Argentina's GMO soy raising environment concerns
por Hilary Burke - Reuters Buenos Aires Wednesday June 02, 2004 at 09:37 PM
Source: Indymedia Argentina
Argentina's whole-hearted embrace of genetically modified soybeans is wreaking environmental havoc because of certain pesticides used on the altered crop as well as a jump in the amount of forests being cleared for soybean planting, critics charge. Over 90 percent of Argentina's 30 million tonnes of soybeans are engineered to resist glyphosate, a comparatively benign herbicide that some green groups and researchers say creates resistant weeds and kills soil bacteria.
BUENOS AIRES, May 25 (Reuters) - Argentina's whole-hearted embrace of genetically modified soybeans is wreaking environmental havoc because of certain pesticides used on the altered crop as well as a jump in the amount of forests being cleared for soybean planting, critics charge.
Over 90 percent of Argentina's 30 million tonnes of soybeans are engineered to resist glyphosate, a comparatively benign herbicide that some green groups and researchers say creates resistant weeds and kills soil bacteria.
Government scientists and biotech backers fiercely dispute those claims. But no one denies that Argentina's feverish planting of modified soybeans to the exclusion of other crops, and in areas once forested, raises environmental concerns.
"Nowhere else in the world has there been such a massive adoption of GMO (genetically modified organism) soy and glyphosate," said Luisa Nisensohn, a researcher at the National University of Rosario who has studied glyphosate's effects on weeds for five years.
"This phenomenon must be studied to prevent future problems," Nisensohn added.
In the last 10 years, Argentina's soybean area has grown by 250 percent to a record 14.2 million hectares, thanks partly to cheaper and easier-to-grow GMO soybeans and no-till planting, which permits farming in drier, less fertile areas.
Above all, soy's profitability has fueled the boom. Chicago Board of Trade futures contracts rose to 15-year highs last month and world demand, led by China, keeps rising for vegetable protein to use in animal feed, for cooking oils, or even for biodiesel fuels.
Argentine biotech opponents say the profit-seeking by soy farmers and processors is devastating Argentina's soil.
"It has been proven that glyphosate kills bacteria in the soil ... The soil is dying, there are no microbial colonies, there are no earthworms," said Jorge Eduardo Rulli, a founder of the local, anti-GMO Group for Rural Reflection.
Argentina's arm of U.S. biotech pioneer Monsanto Co., which developed glyphosate-resistant soybeans and markets glyphosate worldwide as Roundup, declined to comment.
But Monsanto UK, in response to an article published last month in the British magazine New Scientist that included similar claims, said, "Glyphosate remains effective and has a long history of safe use." Monsanto UK also referred readers to related links on its Web site, http://www.monsanto.co.uk.
The New Scientist warned as well of the possible emergence of glyphosate-resistant "superweeds." Nisensohn said that only naturally tolerant weeds have cropped up so far and resistance could be prevented by mixing or alternating herbicides.
Argentine government scientists say the benefits of no-till planting, which prevents erosion by leaving organic matter on top of soils, outweigh concerns about glyphosate.
"The worst thing you can do to the soil is till it," said Hector Tassara, a government biotechnology researcher.
TREE-FELLING AND MONOCULTURE FEARS
Greenpeace activists this month protested deforestation by soybean growers in the northern province of Santiago del Estero, spreading a gigantic banner over a recently cleared plot that read: "Not One More Hectare."
The expansion of soybeans "is not only destroying what's left of our forests ... it is depriving us of their benefits: climatic protection and water retention, which averts flooding and soil degradation," the group said in a statement.
Provinces outside Argentina's central farming region -- such as Entre Rios to the east and Chaco, Santiago del Estero, Salta and Tucuman to the north -- now produce nearly 21 percent of the nation's soy crop, up from 9.5 percent 10 years ago.
"The expansion of the farming region is worrisome because it's uncontrolled growth ... not because it's GMO soy or because glyphosate is used," said Gabriela Levitus, executive director of ArgenBio, which groups the top biotech companies.
The area seeded with corn, sunflower seeds and cotton has fallen sharply as soybeans advance. Critics say the government should promote crop rotation with subsidies, but steep export taxes have made soybeans the state's top source of dollars.
"There is no agriculture policy because soy exports are very profitable for the government," said Jose Castellano, president of the Rural Society in San Francisco, Cordoba.
Charles Benbrook, an Idaho-based agricultural technology consultant who has written about U.S. research on glyphosate, finds Argentina's whole-hog approach worrisome.
"You can't rely on one tool alone to manage any major type of pest without setting the stage for an ecological meltdown," Benbrook said.
((Edited by Christian Wiessner; Reuters Messaging: firstname.lastname@example.org; Buenos Aires newsroom, tel. +5411 4318 0663))