A small sector, with the government's endorsement, promotes transgenic bread (and with pesticides). Who and how they seek to approve it. The Brazil factor. The internal businesswoman. And the voice of those who claim: "Don't mess with the bread."
A handful of officials. An exalted scientist from Conicet. And fifty businessmen. They are responsible for 44 million Argentines being one step away from eating transgenic wheat-based bread (and with remains of pesticides), with unpredictable consequences on health and the environment. The macrismo has approved twenty transgenics, irregularly, in three years. A truly massive open-air experiment.
Argentina's main transgenic star is soybeans, approved in 1996 by the then Secretary of Agriculture, Felipe Solá. What happened is a well-known history: massive use of pesticides, clearings, rural evictions and concentration of land in a few hands. It was a radical change in the agrarian structure of the country. The “transgenic model” (called “agribusiness” by its own promoters) then advanced in Argentina with two other crops: corn and cotton. It is known that in Argentina the agricultural model is State policy, regardless of the governments in power. But macrismo went one step further: it advanced in the approval of the world's first transgenic wheat, a crop that in Argentina covers 5.6 million hectares and is central to bread, one of the most popular foods in the country.
GMO wheat is not powered by Monsanto-Bayer, Syngenta-ChemChina, and Corteva (a Dow and Dupont merger). It is a “national” company, made up of fifty agricultural entrepreneurs, among them millionaires Hugo Sigman (president of the Insud Group, with a presence in forty countries, from pharmaceutical laboratories to the media), Gustavo Grobocopatel (the so-called "King of soybeans") and Víctor Trucco (honorary president of Aapresid, a chamber that brings together leading agribusiness entrepreneurs and promoters of transgenics in Argentina).
Bioceres presents itself as a “fully integrated provider of crop productivity solutions” and advertises that it has “strategic alliances with world leaders, such as Syngenta, Valent Biosciences, Dow AgroSciences, Don Mario and TMG”. Its business lines include soybean, corn, alfalfa and wheat seeds.
In November 2018, the Bioceres company had presented its “HB4 wheat”. Corporate advertising celebrated its "drought tolerance."
It has already passed the approval of the National Service of Health and Food Quality (Senasa) and the controversial National Biotechnology Commission (Conabia). In Argentina, "safety" studies are carried out by the same companies that produce transgenics and the files are confidential. Conabia, led by Martín Lema, is controlled by the companies: of 34 members, 26 belong to the companies or have conflicts of interest.
For Argentines to eat bread with transgenic wheat, only one bureaucratic step remains: the signature of the Ministry of Markets.
Raquel Chan is a well-known researcher in the scientific field. A professor at the Universidad Nacional del Litoral (UNL), the Instituto de Agrobiotecnología del Litoral y el Conicet, he gained public notoriety when he developed a drought-resistant soybean. President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and the then (and current) Minister of Science, Lino Barañao, mentioned it as an example of productive science for the country. "This development would mean greater food production, with a world population that grows more and more," said Chan in 2012, in tune with the central argument of agribusiness and the false need for more food for humanity, while prices in the country they go up and food is scarce. On a national channel, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner congratulated her: “I feel very proud to be part of a government and of a project that helps Argentine scientists to develop these skills that serve the whole world and that constitute us in a true example ”.
What Chan, officials and businessmen were celebrating was good news for them: more soybeans. That is, seen by the victims of agribusiness, more advance of the agricultural frontier, more clearings, more pesticides. Raquel Chan tends to evade responsibility for the possible impacts of its development. “It is something that will not depend on us, it will depend on a political decision. These issues do not depend on us or the company, "he apologized to the newspaper El Litoral in 2012.
The scientist worked with state funding, together with Bioceres, on soybeans and also on transgenic wheat. On November 18, 2018, the company issued a press release: "Drought tolerant wheat is now a reality." He explained that it was presented in fields of Alto Alegre (Córdoba) and Pergamino (Buenos Aires). And he highlighted that the "HB4" wheat (as it was baptized) is a "joint development" of Bioceres, the French multinational Florimond Desprez and "Dr. Raquel Chan".
The possibility of a mass food such as bread from transgenic seeds was decided among a very small group, without social debate, and denounced in a few mass media (those not aligned with agribusiness). In an unusual and biased column in the newspaper Página 12, Chan defended the (irregular) way of approving GMOs in Argentina, minimized the use of agrochemicals, omitted the consequences (social, environmental and health) of the model and highlighted the scientific-business aspect : “Its commercial (transgenic) release would constitute a milestone in the history of our country, since for the first time technologies developed in Argentina and born in public laboratories would be approved. The mother institutions (Conicet and national universities) will receive royalties for the commercialization of these developments that will serve to provide feedback to the scientific system ”. In line with the Monsanto-Bayer speech, he argued that GMOs are necessary to "feed the growing world population."
Don't mess with the bread
Fernando Frank, a member of the Conlara Valley Peasant Association and an agronomist, has been studying the wheat situation for a decade but much longer since 2016, when the Reuters news agency reported that a shipment of Argentine wheat had been rejected in South Korea. South for being contaminated with a transgenic variety that, above all, was not authorized in the country. One hypothesis was that it was planted illegally.
Fernando Frank, who is also a member of the AgroCulturas Collective (an interdisciplinary group that investigates Argentine agriculture), responded to Chan: “He makes statements far from reality, he repeats commonplaces of science addicted to transnational companies that concentrate the sale of seeds and pesticides , and hides information that she should keep in mind in her role as a researcher in the public science system ”.
It reminds him of the irregular form of approval of transgenics (with Conabia dominated by companies), the absence of public debate, and points out that the current model degrades soils and promotes the expansion of herbicide-resistant species, which reinforces the vicious circle of more pesticides. It reminds Chan that, not innocently, she fails to mention that her GMO wheat incorporates the use of the dangerous herbicide glufosinate ammonium.
"The science addicted to the agro transnationals repeats again and again false solutions that omit extensive documentation and experiences around agroecological practices to get out of the serious ecological, social and sanitary calamity that agriculture, that is, humanity is going through today" asks Frank.
In 2016, a dozen social organizations launched the campaign “Don't mess with our bread”, which warned about the risks of eating bread with genetically modified organisms: “We know that transgenics are a threat to biodiversity, the environment and health of all. We know that approvals and controls are, in Argentina, very little serious. We do not want GM wheat or bread. We demand to know what we are eating ”. The document was signed by the Chair of Food Sovereignty of the UBA (Faculty of Medicine), Action for Biodiversity, Nature of Rights, Huerquen Communication, Paraná Ecological Forum and BePe, among others.
Frank explains that another aggravating factor is that transgenic wheat can fertilize conventional wheat. It warns that if the companies achieve the new seed law (Cambiemos gave an opinion in the Deputies' Agriculture Commission and plans to approve it before the elections), conventional crops may contain GMOs (due to simple contamination) and producers could be forced to pay to the companies.
The Group of Philosophy of Biology (of the University of Buenos Aires and Conicet) questioned whether it is the market that sets the agrarian policy and ignores the social and environmental consequences. He also remarked that this is not a discussion of specialists or scientists, but rather that the whole of society must participate and, above all, those directly affected by the advance of agribusiness (peasants, indigenous peoples, fumigated peoples): Genetically modified vegetables are often part of the public-private cooperation model, articulation between state research organizations and companies; model aimed at maximizing private profits, while the well-being of the population and nature appears in the background ”.
The transgenic wheat opened a discussion within the agribusiness business and also the national government. It only remains the signature of the Ministry of Markets (second line of Agroindustry) that has not yet happened because from Brazil (main buyer of Argentine wheat) they warned of a possible rejection of the new transgenic. Local producers fear that they will not be able to sell it and this provoked a whole debate in the so-called “wheat chain”.
Bioceres and scientist Raquel Chan went on a media tour defending their product (and business).
The secretary of Agroindustry and former president of the Rural Society, Luis Miguel Etchevehere, took the side of the producers and asked to stop the approval. Lino Barañao, former Kirchnerist and current macrista (Secretary of Science) openly supported the Bioceres company together with Aapresid. The Barañao-Bioceres-Aapresid argument promises that the other countries will accept Argentine wheat and that, if they do not, it will somehow be imposed the same. They remember that transgenic soybeans reached the peak in Argentina, and began to be cultivated en masse and even without approval in Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay.
At the end of 2018, the director of Bioceres, Federico Trucco, met with the Chief of Staff, Marcos Peña, and argued with him all the supposed advantages that Argentina would have with transgenic wheat. At the end of last January, President Macri received Trucco. The favorable arguments were repeated. In February there was a third meeting, where Gustavo Grobocopatel (Bioceres shareholder), officials from Agroindustry, INTA, Science, Production and exporters, among others, were also present. The reports (in the agribusiness media) agreed that the President asked for a solution in 60 days. "There are risks to be assumed," challenged businessman Grobocopatel in an interview with the newspaper Perfil.
In March, the Minister of Production, Dante Sica, appointed the former president of Aapresid Pedro Vigneau as undersecretary of Agroindustrial Markets, the area that must sign the final approval of transgenics.
Today, May 2019, it is not yet resolved if Argentina will be the first country to have transgenic wheat (and bread).
It is confirmed that the decision will be made by a handful of officials, businessmen and scientists, with their backs to society.
In three years, the government approved 20 GMOs (55 since 1996).
On March 14, the Agroindustry Secretariat celebrated the approval of a new corn, from the multinational Corteva, with the use of glyphosate, 2-4D and glufosinate ammonium.
“Our vocation is to continue promoting biotechnology in our country. This is the path we are taking to improve the yields, productivity and competitiveness of this sector ”, said the Secretary of Agroindustry, Luis Miguel Etchevehere.
There is no law that requires Argentina to identify which product contains GMOs (as is the case in the European Union, Russia, India, China and Australia, among others).
And no country in the world dared to experience transgenic bread with its population.
President Macri had explicit support for agribusiness last April in Entre Ríos. Faced with a court ruling that protected rural schools from pesticide spraying, the President questioned the Judiciary: “It is an irresponsible ruling. It endangers the work of many entrerrianos ”.
The Coordinadora Basta es Basta (which brings together socio-environmental assemblies, social organizations and teachers) replied in a statement: "Mr. President, our gurises deserve the same environment as Antonia."
They recalled that cynicism is inherent in the political caste: shortly after settling in the Olivos Presidential House, Macri and the first lady, Juliana Awada, inaugurated a garden with organic production, free of GMOs and pesticides.
- By Darío Aranda. Article published in May 2019 in MU magazine.