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The GM Soy in Latin America

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The GM Soy in Latin America

The GM soya in Latin America: A machine of hunger, deforestation and ecological devastation

Miguel A. Altieri and Walter A. Pengue

For the ninth consecutive year, the biotechnology industry and its allies celebrate a continuing expansion of GM crops, which reached a double digit rate of 20%, surpassing even the 2003 15%. The estimated global area of crops released commercially in 2004 was 81 million hectares, which is considered a triumph which reached 22 countries and highlighting where is that transgenic crops reached the expectations of millions of farmers both large and small in industrialized countries such as those in developing countries. It also highlights that GM crops have brought benefits to consumers and society as a whole, better prepared to provide food, feed and fiber that require fewer chemicals and therefore a more sustainable environment (James 2004).

It is difficult to imagine how this expansion of the biotechnology industry is coming to meet the needs of small farmers or consumers, when 60% of the global area of transgenic plants (48.4 million hectares) is dedicated to soybeans resistant to herbicides (Roundup Ready soybeans), a crop planted mostly by large-scale farmers to export (not local) and on the other hand, is used in the importing countries for animal feed and meat production which is consumed mainly by the most affluent and well fed from these countries.

In Latin America, the producers of soybeans (GM and conventional) include Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay and Uruguay. This expansion of soybeans is motorized by good international prices, support from governments and the agribusiness sector and the demand for importing nations, especially China, which is now the largest importer of soybeans and their derivatives, a market driving the rapid proliferation of the production of this oilseed.

The process attracted other private investments for the forestry, mining, ranching and other practices with severe impacts on biodiversity, although not covered by any environmental impact study (Fearnside 2001). In Argentina, the agro-processing cluster of soybean oils and pellets is concentrated in the area Rosafé on the Paraná River, the largest area of soy transformation worldwide, with all the associated infrastructure and environmental impacts that this implies.

For immediate years, the Argentine agricultural sector has been the target of reaching 100 million tons of grain, which will require the increased area planted of soybeans to 17 million hectares.

Soy expansion and deforestation

The area of land devoted to soy production has grown at an annual rate of 3.2%, and soybeans currently occupies an area larger than any other crop in Brazil, with 21% of total cultivated land. Since 1995 the area planted increased by 2.3 million hectares, an average of 320,000 hectares per year. Since 1961, the increase in surface area increased 57 times the volume produced and did 138 times. For soybeans, are planted on more than 25% of all agricultural land in Argentina and the average was planted in 2005, fifteen million hectares with a production of 38.3 million tonnes.

This expansion is drastically directly affecting forests and other habitats. In Paraguay, a portion of the Paranaense forest is being deforested (Jason 2004). In Argentina, 118,000 hectares have been cleared in four years (1998-2002) to soybean production in the Chaco, Salta and 160,000 in a record 223,000 in Santiago del Estero.

The process of importing the industrial model of agriculture is in Pampeana and other ecoregions as the Chaco, it is the first step in a path of expansion that threatens social stability this ecoregion, and ecological as labile (Pengue 2005 b). In the northeastern province of Salta in 2002/2003, 51% of planted soybeans (157,000 hectares) were conducted in 1988/1989 which were still areas (Paruelo, Guerscham and Veron 2005).

In Brazil, the hills and savannas are victims succumbing plow by leaps and bounds.

Soy, expulsion of small farmers and loss of food security

The promoters of the biotechnology industry ever mentioned the expansion of area planted to soybeans as a way of measuring the success of technology adoption by farmers. But these figures hide the fact that the expansion leads to extreme soy demand for land and a concentration of benefits in a few hands. In Brazil, the model moves to eleven soy rural workers for every one who finds employment in the sector. The data is not new, since the seventies, 2.5 million people were displaced by the soy production in Paraná and 300,000 in Rio Grande do Sul Many of these landless, moved into the Amazon where they cleared rainforests pressured by structural forces and the environment. Moreover, in the Cerrados, where transgenic soybean is expanding, the rate of displacement is lower because the area was not extensively populated previously (Donald 2004).

In Argentina, the situation is quite dramatic because while the area planted to soybeans has tripled to nearly 60,000 farms were disappearing only in Las Pampas. In 1988, Argentina has a total of 422,000 establishments that were reduced to 318,000 in 2002 (24.5%). In a decade, with soybean production area has increased by 126% at the expense of land devoted to dairy, corn, wheat or fruit or vegetable.

During the 2003/2004 marketing year, 13.7 million hectares were planted at the expense of 2.9 million hectares of maize and 2.15 million hectares of sunflower (Pengue 2005).

Despite the biotechnology industry we highlight the significant increases in soybean acreage and more than doubling of yields per hectare, considered as an agronomic and economic success for the country that kind of increase means more imports food commodities, in addition to the loss of food sovereignty, and to small family farmers or for consumers.

The expansion of soybeans in Latin America is also related to biopiracy and the power of multinationals. The way that in 2002-2004, millions of acres of transgenic soybeans were planted in Brazil (when there was a moratorium on the contrary) makes us wonder how corporations are managed in these instances of prohibition to achieve this however expansion their products in countries under development.

In the early years of the commercial release of transgenic soybeans in Argentina, Monsanto Company no fee charged for the technology to farmers to use transgenic technology in their seeds. Today, the transgenic soybean and glyphosate have been installed as strategic inputs for the country, farmers were caught because the multinational is pressuring the government, making demands for payment of their intellectual property rights. This, despite the fact that Argentina is a signatory to the UPOV Convention 78, which allows farmers to save seed for their own use in the next cropping season. On the other hand, Paraguayan farmers have negotiated an agreement with Monsanto to pay for the multinational, $ 2 per tonne. The trend in the control of seed used by farmers is growing, despite the promising companies in the early nineties, not to charge fees for patents to farmers, when the GM crop was expanding.

Soybean cultivation and soil degradation

Soybean cultivation tends to erode the soil, especially in situations where it is not part of long rotations. Soil loss reached 16 tonnes / ha in the Midwestern U.S., a fee which could rise to between 19 to 30 tons / ha in Brazil or Argentina, according to management, the slope of the ground or climate. Direct seeding can reduce soil loss, but with the advent of herbicide-resistant soybeans, many farmers have expanded into marginal areas are highly erodible or planted in a recurring year after year, encouraging monoculture. Farmers mistakenly believed that direct seeding with no erosion, but the research results show that despite the increase of ground cover, erosion and negative changes affecting soil structure, can nevertheless be Substantial highly erodible land where the ground cover is reduced by stubble. The stubble left by soybeans is relatively small and cannot properly cover the floor if there is a proper rotation between cereals and oilseeds.

The large-scale of Soy monoculture makes Amazonian soils unusable. In places with poor soil, after only two years of agriculture, you need to apply fertilizers and hard limestone. In Bolivia, soy production expands eastward, making as many of these production areas are compacted or exhibit serious problems of soil degradation. 100,000 hectares of exhausted soils by soybean were left to cattle, also under this circumstance is highly degrading. As you leave the soil, farmers are seeking new areas again planting soybeans again, thus repeating the cycle of degradation.

In Argentina, the intensification of soy production led to a significant decline in nutrient content of soil. The continued production of soybeans has facilitated the collection, only in 2003, nearly one million tonnes of nitrogen and phosphorus around 227,000. Only to replace in the equivalent of commercial fertilizer nutrients to these two, it would take about $ 910 million (Pengue 2005). Increases of N and P in various coastal regions are certainly linked to the increasing soy production within the watersheds of several major South American rivers.

An important technical factor in the expansion of Brazilian production was due to the development of combinations of soybean symbiotic bacteria with known characteristics that enabled it to production without fertilizer. The advantage of the Brazilian soya production can quickly disappear in the light of reports about the direct effects of the herbicide glyphosate on nitrogen-fixing bacteria (Rhyzobium), which potentially require soybeans depend on mineral N fertilization. Also, the current practice of converting pasture to soybeans results in a reduction of the economic importance of Rhyzobium, growing to be resorting to synthetic nitrogen.

Monoculture and ecological soy vulnerability

Ecological research suggests that the reduction of landscape diversity become the expansion of monocultures at the expense of natural vegetation, has led to alterations in the balance of insect pests and diseases. In these landscapes, species-poor and genetically homogeneous, insects and pathogens are the ideal conditions to grow without natural controls (Altieri and Nicholls 2004). The result is an increased use of agrochemicals, which of course after a while and stop being effective because of the emergence of resistance or organic disorders of the typical application of pesticides. Moreover, the agrochemical lead to greater problems of contamination of soil and water pollution, disposal of biodiversity and human poisoning.

In the Brazilian Amazon, the conditions of high humidity and warm temperatures led to the development of fungal populations and attacks, with a consequent increase in the consumption of fungicides. Brazilian regions involved in the production increased cases of cancrosis (Diaporthe phaseolorum) and sudden death syndrome (Fusarium solani). The Asian soybean rust (Phakopsora pachyrhizi) is a new disease whose effects are increased in South America, motorized by favorable environmental conditions  (moisture) in addition to genetic uniformity of crops in monocultures.

Again the increase in applications of fungicides. Since 1992, more than two million hectares were affected by the cyst nematode in soybean (Heterodera Glycines). Many of these diseases can be linked to genetic uniformity and the increased vulnerability of monoculture, but also to direct effects of the herbicide glyphosate on soil ecology, through the depression of populations and the elimination of antagonists that keep many soil pathogens under control (Altieri 2004).

25% of the total agrochemical consumption in Brazil is applied to soybeans, which in 2002 was about 50,000 tons of pesticides.  While the soy area is expanding rapidly, so do the chemicals whose consumption is growing at a rate of 22% per annum. While advocates of biotechnology argue that a single application of herbicide is sufficient during the growing season, on the other side begin to appear studies showing that transgenic soybeans, increase both the volume and the number of applications of glyphosate. U.S. the use of glyphosate increased from 6.3 million pounds in 1995 to 41.8 million in 2000 (1 pound equals 0.4536 kg), currently being implemented on 62% of the land used for the production of soybeans. In the season 2004 / 5 in Argentina, glyphosate applications totaled 160 million liters of commercial product.

There are expected to increase further in the use of this herbicide, as the weeds start to become tolerant to glyphosate.

Yields of transgenic soybean in the region averaged 2.3 to 2.6 ton / ha, about 6% less than conventional varieties, yield substantially lower in drought conditions. Due to pleiotropic effects (breakage of stems under water stress), GM soybeans suffer 25% losses superior to their conventional. In Rio Grande do Sul during the drought of 2004 / 5 lost 72% of the production of transgenic soybean, an estimated 95% drop in exports, with severe economic consequences. Approximately one third of farmers were indebted and unable to meet its obligations to the government and businesses.

Other ecological considerations

With the creation of transgenic crops tolerant to its own herbicide, biotech companies can expand their markets for their own patented agrochemicals. In 1995, analysts had a market value for crops tolerant to herbicides of $ 75 million, which amounted to 805 million in 2000 (a 610% increase).

Overall, in 2002, glyphosate-resistant soybeans occupied 36,500,000 hectares, becoming the number one GM crop in terms of area planted (James 2004). Glyphosate is cheaper than other herbicides, despite the overall reduction in the use of these, the results indicate that companies sell more herbicides (especially glyphosate) than before. The recurrent use of herbicides (glyphosate, called Roundup Ready, as a trademark of Monsanto) on tolerant crops can cause serious ecological problems.

It is well documented the fact that a single herbicide applied repeatedly on the same crop, can undoubtedly increase the chances of emergence of resistant weeds. Have been reported around 216 cases of weed resistance in several families to one or more chemical herbicides (Rissler and Mellon 1996).

As the pressure of agribusiness to increase sales of herbicides and increase the area treated with broad-spectrum herbicides, resistance problems are exacerbated. While the area treated with glyphosate expands, the increase in the use of this herbicide can be, even slowly, in the emergence of resistant weeds. The situation has already been documented in Australian populations of annual rye grass (Lolium multiflorum), Agropiro (Agropyrumrepens), lotus leaf clover or wide leg bird (Lotus corniculatus), Cirsium arvense and Eleusine indica (Altieri 2004). In Las Pampas of Argentina, eight species of weeds, including 2 species of Verbena and Ipomoea and display tolerance to glyphosate (Pengue 2005).

Herbicide resistance is a complex problem when the number of herbicide modes of action to which weeds are exposed are reduced more and more, a trend reinforced in transgenic soybeans under market pressures. In fact, some weed species can tolerate or "avoid" certain herbicides, such as happened in Iowa, where the populations of Amaranthus rudis showed delayed germination and "escaped" to the planned applications of glyphosate. Also the same GM crop may assume the role of weeds in the crop later. For example, in Canada, with local volunteer canola resistant to three herbicides (glyphosate, glufosinate and imidazolinonas) has identified a process of "multiple" resistance, where farmers have now had to resort again to 2.4 D to control. In northeastern Argentina, the weeds are not controlled properly, so the farmers are back to other herbicides that had been shelved due to its greater toxicity, and cost management.

Biotech companies argue that when herbicides are applied correctly and do not produce negative effects on humans or the environment. GM crops on a large scale, favoring aerial applications of herbicides and many of its accumulated waste affect microorganisms like fungi or soil fauna. But the companies contend that glyphosate degrades rapidly in soil and does not accumulate in food, water or soil.

Glyphosate has been reported as toxic to some soil organisms - is beneficial controllers as spiders, mites, carabid and Coccinellid or detritivores such as earthworms and some species. There are reports that glyphosate also affects aquatic beings like fish and even acts as endocrinological disruptor in amphibians.

Glyphosate is a systemic herbicide (moves through the phloem) and is driven to all parts of the plant, including those that are harvested. This is worrying since it is not known exactly how glyphosate is present in grains of transgenic corn or soybeans as the conventional tests do not include in their analysis of residues of agrochemicals. The fact is, we know that this and other herbicides accumulate in fruits and other organs suffer as little metabolism in the plant, which generates the relevant question about the safety of processed foods, especially now that more than 37 million pounds of herbicides are used only in the U.S. (Risller and Mellon 1996). Even in the absence of immediate effects, it can take up to forty years as a potential carcinogen to act in a sufficient number of people to be identified as a cause..

Furthermore, research has shown that glyphosate seems to act similarly to antibiotics in altering soil biology in a way unknown and produce effects as:

  • Reducing the ability of soybeans and clover to fix nitrogen
  • Turning bean plants (beans) to a state more vulnerable to disease.
  • Reducing the development of fungi, which are a gateway to the removal of phosphorus from the soil.

In assessments of the effects of herbicide-resistant crops recently in the UK, the researchers demonstrated that the reduction in weed biomass, flowering and seed in and around fields of beets and canola resistant to herbicides such changes the availability of food resources for insects, with side effects that resulted in substantial reduction of various species of bugs, beetles and Lepidoptera. The data also show a reduction in predator beetles that feed on weed seeds in GM fields. The abundance of invertebrates that are food source for mammals, birds or other invertebrates showed lower in beet fields or transgenic canola.

The absence of flowering weeds in GM fields can result in serious consequences for beneficial insects (predator of pests and parasitoids) which require pollen and nectar to survive in the agroecosystem. The reduction of natural enemies inevitably aggravates pest problems.


The expansion of soybeans in Latin America represents a recent and powerful threat to the biodiversity of Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia and Uruguay.

The transgenic soybean is much more environmentally damaging than other crops because they are derived from the direct effects of production methods, especially the copious use of herbicides and genetic pollution, and infrastructure projects requiring mass transportation (waterways, motorways, railways and ports) that impact on ecosystems and facilitate the opening of vast tracts of territory and economic practices degrading extractive activities.

The production of soybeans resistant to herbicides leads to environmental problems like deforestation, soil degradation, pollution of land with severe and income, the expulsion of rural populations to the Amazonian frontier or areas like urban areas, encouraging the concentration of the poor in cities.

The expansion also diverts resources that could have been devoted to education, health or agroecological research alternative production methods.

Among the many impacts of the expansion, highlights the reduction of food security in the target countries, the land used previously was used for milk production, grain or fruit, and now focuses on soybean exports.

While these countries continue pushing neoliberal models of development and respond to signals from foreign markets (especially China) and the global economy, the rapid expansion of soybean continue to grow and of course, will also impact ecological and social partners.


  • Altieri, MA, 2004 Genetic engineering in agriculture: the myths, environmental risks and alternatives. Food First Books, Oakland.
  • Altieri, M.A. and C. I. Nicholls 2004 Biodiversity and pest management in agroecosystems. Haworth Press, New York.
  • Donald, P.F. 2004 Biodiversity impacts of some agricultural commodity production systems. Conservation Biology 18:17-37.
  • Fearnside, P.M. 2001 Soybean cultivation as a threat to the environment in Brazil. Environmental Conservation 28: 23-28.
  • James, C 2004. Global review of commercialized transgenic crops: 2004. International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Application Briefs No 23-2002. Ithaca, New York.
  • Jason, C. 2004 World agriculture and the environment. Island Press. Washington.
  • Jordan, J.F. 2001 Genetic engineering, the farm crisis and world hunger. BioScience 52: 523-529.
  • Paruelo, J., Guerscham, J. and Veron, S. 2005. Agricultural expansion and changes in land use. Science Today. Vol 15. N 87. Buenos Aires.
  • Pengue, WA2005 Transgenic crops in Argentina: the ecological and social debt. Bulletin of Science, Technology and Society 25: 314-322.
  • Pengue, WA 2005 b). Transnationalization and industrial agriculture in Latin America. ¿Transgenesis of a continent?. UNEP UNEP. Mexico.
  • Rissler, J and M. Mellon 1996 The ecological risks of engineered crops. MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.

* Miguel A. Altieri: University of California, Berkeley, Walter A. Pengue: Universidad de Buenos Aires, Argentina

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