displaces
11 agricultural workers for every one finding employment in the sector.
This is not new as in the 1970s, 2,5 million people were displaced by
soybean production in Parana state and 0,3 million in Rio Grande do
Sul. Many of these landless people moved to the Amazon where they cleared
pristine forests pushed by structural forces. In the cerrado region
where transgenic soybean is expanding there is relatively low displacement
because the area is not
widely populated (Donald 2004).
In Argentina the situation is quite dramatic as 60 thousand farms went
out of business while the area of roundup ready soybean almost tripled.
In 1998 there were a total of 422,000 farms in Argentina while in 2002
there were 318,000 farms, a reduction of 24,5%. In one decade soybean
acreage increased in 126% at the expense of lands devoted to dairy,
maize, wheat and fruit production. In the 2003/2004 growing season,
13,7 million hectares of soybean were planted at the expense of 2,9
million hectares of maize and 2,15 million hectares of sunflowers (Pengue
2005). Thus by biotech industry standards huge increases in the soybean
area cultivated and more than a doubling of yields per unit area are
considered an economic and agronomic success; for the country such increases
mean more imports of basic foods, therefore loss of food sovereignty,
and for poor small farmers and consumers such increases only mean increased
food prices and more hunger (Jordan 2001).
Soybean expansion in Latin America is also related to biopolitics and
the power of multinationals. The manner in which since in the period
2002-2004, millions of hectares of roundup ready soybean were planted
in Brazil (while a moratorium was still in effect) raises questions
about how big multinationals maneuvers to expand their products over
extensive areas in developing countries. In the early years of transgenic
soybean introduction into Argentina, Monsanto did not charge royalties
to farmers to use the technology. 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. Paraguayan farmers have just signed
an agreement with Monsanto to pay the company $2 per metric ton. Trends
to control the seeds used by farmers is increasing, despite the fact
that the company claimed that it would not charge for royalties when
the crop was just expanding in the mid 1990s.
Soybean cultivation and soil degradation
Soybean cultivation has always led to soil erosion, especially in areas
where soybean is not part of a long rotation. Soil loss reaches an average
of 16 t/ha in the US Midwest, a rate that is still greater than is sustainable,
and it is estimated that in Brasil and Argentina soil loss levels average
between 19-30 t/ha depending on management, slope and climate. No-till
agriculture can reduce soil loss, but with the advent of herbicide resistant
soybean, many farmers now cultivate in highly erodible lands. Farmers
wrongly believe that with no till systems there is no erosion, but research
shows that despite improved soil cover, erosion and negative changes
in soil structure can still be substantial in highly erodible lands
if weed cover is reduced.
Large scale soybean monocultures have rendered Amazonian soils unusable.
In areas of poor soils, within two years of cultivation fertilizers
and lime have to be applied heavily. In Bolivia, soybean production
is expanding toward the east and many such soybean growing areas are
already compacted and soil degradation is severe. 100,000 hectares of
land with soils
exhausted due to soybean were abandoned for cattle grazing, which in
turn further degrades the land. As soils are abandoned, farmers move
to other areas to once again plant soybeans and thus repeat the vicious
cycle of soil degradation.
In Argentina intensive soybean cultivation has led to massive soil nutrient
depletion. It is estimated that continuous soybean production has extracted
about 1 million metric tons of Nitrogen and about 227,000 metric tons
of Phosphorous. The cost to replenish such nutrient loss via fertilizers
would cost an estimated US$ 910 million (Pengue 2005). Increases of
N and P in several basins of Latin America is certainly linked to the
increase of soybean production in the various rivers' watersheds.
A key technical factor in the rapid spread of soybean production in
Brazil was the development of soybean-bacteria combinations with pseudosymbiotic
relationships that allowed soybean production without fertilizers. This
productive advantage of Brazilian soybeans can quickly disappear in
the light of findings reporting direct toxic effects of the herbicide
glyphosate on the N fixing rizhobium bacteria, which potentially would
render soybeans to depend on chemical N fertilization. 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 N.
Soybean monocultures and ecological vulnerability
Ecological research suggests that reduction of landscape diversity due
to the expansion of monocultures at the expense of natural vegetation
have historically led to insect pest outbreaks and disease epidemics.
In such species poor and genetically homogenous landscapes insects and
pathogens find ideal conditions to grow unchecked by natural controls.
The result is
increased used of pesticides which after a while are not effective due
to the development of pest resistance or ecological upsets typical of
the pesticide treadmill. In addition pesticides lead to major problems
of soil and water pollution, elimination of biodiversity and human poisonings.
In the Amazon high humidity conditions under warm conditions induce
populations, resulting in the increased used of fungicides. In Brazilian
regions under till 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, fueled
by humid conditions and monoculture uniformity, rust commands increased
applications. Since 1992 more than 2 million hectares are now infected
by cyst nematodes. Many of these pest problems can be linked to the
genetic uniformity and increased vulnerability of soybean monocultures,
but also to direct effects of roundup on the soil ecology, through depression
of micorrizhal fungal populations and elimination of antagonists that
soil-borne pathogens under control (Altieri 2004).
In Brazil 25 % of all pesticides are used in soybean, which in 2002
received about 50,000 metric tons of pesticides. As the soybean area
rapidly expands, so does the growth in pesticide use which is increasing
at a rate of 22% 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
went up from 6,3 million pounds in 1995 to 41,8 million pounds in 2000,
and now the herbicide is used on 62% of the land devoted to soybeans.
In Argentina roundup applications reached an estimated 160 million liter
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 but
6% less than in conventional varieties, and are especially lower under
drought conditions. Due to pleiotropic effects (splitting of stems under
high temperatures and water stress) transgenic soybean suffer 25% higher
losses than conventional soybean. 72% of the yields of transgenic soybeans
were lost in the 2004/2005 drought that affected Rio Grande do Sul and
it is expected a 95% drop in exports with dramatic economic consequences.
Most farmers have already defaulted on 1/3 of government loans.
Other ecological considerations
By creating crops resistant to its herbicides, biotech companies can
expand markets for its patented chemicals. Observers gave a value of
$75 million for herbicide-resistant crops in 1995 and by the year 2000
the market was approximately $805 million, representing a 61 percent
growth. Globally, in 2002 herbicide resistant soybean occupied 36.5
million hectares making it by far the number one GE crop in terms of
area (James 2004). Glyphosate is cheaper than other herbicides, and
although it is reducing the use of other herbicides in the final analysis,
overall companies sell much more herbicide (especially glyphosate) than
before .The continuous use of herbicides and especially of glyphosate
(also known as "Roundup" by Monsanto), which herbicide-resistant
crops tolerate, can lead to serious ecological problems. It is 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 (Rissler and Mellon 1996)
Given industry pressures to increase herbicide sales, acreage treated
with broad-spectrum herbicides will expand, exacerbating the resistance
problem. As the area treated with glyphosate expands, the increased
use of this herbicide 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. (Altieri 2004) In the Argentinian Pampas 8 species of weeds,
among them 2 species of Verbena and one species of Ipomoea, already
exhibit resistance to glyphosate (Pengue 2005).
Herbicide resistance becomes more of a problem as the number of herbicide
modes of action to which weeds are exposed become fewer and fewer, a
trend that transgenic soybean reinforces due to market forces. In fact,
weed populations can tolerate or "avoid" certain herbicides
such as the case in Iowa where common waterhemp populations demonstrated
delayed germination and have "avoided" planned glyphosate
applications. The GE crop itself may also assume weed status in crops
that follow. For example, in Canada, volunteer canola resistant to three
herbicides (glyphosate, imidazolinone, and glufosinolate) has been detected,
a case of "stacked" or "multiple" resistance, and
now farmers have to resort to 2,4-D to control the volunteer canola.
In northern Argentina, there are several so-called "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. Large scale
cropping of GE crops encourages aerial application of herbicides and
much of what is sprayed is wasted through leaching affecting soil microorganisms
such as mycorrhizal fungi and even earthworms. But 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. 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. Glyphosate is a systemic herbicide (it moves through
the plant phloem) 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 (Rissler and Mellon 1996).
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. 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:
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 true bugs, 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. 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 and optimal efficiency.
Reduction of natural enemies leads unavoidable to enhance insect pest
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 derived from the production methods, mainly
heavy herbicide use and genetic pollution, they require massive transportation
infrastructure projects (waterways, highways, railways, etc.) which
impact ecosystems and make wide areas accessible to other environmentally
unsound economic and extractive activities.
Production of herbicide resistant soybean leads to environmental problems
such as deforestation, soil degradation, pesticide and genetic pollution,
as well as to 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 in the search for alternative agroecological methods.
The multiple impacts of soybean expansion also reduce the food security
potential of target countries as much land previously devoted to grains,
dairy or fruits is now devoted to soybean for exports. As long as these
countries continue to embrace neoliberal models of development and respond
to demand signals (especially China) from the globalized economy, the
rapid proliferation of soybean will increase, and so will the associated
ecological and social impacts.
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in Brazil. Environmental Conservation 28: 23-28
James, C. 2004. Global review of commercialized transgenic crops: 2004.
International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Application
Briefs No 23-2002. Ithaca, New York
Jason, C. 2004. World agriculture and the environment. Island Press.
Jordan, J.F. 2001. Genetic engineering, the farm crisis and world hunger.
BioScience 52: 523-529
Pengue, W. 2005. Transgenic crops in Argentina: the ecological and social
debt. Bulletin of Science, Technology and Society 25: 314-322
Rissler, J. and Mellon, M. 1996. The ecological risks of engineered
crops. MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.