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The catastrophe of GM soya

(Tuesday, Nov. 11, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Ann Scholl and Facundo Arrizabalaga writing in The Green Left Weekly:

Argentina was once the world's granary. Now starving children haunt the villas miseria "shanty towns” and cartoneros (unemployed) families roam the streets looking for leftovers to eke a living from. Over half the population live below the poverty line.

Ever since Christopher Columbus arrived on the coast of the Bahamas in 1492, Latin America's wealth has been drained for the benefit of Europe and the United States. Bolivia's silver mines were ransacked leaving behind poverty and destitution. Gold from Mexico, Peru and Brazil filled the banks in Europe. Venezuela was turned into a coca plantation for export and the West Indies were transformed into "sugar islands" of slavery. More than 500 years later, the colonisers have changed, but the colonisation and plunder continue in the name of globalisation.

Argentina, once boasting a diverse agricultural sector, is being transformed into a land of soya-bean monoculture. In the last 10 years, the amount of soya grown has nearly tripled, according to World Bank's figures, and it is almost 100% genetically modified (GM).

It was the International Monetary Fund's (IMF) prize pupil, Argentina's President Carlos Menem, who signed the contracts with the agribusiness giants Monsanto and Cargill to go the "soya way" at the beginning of the 1990s. The contracts were entered into without the participation of Congress and without a public debate. Since then, Argentina has become the second largest GM soya producer in the world, after the United States.

The countryside is being left empty as the farm workers' role in nurturing the land and crops is displaced by aeroplanes and agribusiness infrastructure. Migration to the cities has risen at an alarming rate: 300,000 farmers have deserted the countryside and more than 500 villages have been abandoned, or are on the road to disappearance. Agribusiness GM soya farming requires agriculture without culture or people. As a consequence, the villas miseria on the outskirts of the cities are mushrooming with the arriving unemployed agricultural workers.

Dusty ashes are left as the earth is intoxicated with agrochemicals to harvest Monsanto’s patented seeds, which are genetically modified to be resistant to the company's herbicide, Round Up. Previously unknown illnesses are appearing as people are exposed to highly toxic herbicides, which include Agent Orange, the defoliant used by the US military to devastate Vietnam during the 1960s and '70s, and others that contain paraquat, which can corrode metal, and glyphosate.

Floods without precedence are taking place as forests are cut down to make way for soya crops. In the high-mountain provinces of Salta and Juyuy, on the border of Bolivia, the subtropical Yungas region is being deforested to make space for soya plantations. Greenpeace has warned that in five years, the ancient cloud forest will be extinct.

In April, the city of Santa Fe was flooded: 140,000 people were evacuated, sections of the city were submerged and several people died. Thousands lost their homes and possessions as they fled for their lives.

Alongside this destruction, Monsanto's profits in Argentina almost doubled, from US$326 million in 1998 to $584 million in 2001.

Because Monsanto holds the patent to "Round Up Ready" soya seeds, farmers are dependent on the corporation to provide them. They cannot legally develop their own varieties of the patented seed.

Never missing an opportunity to expand its profits, Monsanto subsidiary Cargill Seeds and the ChevronTexaco oil company have teamed up with the Argentine Association of Direct Seed Producers to promote soya as the solution to the malnutrition problem in the country. Their aim is to integrate the bean into the Argentine diet and change people's eating habits to suit their business interests.

The Soja Solidaria (Solidarity Soya) project is ruthlessly promoting GM soya as a viable alternative to traditional forms of nutrition among the poorest communities, which is creating a nutritional apartheid.

Soja Solidaria encourages soya producers to donate 1% of their soya production to comedores -- eating halls for the unemployed -- and in public schools, hospitals, neighbourhood centres and old people's homes. The organisation uses community participation to reach the heart of society, complementing their donations with cooking courses using soya recipes and the provision of health and nutritional advice on the benefits of the genetically modified bean.

The GM soya grown in Argentina has never been independently scientifically tested for its safety. Monsanto's GM beans have been highly exposed to agrochemicals containing glyphosate. Glyphosate is soluble in water and in order to make it penetrate the plant, a surfactant is added. Glyphosate is therefore present in the very core of the soya bean. Washing the bean is not sufficient to prevent the consumption of glyphosate. Glyphosate can be harmful to the eyes, causes skin inflammations and is linked to a variety of lymphoma cancer.

In Argentina, soya products are not labelled as GM. It is promoted as a healthy alternative to meat, so even the middle classes, worried about cholesterol levels, are turning to the fatal bean.

As soya exports are ever increasing, so are hunger, marginalisation and destitution in this once plentiful land.

The IMF and World Bank's structural adjustment recipes aim to integrate southern and northern markets through "free trade." However, such a global market, policed by the World Trade Organisation, is for the benefit of the corporations. Policies such as the dumping of cheap subsidised goods from the rich countries, not only destroys local markets, but entire livelihoods. What is becoming apparent is that it is access to local, not global, markets which will prevent poverty and hunger.

Argentina now imports milk from Uruguay, as farmers stop dairy farming to make way for soya crops. But what will people consume if imports become economically inaccessible? Monsanto's toxic beans in Soja Solidaria's comedores?

This is why the international farmers' movement Via Campesina campaigns for food sovereignty: the right for countries to produce and protect the food they need. This frees producers from the catastrophic effects of agricultural dumping and gives them access to their local markets.

The farmers' movement MOCASE in Santiago del Estero, Argentina, is reclaiming this fundamental human right. But the multinationals, along with their local collaborators, are campaigning to drive farmers off their farms to make way for more soya. Farmers' homes have been bulldozed, paramilitaries have tortured MOCASE members, who also suffer political persecution. MOCASE is recreating what Monsanto's genetically modified monoculture is destroying: organic agriculture; reforestation; solar and wind power; local crafts; and a sustainable way of living and farming for future generations.

[Ann Scholl is a social anthropologist and freelance journalist. Facundo Arrizabalaga is a lawyer and freelance journalist. They both live in Argentina.]

From Green Left Weekly, November 12, 2003, http://www.greenleft.org.au/current/561p20.htm