The Soy Republic of Argentina

The increasing export of genetically modified crops is part of a regional trend with Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay now adopting a soy-based economic model. Argentina has made a radical shift toward soy, which has displaced cultivation of many grains and vegetables and even its beef production, the nation’s diet staple and renowned around the world. Once a highly industrialized nation and agriculturally diverse, Argentina now uses more than half of its total arable land for monoculture soy. The majority of soy production is controlled by "growing pools" or financial speculators that buy or lease land from small farmers who can’t afford soy’s high production costs. In all, some 47 million tons of soy was produced in 2008.

Argentina’s farmers have recently resumed a nation-wide strike in protest over the government’s agricultural policies. This protest is the latest episode in a long standing dispute between the agricultural sector and President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner over tax exports on soy. The fertile South American nation is now the world’s third largest producer of soy, trailing behind the United States and Brazil. The boom in soy production in Argentina has reaped record profits for soy farmers and multi-nationals marketing bio-technology for the mono-culture crop in recent years, but it has taken its toll on food production, traditional farmers and the environment.

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have increasingly played a key role in the economy and in the planet’s food supply. Nearly 95% of soy grown in Argentina is genetically modified, adopting the Roundup Ready technology marketed by Monsanto. The majority of the soy grown is for export to China and the EU which use soybean grain for feed and poultry lots.

Unlike the Banana Republics still intact in many parts of Central America, which exude violence to keep governments, workers and the population at large in line with big business interest, the soy model or "soy republic" adopted in many countries in South America operates by sheer market force and consolidation. Agribusiness giants Monsanto, Dow and Cargill have developed mechanisms to make dictatorships an unnecessary luxury. What Argentina and other South American nations do have in common with Banana Republics is the colonial development model, or better put anti-development model, where the nation reverts to relying on exporting a single cash crop to First World nations. However, dictatorships that used terror, torture and censorship in the 1970’s and early 1980’s are responsible for laying the ground work for privatization, liberalization of trade barriers, deregulation of environmental standards and land concentration which ripened the region for the GMO invasion. The soy republic model has led to economic dependency on transnational investments, food sovereignty risks, displacement of rural populations, degradation of soil and water systems, severe health threats from the use of pesticides and herbicides and a long list of social problems such as increased inequality and unemployment.

GMO Approval

GMO soy was swiftly approved for cultivation in Argentina in 1996, under former Agricultural Secretary Felipe Sola. A 180-page file report, prepared by GMO giant Monsanto was written in English, with no Spanish translation made available, and was the only document evaluated before Sola approved GM soy after only 81 days of review. The former secretary and now investor in the soy industry won a seat in the legislature in the June 2009 elections, riding in on his opposition to President Cristina Kirchner’s decision to increase the export tax on soy. Many of the ministers and congressional representatives involved in the passage have since become investors in the soy market.

When Argentina approved the cultivation of GMO in 1996 14 million acres were used for soy production. By 2008 that area grew to 42 million acres. In his brilliant account of the world food system in Stuffed and Starved, Raj Patel describes the consolidation that spans the entire global market. According to Patel, 10 companies control half the world’s seed supply and 10 firms control 84 percent of the nearly US$30 billion pesticide markets. Agro-chemical firms Monsanto, Dow, Bayer and Dupont lead Argentina’s market. In an ironic twist the term "The United Soy Republic" has been coined by the genetically engineering industry to describe a map of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil and Paraguay with increasing tracks of land dedicated to soy.

Sky rocketing commodity prices for soy due to increasing demand from the EU, China and India has driven a group of eager investors to enter the countryside. "The first group that benefit are obviously agro-business corporations, other than Monsanto the export/transport companies like Cargill, Bunge and ADM that sent the soy bean to the EU and China to feed animals," says Carlos Vicente, head of information for Latin America at GRAIN, a non-profit supporting small farmers. "The second group that benefits in the short term is the ‘growing pools’ and large land owners in Argentina that have seen quick and extraordinary profits producing a concentration of wealth and land."

GMO on Strike

In the Republic of Soy, a major showdown between mono-crop farmers and government has taken place. Both sides are fighting over an export tax on the lucrative crop. The latest strike came after the President vetoed a farming law that would have exempted farmers from draught struck areas from paying export levies. The farmers are also angry over President Cristina Fernandez’s refusal to lower the 35% tax. Cristina Kirchner’s soy export tax is a policy carried over from her husband, former president Nestor Kirchner, who upped the tax to 35% as an emergency measure to revive the economy after the 2001 crisis. Unwilling to lose profits, the agrarian sector decided to go on strike, literally freezing the sale of grain and cattle, the longer the protest the more likelihood for food price increases and food shortages.

"Countries accepted the soy model mostly because many ministers, deputies, senators and mayors are investors in soy, secondly, at least in the case of Argentina, the state has received income through taxing exports," says Javier Souza, agricultural engineer and regional coordinator of the Latin American Action Network for Alternative Pesticides. It’s unlikely that the government will reverse its support of the export levies on soy, as revenue from soy exports topped nearly 16 billion dollars in 2008, bringing crucial income for the government’s treasury reserves.

On the eve of the farmers’ latest strike, GMO giant Monsanto received the "Prize of Gold" as the best business in Argentina for 2008 from Fortuna Magazine. The company sold over 2.7 billion dollars in seeds and herbicides used in the Roundup Ready package, controlling 50 percent of the seed market. In an interview with Fortuna Magazine, Bernardo Calvo, President of Monsanto’s Latin American branch, said that Argentina still has exponential capacity to expand the production of GMO soy and corn. For Monsanto, the agro-government conflict "the instability caused from the conflict between the countryside and government is here for the long haul and even if this company doesn’t participate in politics, for us it is better in countries and regions where our producers and governments are successful."

Losing Farmers

Locally, provincial governments have eagerly set up favorable conditions for soy cultivation even at the cost of local farmers and indigenous communities. Chaco is one such province, closer to Bolivia’s border than to Buenos Aires, where traditional farmers have legally occupied land, but without land titles where farmers have lived for decades and tilled the soil. Ramon Alberto Lopez, leader of a grassroots organization of displaced farmers in the northern province of Chaco says soy has brought many social problems. "As the result of soy, more than 50 percent of the population were displaced from the countryside. Soy for some means profits, for us it is death."According to the official agricultural census, a total of 103,405 farmers closed down their farms between 1988 and 2002, which constitutes ¼ of farming businesses, while the average size of farms increased from 421 to 538 hectares. Soy cultivation is highly mechanized, requiring minimal labor. Pushed off land, rural populations have been forced to migrate to urban areas where housing and employment are scarce. Chaco is the second poorest province with 40 percent of the population living below the poverty line. Santiago del Estero, another province seeing record profits from new soy plantations is the poorest province.

"Families’ land has been bulldozed with the advance of soy, now we are cornered, literally surrounded by soy fields," said Veronica Gomez from MOCASE – The Campesino Movement of Santiago del Estero. More than 9,000 families make up MOCASE, a grassroots movement of traditional farmers and indigenous groups. It is estimated that more people from Santiago del Estero live outside the province than in their native Santiago del Estero. Gomez says farmers who decide to sell their land and live surrounded by soy fields, "we aren’t direct consumers of agro-toxins but we are still affected."

Poisoned Communities

Throughout Argentina in rural communities there have been reports of intoxications from the herbicides and pesticides needed in the Roundup Ready seed package sold by Monsanto. Numerous studies have shown that the herbicide glyphosate and pesticide endolsufan cause serious health effects from cancer to birth defects. Glyphosate is the top selling herbicide in the world and is widely used on soy crops in Argentina, used in the Roundup Ready package as soy beans have been genetically modified to tolerate the herbicide glyphosate. More than 44 million gallons of glyphosate is sprayed annually in Argentina. MOCASE has reported has taken more than 100 accusations of agrochemical poisoning to court in Santiago del Estero. Darío Aranda, a journalist with the national daily, Página/12, has reported on numerous communities in soy-producing regions throughout the country that have faced severe health problems, including residents in the provinces of Buenos Aires, Entre Rios, Chaco, Santa Fe, and Formosa.

Industry leaders have resisted regulations on the use of agro-chemicals. This issue is so sensitive, the government has remained silent. Argentina’s current Secretary of Agriculture Carlos Cheppi refused all formal requests for an interview. His press secretary said Ricardo Gouna is "unwilling to talk about the use and regulation of agrochemicals in Argentina’s soy industry." Guillermo Cal is the executive director of CASAFE-Argentina’s association of agrochemical companies that counts Monsanto, Dow Agro-sciences, Dupont, and Bayer CropScience among its members. He said in an interview that municipal orders to restrict the distances which agro-chemicals can be sprayed near residential areas were completely ridiculous. "No one is going to have a problem with a product like glyphosate being sprayed near their home."

Future of the Soy Republic

GMO’s next frontier in the region will be corn, with Monsanto preparing a 200 million dollar investment for Argentina over the next three years. The company hopes that the nation’s cattle ranchers will move to feed lots, rather than grass feeding cattle. Already, cattle ranching has lost 12 million acres to soybeans in the last five years alone. And prices have been affected due to scarcity with beef prices increasing by 20 percent in the past year. According to the Sociedad Rural, Argentina’s main agricultural organization, the production of basic food staples has dropped drastically. From 1997 wheat dropped -19%, Corn dropped -31%, Oats dropped -28%, Rice dropped -23%; while soy production increased +213%.

The recent strike, which hasn’t gotten much support from small landholders or farmhands, is a sign that farmers are uncomfortable with the global drop in commodity prices. Meanwhile, consumers continue to pay high prices on food with intermediaries and agribusinesses funneling profits from the global food system. As with colonial countries ravaged by imperial powers, once profits from soy dries up due to a collapse on the global market, Argentina will be left with only the devastating impact of monoculture – displaced rural populations, nutrient depleted soil, loss of biodiversity, and poisoned communities.

Marie Trigona is a journalist based in South America. She can be reached at and Photo from Prensa de Frente