Argentina: GM Soy Wreaks Cultural and Economic Havoc
Upside Down World, 8 January 2009
Soy, she tells me, is “a disease, stuck in the marrow of my bones. It sustains me enough to keep me breathing at the end of each day, but it is rotting me alive. It is slowly numbing my body from the inside out. This crop has robbed me of my child. It has robbed me of my youth, my hope, my want to look ahead to a future. I am not the only one. There are many of us. In America you have cocaine to kill slowly; in Argentina we have soybeans.”
Her name is Sonita Ponce. She is thirty-three, but she looks much older. She lives with her husband in the same stone, tin and mud hut that her great grandparents built and passed down through the generations. Their farm is located thirty miles south of Bolivia, in the northern Argentine province of Jujuy. Sonita’s family members have always been farmers, and until quite recently their farm produced a wide variety of crops including maize, quinoa, lettuces, and other legumes. This changed in the early years of 2000 when the craze of soy hit America and China. Then genetically modified soy seeds were introduced to Argentina. Suddenly the production demand for soybeans increased so dramatically that the local farmers of these countries could no longer meet the consumer demands, and land was bought up by multinational soy corporations. Many farmers have lost their jobs, homes, land, and health.
The Other Side of Argentine Agriculture
Another Argentine farmer first introduced me to Sonita and her husband. My friend had told Sonita that I was studying South American permaculture techniques, and that he thought it was important for me to come see the other side of agriculture in order to better understand the wide spectrum of South American farming. When Sonita invited me to come stay with her, I readily agreed, not quite understanding what I was about to experience.
When I reached Sonita’s hut she received me with a certain distant warmth. After she greeted me she sat me down on her dirt floor and went outside to light up her fire and cook me a meal. Within minutes she returned with a steaming bowl of tofu. I eagerly accepted the gift, but she didn’t smile at my tofu enthusiasm. I was so distracted by the hot food in front of me that I didn’t think to ask her why she wasn’t eating. I was halfway through the bowl when she tugged at my hand and told me that it was time so show me something. I got up reluctantly and walked outside with her, looking back at my half eaten tofu. We spent that first afternoon walking around the soy fields and counting abandoned shacks of old soy farmers.
In the past, farming in Northern Argentina was community based and structured. The provinces in this part of the country are very hot and dry, and this ecosystem can naturally support only small networks of farms. Thus this area consisted of small communities built around many little farms. The average farm contained 100-250 hectares with 10-15 male field hands who maintained and harvested the crops by hand or simple machinery. Many of the workers lived in small shacks on or close to the property of the farm, turning it into a gathering and meeting place for them and their families. Without modern technology, these small farms had jobs or chores for every age group. Small children could harvest vegetables or tend animals. Wives cooked or accompanied the men in the fields. Older generations assisted the children with harvesting and other simple tasks.
The Catastrophic 'Miracle Crop'
Soy farming spilled over into Argentina and other South America countries. When Monsanto first introduced the soybean to the Argentine farmers, it was instantly a hit. The company claimed that they were bringing technology to bring farmers out of poverty. Sonita say that the company representative who came to her town to promote soy told her that it would bring “you country bumpkins out of poverty and up to par with the rest of the agriculture world of America.”
“At first,” Sonita tells me, “soy seemed to be a miracle crop.” The small farmers of these countries were excited by the prospect of an easy cash crop with such a high and steady demand. Sonita and her husband, like many other growers in the area, decided to convert all their fields to soy, hoping for quick revenue.
Chris Van Damme is a professor of environmental policy and sustainable development at the National University of Salta in Northern Argentina. In a study that he carried out in 2005, he found that between 1996 and 2004, soy output in Argentina rose from 11 million to 36.5 million tons, with 95 percent of that production for export, and that 70 percent of that export arriving in the US. Today Argentina produces 80 percent of the world’s soy. During a conversation that I had with Damme, he also shared with me that because of the high demand, soybeans now cover half of available arable land in the country.
A Farmerless Crop
As soy fields spread, the US agrochemical giant Monsanto Corporation, developed and introduced the genetically engineered “Roundup Ready” (RR) soybean into the agriculture sector of South America. All parties concerned predicted that the introduction of the genetically modified (GM) soybean would advance farmers economically and technologically. The RR seed is resistant to the herbicide glyphosate, meaning that when the farmers spray glyphosate on their fields, the herbicide kills all the weeds without hurting the soy seed. Without a weed problem, the farmers dramatically decrease or stop tilling their fields, saving gas and machinery cost.
From an economic standpoint, Monsanto thought that cutting production costs would increase profit. They failed, however to understand that by bringing in these GM crops, they were uprooting the social structure and culture that the people of Northern Argentina survived on. “Genetically modified soy is a farm product that needs no farmers,” Sonita explains, “which was what made it so appealing to all of us. We just weren’t ready for the long terms effects.”
With less machinery being operated, and the “built-in” weed management system, few hands are needed to tend to the crops. The labor requirement now for a soy farm is only one job per 100-55 hectares, which creates a large increase in unemployment throughout Northern Argentina. Without the need for extra field hands, suddenly thousands of workers and their families found themselves jobless, and, not soon after, homeless. These workers were the first people to feel the direct impact of the new GM soy crop.
A Cycle of Loss
The Pampas are the richest farming lands in Argentina. In this region a farmer needs to have at least fifty hectares in order to receive a good return. In the more northern provinces, where the economy is much weaker and the fields are farther away from the ocean ports, a farmer needs at least 1,000-2,000 hectares to make the same profit from soy as the Pampas farmer. The northern land is much more dry and growing soy on this land depletes the soil of its nutrients. Traditionally a farmer would have used a crop rotation in order to keep this soil healthy, yet because there is such a high overseas demand for soy, the small struggling farmers of this area continue to grow soy, hoping to grow themselves out of debt. This intensive soybean cultivation has led to massive soil nutrient depletion. Damme estimates that continuous soybean production has extracted about a million metric tons of nitrogen and about 227,000 metric tons of phosphorous from these fields. The estimated cost of
replenishing this nutrient loss with fertilizers is around US $910 million.
Currently, local soy farmers are slowly accumulating more and more debt. Soy is not turning out be the easy cash crop that they at first thought it was. When Monsanto first introduced the RR seed in 1996, they sold their product at a heavily discounted price in order to get into the market. Today over 90 percent of the 13 million hectares of Argentine soy fields are sown with the Monsanto RR seed. Farmers are now dependent on this seed and the no-tillage no-machinery style of farming that it has developed. Thus, a couple years ago when Monsanto began to charge high royalties for their seeds, many small farmers began to run into financial problems. Monsanto also outlawed seed saving, making it illegal to collect seeds from the present crop, to plant in the upcoming year, forcing farmers to come back and buy expensive Monsanto RR seed season after season. Monsanto hired government agriculture officers to enforce this new law, heavily fining and prosecuting farmers who had
replanted farm-saved seeds.
According to a study recently carried out by Damme and his students, the Argentine governmental banks are auctioning 24 million acres of land, belonging to bankrupted small farmers, in order to pay back debts. Within the past decade, 160,000 Argentine families have left the land. As the small farmers are moving out, the larger farmers are moving in. Overseas corporations, many of which produce soy products in China and America, have recently begun to buy up this land in order to grow soy cheaply and provide the soy content of their products. These large corporations have the money and technology to buy the land of several small farms, and combine the properties into one massive GM soy plantation. With the competition that these large corporations bring, the few remaining local farmers are even more financially stressed.
As Sonita walks me though field after field, all of which used to belong to individual families, she suddenly turns to me and says, “Your people were the ones who developed this technology to help ‘move’ us forward. But then they saw how successful and cost effective it was, and they just couldn’t stay away. Your people were too greedy. They had to come in for more share of the profit. Let me show you what my people are doing now. “
Far off in the horizon there appears to be wooden sculptures are cardboard boxes held together with bits and pieces of tin, twine, and newspaper and anything else extra, anything to make shade from the sun. Sonita leads me through the rickety cardboard village, explaining to me that this barrio outside of Jujuy is made up of al old soy farmers and workers who have lost their jobs, land and farms. These people tried to move into the city to find work, but since the collapse of the Argentine economy in 2004, unemployment has continued to rise and jobs are hard to come by. Data from The Argentine National Institute of Agricultural Technology states that between 1998 and 2006, extreme poverty levels increased from 12 to 43 percent in the soy towns of Northern Argentina.
The True Costs of Soy
As we walk through the town, Sonita points out her old neighbors and waves to them. In response, the people just eye us wearily. She tells me that since she and her husband are some of the only small farmers still holding onto their own land, many of their old friends resent them, suspiciously believing that they are somehow working for one of the big soy companies. “Little do they know, this crop is killing me and my family slowly, just like the rest of them” she says, referring to her recent miscarriage.
By the time we got back to her hut night had fallen and my tofu was hours cold. I didn’t want to create waste in a land of so little, so I tried to swallow a couple bites of the cold mush left of the tofu she had made for me when I arrived, but it left my stomach feeling sick and empty.
The subject of her miscarried child is one that she subtly continues to bitterly mention throughout my time with her. Finally, during our last hours together, I ask her directly about her child. She tells me that she was around six months pregnant when she had a miscarriage, which she blames on the soy. With poverty rates on the rise and an overload of soy, the Argentine government began to promote soy as a healthy alternative to traditional food staples such as milk and meat. As a result, many people were consuming only soy-based foods. Argentine doctors have recently begun to see the side effects of this plan and they are realizing that such an unbalanced soy diet can have nutritionally damaging effects. Too much soy can inhibit absorption of calcium, iron, zinc, and vitamin B12, harming internal organs and the female reproductive system. Sonita tells me that even now, the sight of soy repulses her, yet she eats it “at every meal. Soy is the only food I can afford because I
grow, eat, dream, and sweat it.”
As we said goodbye, Sonita asked me what I am going to do about the experience I had seen over the past couple days. She expected that with the power of being an American, I would be able to do something to help her. It was hard to look her back in the eye and tell her how overwhelmed I felt after seeing her world. I wish I could repeat back to her something that she once said to me, that life is poco a poco. Change is little by little. This is my poco a poco.
This first appeared in the Cipher Magazine, of Cutler Publications, a student-run organizationof Colorado College.
Meriwether Hardie is an environmental science major at Colorado College and is currently writing a thesis on the social impact of CDM reforestation projects under the Kyoto Protocol. Contact: Meriwether.Hardie(at)coloradocollege.edu