Transgenic Soy in Latin America

Transgenic Soy in Latin America

By Miguel A. Altieri and Walter A. Pengue

For the ninth consecutive year, the biotechnology industry and its allies celebrate a continuous expansion of transgenic crops, the estimated global area of ​​commercially released crops in 2004 was 81 million hectares, which is considered a triumph since they reached 22 countries.

Transgenic Soy in Latin America: A machine of hunger, deforestation and socio-ecological devastation

For the ninth consecutive year, the biotech industry and its allies celebrate a continuous expansion of transgenic crops, which reached a double-digit rate of 20%, even surpassing the 2003 rate of 15%. The estimated global area of ​​commercially released crops in 2004 was 81 million hectares, which is considered a triumph since they reached 22 countries and where what stands out is that transgenic crops achieved the expectations of millions of large and small farmers alike. in industrialized as well as developing countries. They also highlight that transgenic crops have brought benefits to consumers and to society as a whole, by providing better prepared meals, food and fibers that require less agrochemicals and therefore a more sustainable environment (James 2004).

It is difficult to imagine how this expansion of the biotechnology industry is coming to solve the needs of small farmers or consumers, when 60% of the global area with transgenic plants (48.4 million hectares) is dedicated to resistant soy. herbicides (soybeans Roundup Ready), a crop grown mainly by large-scale farmers for export (and not for local consumption) and that on the other hand, is used in importing countries for animal feed and meat production that is consumed mainly by the wealthiest and best-fed sectors of these countries.

In Latin America, soy producing countries (transgenic and conventional) include Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Uruguay. This expansion of soy is driven by good international prices, the support of governments and the agribusiness sector and the demand of importing nations, especially China, which is today the largest importer of soy and its derivatives, a market that drives the rapid proliferation of the production of this oilseed.

The expansion of the soy complex is accompanied by a significant increase in logistics and transportation along with large infrastructure projects that lead to a chain of events that destroy the natural habitats of large areas, in addition to deforestation directly caused by the expansion of land. for growing soybeans. In Brazil, the benefits of soybeans justified the refurbishment, improvement or construction of eight waterways, three railway lines and an extensive network of roads that bring agricultural inputs and take away agricultural production.

The process attracted other private investments for forestry, mining, extensive cattle ranching and other practices with severe impacts on biodiversity, not yet contemplated by any environmental impact study (Fearnside 2001). In Argentina, agroindustrial cluster transformation of soybeans into oils and pellets is concentrated in the Rosafe on the Paraná River, the largest soybean transformation area on a planetary scale, with all the associated infrastructure and the environmental impacts that this implies.

For the immediate years, the Argentine agricultural sector has set the goal of reaching 100 million tons of grains, which will require increasing the area planted with soybeans to 17 million hectares.

Soybean expansion and deforestation

The area of ​​land devoted to soybean production has grown at an annual rate of 3.2%, and soybeans currently occupy a larger area than any other crop in Brazil, with 21% of the total cultivated land. Since 1995, the planted area has increased by 2.3 million hectares, to an average of 320,000 hectares per year. Since 1961, the increase in acreage grew 57 times and the volume produced did so 138 times. Paraguayan soybeans were planted on more than 25% of all agricultural land and in Argentina the average sown reached fifteen million hectares in 2005 with a production of 38.3 million tons.

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

The " pampeanization”, The process of importing the industrial model of Pampas agriculture onto other“ non-Pampas ”ecoregions such as the Chaco, is the first step on an expansive path that puts the social and ecological stability of this highly labile ecoregion at risk (Pengue 2005 b). In the northeast of the province of Salta in 2002/2003, 51% of the soybeans planted (157,000 hectares) corresponded to what in 1988/1989 were still natural areas (Paruelo, Guerscham and Verón 2005).

In Brazil, the Cerrados and the savannas are succumbing to the plow by leaps and bounds.

Soy, expulsion of small farmers and loss of food security.

The promoters of the biotech industry always cite the expansion of the area planted with soybeans as a way to measure the success of technology adoption by farmers. But these data hide the fact that the soybean expansion leads to an extreme demand for land and a concentration of profits in a few hands. In Brazil, the soybean model displaces eleven rural workers for every one who finds employment in the sector. The data is not new, since since the 1970s, 2.5 million people have been displaced by soy production in the state of Paraná and 300,000 in Rio Grande do Sul. Many of these landless, they moved towards the Amazon where they deforested tropical forests under pressure from structural forces and the environment. On the other hand, in the Cerrados, where transgenic soy is expanding, the displacement rate is lower because the area was not previously widely populated (Donald 2004).

In Argentina, the situation is quite dramatic since while the area planted with soybeans tripled, practically 60,000 agricultural establishments were disappearing only in The Pampas. In 1988, there were in all Argentina, a total of 422,000 establishments that were reduced to 318,000 in 2002 (24.5%). In a decade, the production area with soybeans increased 126% at the expense of the land that was dedicated to dairy, corn, wheat or fruit or horticultural production.

During the 2003/2004 campaign, 13.7 million hectares were sown at the expense of 2.9 million hectares of corn and 2.15 million hectares of sunflower (Pengue 2005).

Although the biotechnology industry highlights the important increases in the area cultivated with soybeans and more than the doubling of the yields per hectare, considered as an economic and agronomic success, for the country this kind of increases implies more imports of basic foods, in addition to the loss of food sovereignty, and for small family farmers or consumers, these kinds of increases only imply higher food prices and more hunger (Jordan 2001).

The expansion of soy in Latin America is also related to biopiracy and the power of multinationals. The way in which, in the period 2002-2004, millions of hectares of transgenic soybeans were planted in Brazil (while there was a moratorium to the contrary) makes us wonder how the corporations managed in those instances of prohibition to achieve such an expansion of its products in developing nations.

In the first years of the commercial release of transgenic soybeans in Argentina, the Monsanto company did not charge for the technological fee to farmers to use transgenic technology in their seeds. Today, that transgenic soybeans and glyphosate have been installed as strategic inputs for the country, farmers have been trapped, since the multinational is putting pressure on the government, making demands for the payment of their intellectual property rights. This, despite the fact that Argentina is a signatory to the UPOV 78 convention, which allows farmers to save seed for their own use in the following agricultural season. On the other hand, Paraguayan farmers negotiated an agreement with Monsanto in which they would pay the multinational US $ 2 per ton. The trend in controlling the seeds used by farmers is growing, despite the fact that companies promised in the early 1990s not to charge farmers for patents, a time when the transgenic crop was expanding.

Soybean cultivation and soil degradation

Soy cultivation tends to erode soils, especially in those situations where it is not part of long rotations. Soil loss reaches 16 tons / ha in the Midwest of the US, a rate that could reach between 19 and 30 tons / ha in Brazil or Argentina, depending on the management, the slope of the soil or the weather. Direct seeding can reduce soil loss, but with the advent of herbicide-resistant soybeans, many farmers have expanded into highly erodible marginal areas or are planted on a recurring basis year after year, fostering monoculture. Farmers mistakenly believe that with direct tillage there would be no erosion, but research results show that despite increased soil cover, erosion and negative changes affecting soil structure can nonetheless result substantial on highly erodible land if stubble soil cover is low. The stubble left by soybeans is relatively scarce and cannot properly cover the soil if there is not an adequate rotation between cereals and oilseeds.

Large-scale soy monoculture has rendered the Amazonian soils unusable. In places with poor soils, after only two years of agriculture, fertilizers and limestone need to be applied intensively. In Bolivia, soybean production is expanding to the east, causing many of these production areas to be compacted or to exhibit severe soil degradation problems. 100,000 hectares of soils exhausted by soy were left to livestock, which also under this circumstance is highly degrading. As they leave the soils, farmers seek new regions where they will once again plant soybeans, repeating the vicious cycle of degradation.

In Argentina, the intensification of soybean production has led to a significant drop in the nutrient content of the soil. The continuous production of soybeans has facilitated the extraction, in 2003 alone, of almost one million tons of nitrogen and around 227,000 of phosphorus. Just to replace these two nutrients in their commercial fertilizer equivalent, some $ 910 million would be needed (Pengue 2005). The increases in N and P in several riparian regions are certainly linked to the increasing soybean production in the framework of the basins of several important South American rivers.

An important technical factor in the expansion of Brazilian soybean production was due to the development of soybean bacteria combinations with known symbiotic characteristics that allowed production without fertilizers. This productive advantage of Brazilian soybeans may quickly disappear in light of reports on the direct effects of the herbicide glyphosate on bacterial nitrogen fixation ( Rhyzobium), which would potentially force soybeans to rely on mineral nitrogen fertilization. Also, the current practice of converting pastures to soybeans results in an economic reduction in the importance of Rhyzobium, again making it necessary to resort to synthetic nitrogen.

Soy monoculture and ecological vulnerability

Ecological research suggests that the reduction in landscape diversity resulting from the expansion of monocultures at the expense of natural vegetation has led to alterations in the balance of insects, pests and diseases. In these species-poor and genetically homogeneous landscapes, insects and pathogens find ideal conditions to grow without natural controls (Altieri and Nicholls 2004). The result is an increase in the use of agrochemicals, which of course after a while are no longer effective, due to the appearance of resistance or ecological disorders typical of the application of pesticides. Furthermore, agrochemicals lead to greater problems of soil contamination and water pollution, elimination of biodiversity, and human poisoning.

In the Brazilian Amazon, conditions of high humidity and warm temperatures induce the development of populations and fungal attacks, with the consequent increase in the consumption of fungicides. In the Brazilian regions dedicated to soybean production, the cases of canker (Diaporthe phaseolorum) and from sudden death syndrome (Fusarium solani). The Asian soybean rust (Phakopsora pachyrhizi) It is a new disease whose effects are increasing in South America, driven by favorable environmental conditions (eg, humidity) added to the genetic uniformity of monoculture crops.

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

25% of the total agrochemicals consumed in Brazil are applied to soybeans, which in 2002 received around 50,000 tons of pesticides. While the soybean area is expanding rapidly, so are agrochemicals, whose consumption grows at a rate of 22% per year. While the promoters of biotechnology argue that a single application of the herbicide is enough during the growing season, on the other hand, studies are beginning to show that with transgenic soybeans, both the volume and the number of glyphosate applications are increased. In the US, glyphosate consumption went from 6.3 million pounds in 1995 to 41.8 million in 2000 (1 pound equals 0.4536 Kg.), being currently applied on 62% of the lands destined to soybean production. In the 2004/5 campaign in Argentina, glyphosate applications reached 160 million liters of commercial product.

An even greater increase in the use of this herbicide is expected as weeds begin to become tolerant to glyphosate.

The yields of transgenic soybeans in the region average 2.3 to 2.6 tons / ha, around 6% less than some conventional varieties, substantially lower yield under drought conditions. Due to the pleiotropic effects (eg, stem breakage under water stress), transgenic soybeans suffer 25% higher losses than their conventional peers. In Rio Grande do Sul, during the 2004/5 drought, 72% of transgenic soybean production was lost, estimating a 95% drop in exports, with severe economic consequences. About a third of the farmers are in debt and cannot meet their obligations to the government and companies.

Other ecological considerations

By creating GM crops that are tolerant of their own herbicides, biotech companies can expand their markets for their own proprietary agrochemicals. In 1995, analysts gave a market value for herbicide-tolerant crops of $ 75 million, which rose to $ 805 million in 2000 (a 610% increase).

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

It is well documented that a single herbicide applied repeatedly to the same crop can greatly increase the chances of resistant weeds emerging. About 216 cases of resistance have been reported in various weeds to one or more chemical families of herbicides (Rissler and Mellon 1996).

As pressure from agribusiness to increase herbicide sales increases and the area treated with broad-spectrum herbicides increases, resistance problems are exacerbated. As the glyphosate-treated area expands, increased use of this herbicide can result, even slowly, in the emergence of resistant weeds. The situation has already been documented in Australian populations of annual rye grass (Lolium multiflorum), Agropiro ( Agropyrum repens), broadleaf lotus or bird's foot clover ( Lotus corniculatus), Cirsium arvense Y Eleusine indicates (Altieri 2004). In The Pampas from Argentina, eight species of weeds, including 2 species of Verbena and one of Ipomoea, already show tolerance to glyphosate (Pengue 2005).

Herbicide resistance becomes a complex problem when the number of herbicidal modes of action to which weeds are exposed are reduced more and more, a trend that transgenic soybeans reinforce in the framework of market pressures. In fact, some weed species can tolerate or "avoid" certain herbicides, as happened for example in Iowa where populations of Amaranthus rudis they were delayed in their germination and "escaped" the planned applications of glyphosate. Also the same transgenic crop can assume the role of weed in the subsequent crop. For example, in Canada, with spontaneous canola populations resistant to three herbicides (glyphosate, imidazolinones and glufosinate) a “multiple” resistance process has been detected, where now farmers have had to resort again to 2.4 D to control it. . In northeastern Argentina, weeds can no longer be adequately controlled, so farmers are turning again to other herbicides, which they had neglected due to their greater toxicity, cost, and handling.

Biotech companies argue that when herbicides are applied correctly they do not produce negative effects on man or the environment. Large-scale transgenic crops favor aerial applications of herbicides and many of their accumulated residues affect microorganisms such as mycorrhizal fungi or soil fauna. But the companies argue that glyphosate breaks down rapidly in soil and does not accumulate in food, water, or the soil itself.

Glyphosate has been reported as toxic to some soil organisms - be it beneficial controllers like spiders, mites, carabids and coccinellids or detritivores like earthworms and some species of microfauna. There are reports that glyphosate also affects some aquatic beings such as fish and that it even acts as an endocrine disruptor in amphibians.

Glyphosate is a systemic herbicide (it travels through the phloem) and is carried to all parts of the plant, including those that are harvestable. This is concerning as it is unknown exactly how much glyphosate is present in GM corn or soybean kernels, as conventional tests do not include it in their analyzes of agrochemical residues. The fact is, it is known that this and other herbicides accumulate in fruits and other organs since they undergo little metabolization in the plant, which raises the pertinent question about the safety of treated foods, especially now that more than 37 million pounds of the herbicide are used only in the US (Risller and Mellon 1996). Even in the absence of immediate effects, it can take up to 40 years for a potential carcinogen to act in a sufficient number of people to be detected as a cause.

On the other hand, research has shown that glyphosate appears to act, similar to antibiotics, in altering soil biology in an unknown way and producing effects such as:

  • Reduction of the ability of soybeans or clover to fix nitrogen.
  • Turning bean (bean) plants to a state more vulnerable to diseases.
  • Reducing the development of mycorrhizal fungi, which are a gateway to the extraction of phosphorus from the soil.

In recent evaluations of the effects of herbicide-resistant crops in the UK, researchers showed that reduced biomass in weeds, flowering and seeds, in and around herbicide-resistant beet and canola fields led to changes in the availability of food resources for insects, with secondary effects that resulted in the substantial reduction of several species of bed bugs, Lepidoptera and Coleoptera. The data also show a reduction in predatory beetles that feed on weed seeds in transgenic fields. The abundance of invertebrates that are a food source for mammals, birds or other invertebrates was shown to be lower in fields of transgenic beet or canola.

The absence of flowering weeds in transgenic fields can have serious consequences on beneficial insects (predators of pests and parasitoids) which require pollen and nectar to survive in the agroecosystem. The reduction of natural enemies inevitably leads to aggravate insect pest problems.


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

Transgenic soybeans are much more environmentally damaging than other crops because in addition to the direct effects derived from production methods, mainly from the copious use of herbicides and genetic contamination, they require infrastructure projects and mass transportation (waterways, highways, railways and ports. ) that impact on ecosystems and facilitate the opening of huge extensions of territories to degrading economic practices and extractive activities.

The production of herbicide-resistant soybeans also leads to environmental problems such as deforestation, soil degradation, pollution with severe concentration of land and income, expulsion of the rural population to the Amazonian border for example or urban areas, promoting the concentration of the poor in the cities.

Soybean expansion also distracts public funds that could have been earmarked for education, health, or research into alternative agro-ecological methods of production.

Among the multiple impacts of the soybean expansion, the reduction in food security of the target countries stands out, as the land that was previously used for dairy, grain or fruit production and that is now dedicated to export soybeans stands out.

As long as these countries continue to promote neoliberal development models and respond to signals from external markets (especially China) and the globalized economy, the rapid proliferation of soy will continue to grow and of course, so will its associated ecological and social impacts.


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Pengue, W.A. 2005 b). Industrial agriculture and transnationalization in Latin America. The 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: University of Buenos Aires, Argentina

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