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GM crops in Argentina

This year, Argentina will plant nearly 18 million hectares of GM crops, such as soybean (Eduardo Trigo)
This year, Argentina will plant nearly 18 million hectares of GM crops, such as soybean
Eduardo Trigo

While the debate over the introduction of genetically modified (GM) crops rages on in much of Africa, Asia and Europe, Argentina could not imagine a world without them. According to a recent study financed by the Argentine Council for Information and Development of Biotechnology (ArgenBio), since its introduction in 1996, GM technology has benefited Argentina to the tune of US$20 billion and the creation of one million extra jobs. This year Argentina will plant nearly 18 million hectares of GM crops, putting it second only to the United States in terms of production.

Over the past ten years the Argentine government has conducted nearly 900 GM field trials and has subsequently approved ten varieties for commercial growth - seven for maize, two for cotton and one for soybean. In this year's harvest, more than 98 per cent of all soybean, 70 per cent of maize and 60 per cent of cotton will be GM.

Environmental concerns

Genetically modified crops may be entrenched in Argentine agriculture, but that is not to say that the GM revolution marches on without controversy. Soybean, for example, has now spread from the traditional grain growing central pampa provinces into Argentina's environmentally sensitive north west - the provinces of Salta, Catamarca, Jujuy, Santiago del Estero and Tucumán.

Of particular concern is the loss of bio-diverse habitats and small rural communities in the Yungas and the Great Chaco forests. In total these forests cover one million square kilometres, including parts of Bolivia, Brazil and Paraguay. They are the second richest area of biodiversity in South America after the Amazon, and have a large indigenous population. Environmentalists say that the GM revolution is destroying these forests at worrying speeds.

More than 98 per cent of all soybean currently grown in Argentina is GM (Eduardo Trigo)
More than 98 per cent of all soybean currently grown in Argentina is GM
Eduardo Trigo

"Over the last ten years deforestation has been rapid, as areas are literally bulldozed to make space for crops such as soy," says Hernan Giardin, chief GM campaigner for Greenpeace Argentina. "We lose 250,000 hectares of forest per year in Argentina, which destroys diverse ecosystems and pushes small farmers and indigenous people off the land," he adds.

Size neutral?

Supporters of the new crop technology, however, are not convinced that GM is such a destructive tool. According to Dr Eduardo Trigo, co-author of the ArgenBio report, "the GM soy in Argentina is completely size neutral, so small farmers can grow it and benefit from its prices and if anything it actually leans slightly in favour of the environment." He cites a European example to strengthen his case: "Look at the UK where there is no GM and yet there is a tendency for big farms to get bigger at the expense of small farms. This is not a GM trend, it is a world agriculture trend."

According to the National Agricultural Census, of all those growing soybean in 2002, a quarter were small farmers with less than 100 hectares; only 13 per cent had more than 1000 hectares. Small farmers were also more reliant on GM crops, dedicating a comparatively higher percentage of their yearly cropping to soybean.

However, such reliance on soybean has caused serious monoculture issues, draining the land of its nutrients. Growing the crop in rotation with its natural partner, maize, would be much less damaging, and could be aided by Argentina's continuing biofuel boom. This, some experts believe, could be enough to support a higher price for maize, so giving farmers the incentive they need to grow both crops in rotation.

Food or money?

Understandably, price is the driving force behind farming, and from the Government to the exporters, the crushing facilities, the farmers and beyond, soybean is a gold mine. The country's grain exchange recently posted prices of £100 for a ton of soybean compared to £60 for a ton of wheat. Livestock farmers, hindered by government controls on meat exports and low domestic prices are increasingly sowing their land with soybean. Exports are expected to soar to 44 million tons in 2007.

But far from being a solution to world hunger, as the GM lobby claims, critics argue that soybean in Argentina is compounding the country's woes, where one third of the population are still malnourished. Land is being taken away from staple domestic foods such as beef and wheat and handed to an almost entirely export based commodity.

Bulldozer clearing forest to make way for crop cultivation (Greenpeace)
Bulldozer clearing forest to make way for crop cultivation

Figures from the ArgenBio study disagree, indicating that despite a reduction of nearly five million hectares in livestock farming, dairy and beef productivity has increased since the introduction of GM due to more efficient farming techniques. Furthermore, the interaction between soybean and no-till practices has allowed for a virtual expansion of cropping area by allowing double crop techniques and increased crop yields. "A soy crop can be planted in late December straight after wheat has been harvested - literally following the harvester through the field," says Dr Trigo, describing the advantages of the system.

So what is the future? As debate rolls on, one matter where environmentalists and GM supporters are largely in accord is over a new nationwide land planning regulation. This is to be ratified in the coming months, and will include a two to four year moratorium on deforestation and land conversion that aims to find sustainable answers for the future of Argentine farming.

Written by: William Surman

Date published: March 2007


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Under Menen, GM crops were introduced into Argentina, Unfort... (posted by: yasuyuki tateishi)


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