|CC photo of ripe soya beans by amicor on Flickr|
Soya was introduced into Argentinean agriculture in the early 1970s. It has been expanding steadily ever since, with a boost in the late 1970s due to the green revolution, and another one after 1996 due to the advent of Roundup Ready GM soya.
By 2001, after an institutional, political and economic crisis in the country, half of Argentineans were living in poverty. The government turned to GM soya as a basis for economic growth in the belief that it would create social well-being.
Argentina's modelo sojero has become a shining example which other poor countries are encouraged to follow. A continuous expansion of soya production has meant record harvests, and record profits from agro-exports, while both extreme and moderate poverty have been slashed to a fraction of 2001 levels (by 2011, extreme poverty in urban areas had lowered from 29.2% to 5.4% and moderate poverty had lowered from 45.5% to 12.9%). The GDP has grown steadily, even in 2010 and 2011 despite the global economic crisis.
The Argentinean soya model is based on free trade with the abolishment of subsidies, privatisation and light-touch regulation, and specialisation in a few commodities purely for export. One of these export specialities is GM soya grown under a high-tech regime in vast monocultures.
Also, weak intellectual property protection in Argentina has made GM soya much more cost-effective than elsewhere in the world. This, plus a thriving black market in seed means that only some 25 per cent of GM soya is certified and carries any technology fee. Adoption of no-till farming methods further save on the costs of labour and fuel.
Government revenues from GM soya export have been used to achieve the spectacular reductions in poverty.
This all sounds like a win-win fairy-tale route to economic health and human well-being.
But are there some flies in the ointment?
The record year-on-year soya harvests in Argentina aren't coming from increased yields but from expanding the land area under GM agriculture. Part and parcel of intensively cultivated Roundup Ready soya is the ever-increasing chemical applications, needed to combat the evolving Roundup-resistant weeds and progressive soil degradation.
The unchecked quality of uncertified and black-market seed could well be on a downward spiral.
Unrestricted foreign input and little regulation have handed a huge level of control to non-Argentinean interests. These interests must eventually come to include a revenue from the intellectual property rights so far avoided.
The march of the monoculture destroys everything in its path. Argentinean beef cattle, which were once raised on the pampas and were renowned for the quality of their meat, are now herded into feedlots and raised on GM fodder and chemicals. The forests, along with the people who used to make a living from them, have been swept aside: swathes of valuable natural biodiversity and the traditional skills on living off the land have been lost. As the value of any land which can be planted to soya soars, long-absent land-owners are quick to resurrect old claims to the title and evict loggers and their families. In such situations, violence escalates.
Such previously self-sufficient people are kept out of poverty by state handouts derived from the revenue of exported soya. Meanwhile the soya monocultures need highly trained machine operators, technicians and industry personnel, and university academics, but no unskilled labour force. The people have no work to turn to.
All levels of government in Argentina, from the State to Local Authorities are now trapped into a dependence on soya revenue to run the country.
While the produce of the land flows overseas and down animal's gullets, Argentina has been left with very little food of its own to feed its own people.
Reports are increasing that those people who are now living next to the GM soya monocultures are being poisoned by the agri-chemicals sprayed on the crops: their air, water, buildings and land are polluted. Whole communities are slowly becoming sick: 80 per cent of children have been found to have agri-toxins in their blood; respiratory illness, birth defects and cancers are rife.
Argentina's modelo sojero is “socially and ecologically unsustainable”.
The Argentinean modelo sojero may produce an impressive national balance of payments, but it amounts to putting all the country's eggs into one basket and shipping them overseas, while at home the cupboards are bare and the workers idle while the ransacked environment goes to ruin around them.
This is certainly not a model for poor countries to follow.
- Amalia Leguizamón, 2013, Modifying Argentina: GHM soy and socio-environmental change, Geoforum
- Pesticide illness triggers anti-Monsanto protest in Argentina, Deutsche Welle 25.10.13