Invasion of the forest snatchers

Feature story - 20 January, 2005
In the science-fiction classic, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, alien plants with destructive clone-manufacturing world-domination plans threatened the future of humanity. Bad news: the pods have arrived, disguised as soybeans.

Ripening soya beans in field near Harbin.

All of us concerned about genetically engineered (GE) crops have been losing sleep for a while over the relentless take-over of traditional fields in many parts of the world. Now, a new report reveals how thoroughly Argentina has been taken over, and outlines previously unimagined dangers for our future when an entire country's agricultural system is invaded by a clone-replicating force like Monsanto.

Within the last 10 years, Argentina's agricultural production system has become dominated by one crop: the genetically engineered Roundup Ready soybean developed by US agrochemical company Monsanto. The large scale environmental, social, and economic impact is unprecedented.

Agronomist Charles Benbrook warns that the planting of 14 million hectares (34 million acres) of a single, genetically homogenous crop has created a highly vulnerable agricultural production system.

Pods vs. SuperWeed

Argentine soy production uses GE seeds that are resistant to the herbicide glyphosate, marketed under the trade name "Roundup." Roundup Ready soy relies on repeated herbicide applications to control weeds. As every high school student knows, Nature abhors an herbicide, and finds ways to evolve around it. Already, strains of Roundup-resistant weeds have appeared in Argentina, requiring ever-heavier doses of the poison, killing off microbes and degrading soil quality. Heavy herbicide applications and widespread planting of Roundup Ready soybeans has also led to increases in pest and disease severity. And when fungi and other threats to the crop encounter none of the natural diversity barriers to their spread, the possibility of monoculture crop collapse increases significantly.

Take us to your feeders

But unlike the devastating Irish potato famine of the nineteenth century, the soy Argentina grows isn't actually feeding people. The vast majority (above 80 percent) of soybeans are bound for animal feedlots, providing protein for cattle, hogs and poultry. The European Union (EU) is the largest importer of Argentinean soybean meal. Worse, farmland which once produced subsistence crops and legume forages now produce only soybean monocultures. From 1996 to 2002 (the period of major soybean production expansion) the number of Argentineans lacking access to basic nutrition grew from 3.7 million to 8.7 million. Production of meat, dairy products, and eggs has dropped significantly, to be replaced by soybeans destined for export markets.

Sound like an alien force is taking over? The invasion doesn't stop there.

Can't see the forest for the beans

After Roundup Ready technology was introduced in 1996, the pace of land conversion has increased dramatically. The soybean frontier has expanded deeper and deeper into the ecosystems of Argentina, with 5.6 million hectares of non-agricultural land converted for soybean production since 1996. That compares to 2.4 million hectares converted before 1996. The rate at which forests in Northern Argentina are being turned into soy plantations is 3-6 times higher than the world average. The massive destruction of the forests, in particular of the Yungas and Chaco forests, has sparked violence and protests by agrarian families desperate to preserve their land. These forests also support diverse animal populations, including jaguars, pumas, monkeys, and more than 50% of all bird species of Argentina.

Monopoly + monoculture = Mon$anto

You'd expect that such a rapid expansion of soy production in Argentina must mean big, big profits for the Argentine nation, right? Think again. Not only is Roundup Ready soy a monoculture, it's controlled by a monopoly. Monsanto Corporation, the American owners of the patent on both Roundup and Roundup Ready soy, sets the price for both the herbicide and the crop. Glyphosate prices are going up in Argentina, and Monsanto has announced that it intends to collect retroactive royalty payments, and aggressively enforce patent laws on Roundup Ready technology. Adios to the profit margin for the farmer, howdy big bucks for Monsanto.

To a nation suffering from international debt, rising unemployment, and widespread poverty, Roundup Ready soybean production has offered little compensation, and Argentina's economic vulnerability is worsened by the volatile world soybean market.

A recent report by a team of US scientists found that Argentina soybeans contain 5-10 percent less protein, with lower levels of important amino-acids, than soybeans from competing countries. Poor quality soybeans also means less revenue. Buyers of Argentina soybeans will likely seek price concessions. And in Europe, widespread consumer rejection of GE soy means little market for human food production.

First, we take Buenos Aires, then we take Beijing

Like any good alien invasion, this one is bent on global domination. China is a major importer of Argentinean soybeans. Because China is the centre of biodiversity for soy, any contamination of the wild soybean species there could alter natural soybean evolution irrevocably. And accidental release during import, transport or processing poses a major risk to related wild soybean species.

Take action

We demand:

  • Not one single hectare of forest or other natural ecosystems should be converted to soy plantations in Argentina. We call on the Argentine government to take immediate action to protect Argentina's forests and on international institutions and banks to stop financing unsustainable agriculture and forest conversion in the region.
  • The use of genetically engineered soy in Argentina should be phased out with a view to implementing a ban on all genetically modified organism (GMO) releases. The Argentine government must respect consumer opposition to GMOs by providing its citizens the right to reject GMOs through mandatory food and feed labelling and withdraw from the US-led WTO case against the (now historical) de facto ban on GMO approvals by the European Union.
  • The European Union - a key market for Argentine GE soy (used for animal feed) - should ban Roundup Ready soy . Greenpeace calls on EU Member States not to re-approve Roundup Ready soy when Monsanto's approval for use of Roundup Ready soy expires in 2006. Moreover, the EU must provide its citizens the right to reject GMOs in food production by introducing mandatory GE labelling for eggs, meat and dairy products if GE animal feed has been used.
  • In China - another major market for Argentine GE soy - the risk of genetic contamination of the worlds' centre of soy biodiversity through GE soy imports must be acknowledged. Strong measures to avoid such contamination must be taken by the importers of GE soy and the Chinese government, by banning GE soy imports into China.

Don't close your eyes! Become a cyberactivist today and fight against the takeover of planet Earth.