1st February, 2003
As the people of Argentina are driven by economic collapse to the point of starvation, a new solution is being imposed upon them. Ben Backwell reports on a country being force fed genetically modified soya designed not for humans, but for cattle
‘There is no justification for hunger in a country with one of the greatest levels of food production per inhabitant,’ says the text on the slick website of the Soya Solidarity campaign. Underneath, a few shiny clean soya beans in front of the smiling face of a child. ‘Its time that we replace attitudes based in egoism, bureaucracy, corruption, indifference and “don’t interfere” with those of solidarity, ethics, action, and fundamentally, dignity,’ gushes the statement.
It goes on in a similar tone to describe soya, ‘Argentina’s principle crop’, as ‘a high quality food for human consumption, given that it contains proteins of a high biological value, rich in all the essential amino acids that can practically replace meat in our diet. For cultural reasons, the custom of consuming soya has not been developed. Now the moment to do so has arrived. This can be part of the solution for the hunger that many Argentines are suffering.
The statement concludes with an appeal for producers to donate soya for needy families, with the help of transport operators, storage centres and the media, ‘whose job is to let everyone know about this project and publicise recipes for the use of soya as food.
Friends in high places
Solidarity Soya’s main sponsors are the Direct Sowing Producer’s Association (AAPRESID), which groups together large GM producers, Cargill, Chevron Texaco, the Argentine Exporters Association, the Grain Storage Association, the Vegetable Oil Chamber, the Rosario Agricultural Stock Exchange, and the powerful Sociedad Rural, which represents Argentina’s large landowners.
It is supported by powerful media interests such as Argentina’s biggest daily newspaper Clarín and the glossy magazine Gente – which called the Solidarity Soya campaign ‘a brilliant idea which could change history’. Héctor Huergo, a well known columnist for Clarín, called soya ‘a complete food, which just needs to enter into our culture.’ He went on to suggest that the government could save money on its social spending by supporting soya handouts instead of unemployment cheques. ‘Why spend 350 million pesos if we could save this through out solidarity scheme?’ asks Huergo.
The campaign has also been supported by media personalities such as the charismatic priest and founder of the Happy Children programme, Padre Julio Grassi, who is also currently on trial for child abuse and recipient of generous government handouts during the rule of the corrupt ex-President Carlos Menem.
‘Many times I prayed to God and the Virgin because I couldn’t feed the children,’ declared Grassi in Gente magazine. ‘That’s why the soya donations from APPRESID were a blessing from God.
According to Solidarity Soya’s website, the campaign has so far directly benefited hundreds of thousands of people in Greater Buenos Aires, Córdoba, Santa Fe, Formosa, Rosario, San Juan and Patagonia – thanks to diesel fuel supplied by Chevron Texaco – through literally thousands of churches, communal soup kitchens, boy scout groups, rotary clubs, neighbourhood assemblies, local councils, and political ‘point men’. It has donated some 677,000 kilos of soya in the last year, and is now directly feeding ‘700,000’ people, and ‘indirectly’ some 300,000 more, according to one of the coordinators of the campaign, Ezequiel Schnyder.
With its extensive social assistance network the Catholic Church has been a key actor in extending Solidarity Soya. When contacted by anti-GM groups alarmed at the effect of the campaign, Catholic charity Cáritas refused requests for meetings and sent a written reply saying that ‘there is no proof that soya, because it is GM, causes health problems for its consumers.
While they may not be willing to talk about soya’s risks, they are more than happy to give it out. The Three Times Ådmirable Mother orphanage and its 800 children will soon be running a soya plant capable of producing 30,000 soya rations per day, which will be distributed throughout the soup kitchens of the city of La Plata, Buenos Aires Province. The project will be run by Father Carlos Cajade, with technical support from La Plata University. The former street children that live in the orphanage will act as workers in the plant, as well as, of course, eating from plant’s produce.
The campaign has also ‘persuaded’ large soya producers to donate one tonne out of every 1,000 they produce to schools, neighborhood soup kitchens, churches and hospitals. The campaign then employs a network of promoters that travel the country giving seminars on how to prepare and cook soya beans into steaks, pasties, juices, stews and so on.
Given the almost complete ignorance amongst Argentina’s urban population about agricultural affairs, even many Buenos Aires neighbourhood assemblies have been happy to promote soya as a ‘natural’ substitute for the traditional staples of pasta, meat and cheese, which have become prohibitively expensive for most Argentines. One of the key tactics of Solidarity Soya has been to donate crushing machines to schools to produce soya ‘milk’, now that school canteens can no longer afford to give children a glass of milk per day. The campaign is also in the process of donating a huge plant in the Buenos Aires provincial capital of La Plata in order to make soya flour for pasta and other foods. The plant – run by a local catholic priest - will feed 800 poor children as well as other sections of the surrounding population.
The result is a disaster. ‘Mothers in the provinces are giving soya “milk” to their children thinking that it can replace real milk,’ says Jorge Rulli, a grey-bearded former political activist and member of the Rural Reflexion Group, who spends much of his free time visiting neighbourhood assemblies to counter pro-soya propaganda. ‘The result is anaemia, hormonal disruption, weak bones, rotten teeth, malnutrition.’ The GM feedstock soya that is now being consumed in Argentina is also extremely high in agro chemical traces. Typical traces are 20 ppm of Glyphosate compared to just 0.2 ppm in soya grown for human consumption, according to specialist in GM soya Luis Sabini Fernández. Furthermore, the human body can only absorb limited quantities of soya as it is highly acidic. Argentine strains of soya were developed to be consumed as oils, or by animals in their unfermented state. ‘There is no way that soya can act as a staple without leading to physical deterioration,’ says Rulli.
A government-sponsored congress on nutrition earlier this year produced a document entitled Criteria for the Incorporation of Soya. It explicitly warns that ‘Soya should not be denominated as “milk” as it it in no way constitutes a substitute for the latter.’ The document also warns against presenting soya as a ‘panacea’, and that it should only be consumed in moderate quantities as part of a balanced diet. It goes on to say: ‘Because of its high concentration of fitates, it interferes with the absortion of iron and zinc, and is not a good source of calcium.’ It warns against giving soya juice to children of two years and under, pregnant women, and indigenous people because of their deficit in iron and calcium.
‘Because of the fundamental role played by milk in the early years, its substitution by the misnamed soya “milk” is completely negative,’ says Andres Britos, from the Argentine Centre for the Study of Infant Nutricion (CESNI). ‘Lack of calcium will inhibit growth and lead to badly formed bones, while the lack of absorbable iron in soya can lead to anaemia.’ Britos warns that soya proteins are not as complete as those contained by meat, and warns that high levels of estrogen in soya may lead to premature development of the sexual organs if it is consumed in ‘exaggerated’ quantities.
Despite this, the government has turned a blind eye while the Soya Solidarity campaign does exactly that. In many areas, government bodies such as the National Farming Technology Institute (INTA) participate in the campaign, ignoring the guidelines spelt out above. The governor of Buenos Aires state, Felipe Solá, who was Agriculture Secretary when GM was introduced, is a firm supporter of the soya complex, and has even been prepared to use his own family as an example of the supposed benefits of a soya diet. The immediate effects in terms of the impact of this sudden introduction of soya in place of traditional foods have yet to be measured, as its effects are only now emerging in the crumbling hospitals of Argentina’s provinces. And quite apart from the open promotion of soya as staple food, much of the cheaper food sold in supermarkets already contains up to 50 per cent soya – to add consistency and volume – in everything from hamburgers to biscuits and pasta fillings.
According to Teubal, the imposition of the soya model is creating a kind of ‘dietary apartheid’, where the rich continue to eat the same diversity of foodstuffs as before, and the poor are given ‘second rate soya’. ‘The point is that this whole change of model is a business, he says. ‘It has nothing to do with people’s needs. Technology is not neutral, and GM will not resolve the problem of hunger, in the same way that the Green Revolution didn’t before.
For Rulli, the effects may be even worse: ‘We are addicted to Soya. We have been assigned a role in the world as a producer of soya and in many ways we are now a laboratory. We are seeing all kinds of things due to toxicity: precocious sexual development, early pregnancies, and at the same time, stunted growth. Hormonal disruption will end up making the population less aggressive, creating a new, more docile kind of citizen.
This propoganda is the latest development in the transformation of Argentina from a food producing nation to a supplier of feed for the livestock of wealthy nations. Its instrument is GM Soya. Its architects are the giant agro industrial corporations and the biotech firm Monsanto. And its supporting actors are a host of organisations, rural producers, NGOs and individuals who are disingenuously promoting soya as a miracle food that can solve the problems of Argentina’s poor.
‘People keep saying we are “the breadbasket of the world”, but they are missing the point,’ says Rulli. ‘We have become, not a “banana republic“ but a “soya republic”, a monoculture that is destroying people’s livelihoods, and preparing the way for famine.
Economy of Scale
The statistics are startling. In 1994/95 5.9 million hectares were dedicated to soya. By 1999/2000 that number had risen to 7.2m. By the latest estimates, the amount of land used for soya is now as high as 12.7m ha.
The volume of soya produced has grown in the last 10 years from 10m tonnes to an estimated 30m in 2002, making Argentina the world’s second largest producer of GM soya, behind the US, and the world’s largest exporter. Soya cultivation has spread like a cancer, both in traditional grain production areas and in the frontier agricultural regions such as Tucumán, Salta, Santiago del Estero and El Chaco. The onslaught is carrying all before it, affecting even regions such as the forest of Yunga, now disappearing at a rate of 1000ha per year, to be replaced by the green uniformity of Soya.
‘We have already lost – for ever – more than 130,000ha of forest,’ says the director of the Argentina’s Fundación Vida Silvestre (Wildlife Foundation), Javier Corcuera. ‘If we carry on like this we can expect more flooding and less natural resources for the population.
While Argentines go hungry, the lion’s share of the soya production goes to European feed lots, to sustain the ‘phantom hectares’ of cattle production that could not exist if it were not Argentina and other feedstock producers. The rest is exported as oils, to Asia.
Soya production has been expanding since the 1980s. The process accelerated, however, in 1996 with the introduction of Monsanto’s GM seed, Roundup Ready (RR). RR’s introduction occurred without any form of public debate in Argentina’s parliament and was retrospectively given legal sanction by the Ministry of Agriculture. The result – Argentina is by far the most successful country for Monsanto in terms of take up of its product, with over 95 per cent of producers using RR.
‘The direct planting and the GM soya go hand in hand,’ explains Professor Miguel Teubal, investigator at the Rural Studies Group of the University of Buenos Aires. ‘With the introduction of GM soya and direct sowing, producers can carry out two harvests per year. They leave the leftovers and the weeds of the first season in place, and plant soya on top of it. To kill any thing still living, they put large quantities of Glyphosate on top of it.
The Glyphosate-based herbicide is called Round Up, and produced by Monsanto. The GM seed is called Roundup Ready and has been engineered for one thing only: to resist the Glyphosate. It is also produced by Monsanto, whose revenues in Argentina rose from $386m in 1998 to $584m in 2001 – nearly 10 per cent of its total earnings. Seemingly anticipating Argentina’s financial collapse and devaluation at the end of 2001, last year Monsanto opened a $136m production plant for Round Up in Zárate, Buenos Aires province.
In a worrying tendency, investigators at Conicet, the government-sponsored academic research council, say that Glyphosate use per hectare shows signs of significant increase in the mere five years or so that RR has been used, indicating that weeds are already becoming resistant to its use. The effect on biodiversity of this massive sustained use have yet to be calculated.
‘The main “advantage” for producers is not that the GM soya improves yields, or reduces agro-chemical use, but that it reduces labour costs,’ says Teubal. Producers no longer have to plough or prepare the soil, nor use several types of fertilisers of herbicides. All a producer has to do is employ someone to regularly measure a sample of crops for weed and parasite levels and, if necessary, telephone a crop spraying service to make another flypass. Indeed, in a government survey carried out in the state of Córdoba, 71 per cent of farmers said one of the main advantages of RR was that ‘it saves time’. This has led to a kind of ‘agriculture without producers’, reduced rural employment and sent further waves of displaced people into the shanty towns surrounding Argentina’s huge cities.
Ben Backwell is an investigative journalist based in Argentina.
The economies of scale needed for the mechanised agriculture of direct sowing, and the costs of the Monsanto’s herbicide and seeds, have left smaller farmers unable to survive. The amount of small and medium farm holdings in Argentina fell by more than 30 per cent between 1992 and 1999.
Since October 2000, 450,000 jobs have been lost, leaving more than 20 per cent unemployed, and more than half the population below the poverty line. Salaries have lost 70 per cent of their value and the economy is shrinking at a rate of 14 per cent, while inflation runs at 40 per cent. In Tucumán, 64 per cent now live in extreme poverty.
Aside from the traditional large barons who have always controlled the bulk of the fertile land, large swathes of the country are now in the hands of foreign tycoons such as George Soros, rural investment funds run by agronomists and bankers, and the ‘sowing pools’. Many medium farmers merely lease their land to these pools and live from the rent.
Argentina’s production of consumer food goods, and the food security provided by rural producers supplying produce for local markets, has been devastated. Milk production has declined to the point that Argentina is importing milk from Uruguay for the first time in its history, along with other traditional products such as lentils, chick peas, and sweetcorn, and cattle herds have struggled to survive as they are forced into more marginal areas. ‘Argentina was not a classic case of an agroexport model because we exported the same foodstuffs which we ourselves ate, and this provided food security,’ says Professor Teubal. ‘The introduction of the soya culture has dramatically increased our vulnerability.
‘We are replacing all the other crops and productive systems, which wouldn’t be a problem if it were easy to change back again, but we are wiping out entire woods, fruit plantations and dairy farms, and eliminating the diversity of our production,’ says Wálter Pengue, specialist in Genetic Plant Improvement of Buenos Aires University.
‘The displaced rural producer finds himself in the slums on the edges of the big city, where his knowledge is despised and unused, at the mercy of clientalistic political networks, reliant on hand outs,’ says Rulli. ‘Within a few years they find themselves completely screwed up physically and psychologically, and when the crisis comes, so does the hunger.’2003
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