How GM Crops Destroy the Third World
(Case studies from Argentina, Indonesia and India)
By Lim Li Ching
ISP Briefing, 29th April 2004, House of Commons, London
Argentina: 'World's breadbasket' now empty?
Argentina's experience with GM crops is particularly telling, as it was the first developing country to commercially grow GM crops, particularly Roundup Ready (RR) soya, and has the longest experience in doing so, since 1996. It is currently the world's second largest producer of GM crops, after the US.
After 8 years of growing RR soya, the adverse environmental, health and socio-economic impacts are increasingly clear. Once known as the 'world's granary', Argentina is experiencing hunger, internally displaced rural populations, and the loss of traditional food crops.
Regional economies for local food products, such as vegetable gardens and dairy farms, have given over productive land to soya production. The food crops that Argentina used to produce have been wiped out by a flood of soya, whose production grew 74.5% between 1996 and 2002. In the same period, official figures show decreases in the area sown with the following food crops: Rice: -44.1%, corn: -26.2%, wheat: -3.5% . The country now imports what it used to export.
The exponential expansion of concentrated and large land areas planted to RR soya, exacerbated by the need to service foreign debt by catering to the soya export market, has led to this situation . Soya production has increased from an area of 38,000 hectares in 1970 to approximately 13 million hectares in 2003, in conjunction with the spread of no-till farming, which the RR system fits with perfectly. Practically all the soya produced in Argentina now is genetically modified and most of it is exported as oil and animal feed.
RR soya has intensified the existing model of export-oriented, large-scale and industrialised agriculture, resulting in a shift away from traditional and sustainable mixed and rotation farming, threatening food security for many Argentineans . This model is enriching a few but relegating many to poverty.
In the last decade, small farming families have been forced off the land, unable to compete with large farms. Twenty-four million acres of land belonging to bankrupted small farmers are about to be auctioned off by the banks . Peasants in Santiago del Estero, North Argentina, who have been living there for generations, claim they are being threatened by big landowners linked to seed companies and supported by local police and paramilitary-like forces. To intimidate the peasants, they set fire to the forests while shooting around the people in order to take their land for planting RR soya.
While the biotech industry promised increased yields and less pesticide use, the reality has been very different. RR soya does not have increased yields - studies in the US have documented an average 5-10% decrease ('yield drag') in RR soya yields . The increase in Argentinean soya production is due largely to an increase in acerage of land planted to RR soya. This has led to a replacement of other crops with soya or has used more forest areas, contributing to deforestation .
RR soya requires more, not less, herbicide than conventional soya. In Argentina, herbicide use on RR soya is more than double use on conventional varieties . And Monsanto's business in Argentina has everything to do with sales of Roundup, used in conjunction with RR soya. In fact, the company did not initially charge royalties for its GM seed. Its strategy there seemed to have been to turn a blind eye to the traditional practice of saving seed, allowing farmers to multiply RR soya and thus flooding Argentinean fields with the crop . On the other hand, its patent on glyphosate was in force in Argentina since 1996.
And while Chinese-produced generics did halve glyphosate costs, in mid-2002 Monsanto sued 13 small companies selling Chinese glyphosate, forcing them to stop importing the herbicide. The price of Monsanto's formulation is almost double that of the generics. This translates into extra costs for farmers. Furthermore, the production costs for RR soya are higher than for conventional soya. The cost per hectare of group IV no-till high tech soy in the north of Buenos Aires was $214.7 using regular seed, and $243.4 for RR seed. The gross margin for RR soya is $288.9 per hectare, compared to $314.6 for regular seed .
Meanwhile, weeds have multiplied, as tolerance and resistance to glyphosate have increased, resulting in more frequent herbicide applications using higher spray concentrations. The need to control difficult weeds, including RR soya itself after harvest, has led to the use of toxic older herbicides, such as 2,4 D and Paraquat, banned in many countries . In a newspaper advertisement, Syngenta says, "soya is a weed", in reference to the RR soya volunteers left behind from prior harvests, which grow during the non-planting season. In order to solve this "weed" problem, they promote the use of the highly toxic Paraquat (trade name Gramoxone), marketed by Syngenta, together with Gesaprim (active ingredient atrazine) .
Planes are often used to spray herbicides on RR soya, but with devastating impacts on the health of local populations and on their environment, livestock and food crops. Studies carried out by the University of Formosa Province reported serious health problems in peasant communities due to pesticide fumigation on RR soya fields. .
A recent report in the New Scientist  quotes local farmer Sandoval Filemon from Colonia Loma Senes, North Argentina: "The poison got blown onto our plots and into our houses" Straight away our eyes started smarting. The children's bare legs came out in rashes." "Almost all of our crops were badly damaged. I couldn't believe my eyes," says Sandoval's wife, Eugenia. Over the next few days and weeks chickens and pigs died, and sows and nanny goats gave birth to dead or deformed young. Months later banana trees were deformed and stunted and were still not bearing edible fruit. The culprit? Neighbouring farms planting RR soya, forced to drench their land with a mixture of powerful herbicides to combat resistant weeds.
In a stark illustration of the biotech industry's vision for Argentina and the region, a Syngenta advertisement in the Argentine La Nación newspaper on 27 December 2003 shows a map of the "República Unida de la Soja" (United Soya Republic) "a territory spanning Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia and Brazil - that is covered by RR soya .
To add insult to injury, food aid programmes for the poor ('Soja Solidaridad') are based on soya, which when eaten in excess, can have inhibitory effects on iron, calcium, zinc and B12 vitamin uptake. A few years ago, Argentina used to produce varied and healthy food for eight times its population. Now, in the 'beef country,' the poor are being fed with crops used for animal feed in developed countries .
Indonesia: "Bt cotton planting has given us more harm than good"
In December 2003, the Indonesian Minister of Agriculture announced that Monsanto had pulled out of South Sulawesi . In fact, Bt cottonseeds were no longer supplied to farmers as of February that year. Monsanto said that its cotton business there was no longer economically viable. After two years of planting, Indonesia, the first Southeast Asian country to commercially approve Bt cotton, was pulling the plug on that GM crop, and switching to a locally-developed non-GM cotton variety.
Monsanto's entry into the region in 2001, through its Indonesian subsidiary PT Monagro Kimia, rode on a concerted campaign of promotion of Bt cotton among farmers. The company had claimed that Bt cotton was environmentally friendly, used less pesticide, and would ensure an abundant harvest and increase farmers' welfare.
The reality was very different. In the first year of planting, during which the government aimed to assess the crop's performance before deciding on whether to allow further commercialisation, there were reported failures of Bt cotton - the crop succumbed to drought  and hundreds of hectares were attacked by pests . The drought had led to a pest population explosion on Bt cotton, but not on other cotton varieties. As a result, instead of reducing pesticide use, farmers had to use a different mix and larger amounts of pesticides to control the pests .
Furthermore, the Bt cotton - engineered to be resistant to a pest that is not a major problem in Sulawesi - was susceptible to other more serious pests.
Bt cotton did not produce the promised yields [2, 9], which Monsanto had boasted to be as high as 3 tons per hectare. Some farmers were even promised 4-7 tons per hectare. The average yield was only 1.1 ton per hectare, and 74% of the total area planted to Bt cotton produced less than one ton per hectare. Some farmers only harvested about 500 kg per hectare, others even less, about 70-120 kg per hectare. About 522 hectares experienced total harvest failure. Despite the problems, the government extended its approval for Bt cotton commercialisation by another year, with equally dismal results.
The poor yields trapped farmers in a debt cycle ; some 70% of the 4 438 farmers growing Bt cotton were unable to repay their credit after the first year of planting . Branita Sandhini, a subsidiary company of Monsanto's Indonesian subsidiary, had provided farmers with the transgenic seeds and fertilisers on credit schemes, and bought the harvests so that farmers could repay their debts to the company . But as the yields were poor, many farmers were caught out. Research conducted by various Indonesian institutions clearly showed that, in the year 2002, farmers planting Bt cotton had lower income compared to farmers planting non-GM cotton .
To make matters worse, the company unilaterally raised the price of the seeds. According to Konphalindo, the National Consortium for Forest and Nature in Indonesia, the initial agreement between the farmers and the company set the price of the seed at Rp 40 000/kg; but this increased to Rp 80 000/kg in the second planting season . Furthermore, the company initially bought the cotton from the farmers for Rp 2 600/kg, but this later decreased to Rp 2 200/kg.
Because the company could refuse to buy the farmers' cotton harvest, many had no choice but to agree to the higher seed prices, by signing a letter of agreement with the company. Santi, one of the farmers said, "The company didn't give the farmer any choice, they never intended to improve our well being, they just put us in a debt circle, took away our independence and made us their slave forever. They try to monopolize everything, the seeds, the fertilizer, the marketing channel and even our life" .
She and her fellow farmers burnt their cotton fields in protest and refused to sign the letter, although others had no choice but to agree to the unfair deal, and continue planting Bt cotton to try and escape the vicious debt cycle. Eventually, many farmers refused to pay the outstanding credit, resulting in the ousting of Monsanto from the region.
It is farmers - those whom GM crops supposedly benefit - who have had to bear the consequences of the poor harvest and unfulfilled promises of Bt cotton. In contrast, the company abandoned the region, without being held liable for the problems it caused .
India: "Bt cotton unfit for cultivation and should be banned"
The Indonesian experience is mirrored by that of many farmers in India, where three varieties of Bt cotton were commercially planted for the first time in 2002 in the central and southern parts of the country. Mahyco-Monsanto, a joint venture between an Indian seed company and Monsanto, promoted Bt cotton as environmentally safe and economically beneficial, claiming it would reduce pesticide use and cultivation costs, while resulting in increased yields.
But reports from state governments, academic researchers, NGOs and farmers' organisations indicate that, in many areas, Bt cotton performed poorly, and at times failed completely, in the 2002/2003 growing season [12-15]. So much so that a panel set up by the Gujarat government under the Joint Director of Agriculture (Oilseeds) said that Bt cotton "is unfit for cultivation and should be banned in the State" .
There were reports of failure to germinate, damage in drought conditions in Madhya Pradesh , susceptibility to root-rot in Maharashtra (where over 30,000 hectares of Bt cotton were damaged)  and leaf curl virus , and increase in non-target pests. Bt cotton was reported to be attacked by pests it is supposed to resist; at the Anandwan College of Agriculture, bollworms ate more than 80% of yield .
In Andhra Pradesh, farmers experienced economic losses overall, due to the higher price of Bt cottonseed, little savings in pesticide use and lower total yields . Non-Bt plants were productive for two months longer than Bt cotton, allowing non-Bt farmers to reap an average harvest of 6.9 quintals per acre, compared to the 4.5 quintals per acre average harvest of farmers who planted Bt cotton, who suffered a net 35% decrease in the yield per acre.
Pesticide use showed marginal differences, as while there was some reduction in the incidence of bollworm, there was an increase in sucking pests on Bt cotton. Bt farmers also had to pay considerably more for Bt seeds and for labour costs. Moreover, Bt cotton fetched a lower price in the market, due to its smaller boll size and staple length.
Overall, a non-Bt farmer obtained Rs 6 663 more per acre than the Bt farmer. The study further revealed that 71 % of Bt farmers experienced losses compared with only 18% of non-Bt farmers. And 50.7% of the Bt farmers surveyed categorically said that they would not plant Bt cotton again.
The Andhra Pradesh government confirmed the poor performance of Bt cotton in the state, saying that farmers weren't getting the yields promised and that the poor quality of the crop commanded a lower market price . It pledged to compensate farmers for their loss. A follow-up study found similar experiences for the 2003/2004 growing season. Despite better weather conditions, Bt cotton's performance did not live up to its promises .
Despite these negative experiences, the Indian regulatory authority has recently approved yet another variety of Bt cotton for cultivation in central and southern India . The same company, Rassi Seeds, a sub-licencee of Monsanto, was also given permission to conduct large-scale field trials for Bt cotton varieties developed for cultivation in northern India.
More recently, another 12 varieties of Bt cotton hybrids have been given approval for large-scale field trials and seed production . But, even as Bt cotton spreads, how many more broken promises will have to be borne by farmers?
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