Argentina, The Soya Republic

by Caelainn Barr

 

 “Many people are ill. Many mothers and children have cancers. People are suffering from cancer of the uterus, brain tumours, anaemia, lupus, and purpura. There have been numerous spontaneous miscarriages. The pregnancies don’t continue because the children are so malformed, the body eliminates them…they say it doesn’t matter even though they are killing us. But they’re not just killing us, they’re killing the environment too. To make a few pesos they will destroy the land and our lives.”

This is the voice of Corina Barbosa. Her son, like many others in her community, is ill because he has agrichemicals in his blood. The sicknesses that are rife amongst the people of Ituzaingó in Córdoba province are believed to be due to the chemicals being used to grow genetically modified (GM) soya.

This is a voice of the ‘Soya Republic’, a republic whose people are struggling to be heard. But who is destroying their land and their lives? And why is nothing being done about it?

Soya in Argentina

Argentina was once called the “bread basket of the world”. The country produced enough food to feed its population ten times over. Today Argentina is known as “The Soya Republic”. Half of the country’s arable land is dedicated to the growth of soya.

Soya is the nation’s economic lifeline and its biggest export, accounting for around a quarter of the country’s income. Ninety-five percent of the soya produced here is for export. The produce is mostly sent to Europe and South-East Asia, to be used for animal fodder and oils.

The extensive growth in producing the crop has happened rapidly and changed Argentina’s agricultural patterns. With a drive to produce more and more soya for economic gain, there have been few controls set on how the crop is grown. This has lead to the development of mass agriculture focused on a soya monoculture.

A monoculture is when one crop is grown over a wide area. This tends to be the only crop grown from season to season and so there is no crop rotation. This is an unsustainable farming practice as the same nutrients are extracted from the soil each season. Fernando Vilella, director of the Programme for Agribusiness and Foods at the University of Buenos Aires (UBA) explains: “Monoculture of any type is careless. It lowers sustainability, and is against wise farming practice.”

The rise of a soya monoculture has affected changes in the country’s environment and diet. The rush to clear land for soya farming has lead to rapid deforestation with a loss of 25,000 hectares of native forests a year and is the greatest cause of species extinction in Argentina.

The increased production of soya for export has also lead to a decrease of other crops being produced in the country. Consequently Argentina’s population is becoming more dependent on imported foods, causing a rise in food prices.

The consequences of this agricultural model have a great impact on the country’s long-term welfare. However, the immediate effects of GM soya farming on the rural population are more startling.

The increased production of soya for export has lead to a decrease of other crops being produced in Argentina

Genetically Modified Soya in Argentina

Since their introduction in 1995, Argentina has become the second biggest producer of GM crops in the world (the U.S. is the first), with the majority of the plants being grown this way.

GM soya is grown as it promises to be a more lucrative crop for those in agribusiness. It requires less manpower, as it can be machine planted and needs less tending as it can be sprayed with herbicides. These herbicides contain a chemical called glyphosphate, which kills the weeds specific to soya plants, without damaging the soya crop.

GM soya’s resistance to glyphosphate-based herbicides makes it different from other crops. Vilella says: “GM soya reduces the costs basically. It doesn’t augment the production. It is very adaptable as it’s immune to glyphosphate.”

There has been much controversy over the health effects of glyphosphate. Studies have found a wide range of negative health effects caused by the chemical as found in the herbicides used to grow GM soya. These studies show damage to the liver and kidneys, endocrine disruption, nervous system disorders, developments signifying the early stages of cancer and a multitude of other health problems.

At present 180-200 million litres of glyphosphate are used in the farming of GM soya each year in Argentina. Barbosa is not alone in believing this same chemical has lead to the illness of her son and many others in her community.

Fumigations

It is the method of herbicide application that causes the majority of the problems for residents bordering GM soya farms. To save time and money, on large farms herbicides are sprayed from the air using small planes, in a practice known as fumigation. But the herbicide does not only cover the GM soya crop: it is also swept by the wind into neighbouring fields and communities.

Fumigations have resulted in the destruction of crops, water contamination and the death of farm animals. They have also had devastating effects on the health of those living in areas bordering GM soya farms, like in the community of Ituzaingó.

With rising anxiety in areas bordering GM soya farms, rural organisations and hospitals have begun to document the increasing health problems they have been seeing.

Argentine NGO, ‘Paren de Fumigar’, is compiling information on the effects of fumigations in rural communities. They are working with six neighbourhoods in Santa Fe, Córdoba and Buenos Aires province to record people’s health concerns. By the end of this year they hope to publish their findings and present it to the government.

Protest against crop fumigation

Photo courtesy of Grupo de Reflexión Rural - Paren de Fumigar

Existing independent studies show evidence of an increase in illnesses in GM soya farming areas. At Hospital Materno Infantil in San Roque, Entre Ríos, between 1995 and 2002 there was a notable increase in the treatment of cases of skin disorders, hormone imbalances, respiratory illness and digestive problems.

One of the doctors at the hospital, Daniel Verzeñassi, made a public announcement in 2001 saying that pediatric endocrinology at the hospital was in a state of collapse. He stated that there was no way of determining what was causing so many illnesses as no official research was being carried out.  Despite the lack of official study, many believe the blame rests squarely on the shoulders of GM soya.

In 2002, residents in Ituzaingó, Córdoba, began to question why there were so many people with cancer in their community. The district is bordered by three GM soya farms, which engage in routine crop fumigation. Women, like Barbosa, started to keep records of the health problems in their community.

During their study, over 300 cases of cancer were found in the community of 5,000 – more than 60 of them in minors. Many of the children also suffered from asthma and recurrent paralysis. They also found an alarming increase in the rise of autoimmune diseases, hormone imbalances, bronchial problems, skin problems and allergies. They suspected the problems were due to the herbicides being used to grow the GM soya nearby, as the trends indicated higher rates of suffering around the time the fumigations were taking place.

A member of Madres of Ituzaingó presents a map showing the distribution of people with cancer and other illnesses
in the area. Photo courtesy of Grupo de Reflexión Rural

The Mothers of Ituzaingó presented their case to local authorities. They say that although the authorities took notice, their claims were not taken seriously and the fumigations continued. “When they (the farmers) fumigated, the police were never there because they began to fumigate at night. The police officers said that they could not enter the farms because they were ‘private property’ or that they could not note the problems as they didn’t have a pencil.”

The neighbourhood representatives also brought the matter to the attention of the Ministry of Health in Córdoba. They wrote to the ministry asking for tests to be carried out on their water supply as they suspected it was contaminated with agrichemicals. Their requests weren’t met. The Mothers were told the letter was never read but archived.  The ministry did take notice however when the representatives proposed to express their concerns on national television. Soon after the requested water tests were carried out. The results showed high levels of sulphates, metals and agrichemicals in the water they were consuming.

The Mothers reported that although the fumigations eventually ceased, some members of the group were intimidated. One member, Sofía Gatica, began to receive threats, and on one occasion a stranger entered her home with a firearm.

“I think we are unprotected because the politics are abusive,” Barbosa says. “We are not middle class, we are poor, working people. The fight that we are leading is uneven because they are so powerful, money wise. Even though it’s killing us they won’t admit it.” Although the fumigations have temporarily ceased, the soya crop is still grown 500m from their homes.

Barbosa says that the best question we can ask is why the government isn’t doing more to help communities like her own. She says that collusion between government and agribusinesses is known. “There is much political interest, monetary interest. When there’s a lot of money involved and they (the government) come and tell you ‘take this, shut up and don’t say anything’, everyone is involved. It’s a trick, a bribe, a dirty deal.”

What Barbosa perhaps means by this is that industry representatives from the major biotech and agricultural companies are on the National Agricultural Biotechnology Advisory Committee (CONABIA). The group advises the government on biotech issues as part of the Department of Agriculture.

Many believe the group was also key to allowing GM crops to be legalised in Argentina under the presidency of Carlos Menem in the 1990s with no public debate or discussion in Congress.

Argentina’s Future

GM soya has become Argentina’s solution for short-term economic gain. Whilst the health and welfare of residents in communities like Ituzaingó are in decline, one has to ask what the long-term effects of these farming practices will be.

The problems faced by communities affected by fumigations, show that “The Soya Republic” has a long way to go before it serves the people of these neighbourhoods. Until it does, Argentina may remain a “republic” in which the economy and private companies, not the people, direct government policy to their own gain.

Barbosa says: “Agribusinesses would prefer to earn one dollar than have healthy people. Before we were the grain suppliers of the world, now we are living in a toxic dump. It’s genocide.”


© Caelainn Barr is an Irish freelance writer, living and working in Buenos Aires. This article is part of her continued study on the effects of genetically modified crops.

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This article originally appeared in The Argentimes

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