IN 2007, GENETICALLY modified (GM) crops were grown on 114.3 million hectares worldwide. Of the twenty-three countries which grow GM crops, Argentina and Brazil are the major players in South America, though the cultivation of transgenic crops is also expanding in Bolivia and Paraguay. The biotech industry claims that GM crops have met the expectations of millions of farmers in developing countries, delivering benefits to consumers and society through more affordable food that requires less pesticides to grow and hence leads to more sustainable farming.

What corporations fail to mention is that Roundup Ready (RR) soybean accounts for 70% of all GM crops and is tolerant to Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, glyphosate. Much of the soybean crop is grown by large-scale farmers for biodiesel and for export as animal feed to China and Europe. The impacts of soybean expansion in South America go beyond the typical effects of monocultures heavily sprayed with herbicides, but include deforestation, soil fertility mining, food insecurity and the expulsion of small farmers, thus exacerbating rural conflicts.

The expansion of soybean farming is accompanied by massive transportation infrastructure projects that lead to the destruction of natural habitats over wide areas, well beyond the deforestation directly caused by soybean cultivation. In Brazil, soybean profits justified the improvement or construction of industrial waterways, railway lines and an extensive network of roads. These in turn have attracted logging, mining, ranching and other practices with severe impacts on biodiversity. The Rosario region on the Paraná River in Argentina has become the largest soya agro-industrial processing area in the world, with all the environmental impacts that such infrastructure entails.

Soybean occupies the largest area of any crop in Brazil (14.5 million hectares). In Argentina about 16 million hectares are devoted to soybean, and the total production is more than 40 million tonnes. In Paraguay soybeans occupy more than 25% of all agricultural land. Soya cultivation has already resulted in the deforestation of 21 million hectares of forests in Brazil, 14 million hectares in Argentina, 2 million hectares in Paraguay and 600,000 hectares in Bolivia. In response to global market pressure for biofuels, Brazil alone will likely clear an additional 60 million hectares of land in the near future to grow more soybean for biodiesel, and sugar cane for ethanol.

Soybean expansion also leads to extreme land and income disparity. In Brazil, soybean cultivation displaces eleven agricultural workers for every one who finds employment in the sector. Yearly, millions of people are displaced by soybean production, and these landless people move to the Amazon and other regions, where they clear pristine forests. In Argentina the situation is quite dramatic, as 60,000 farms went out of business while the area of GM soybean almost tripled. In one decade, the area of soybean cultivation increased by 126% at the expense of dairy, maize, wheat and fruit production. For the country, this means more imports of basic foods, creating a loss of food sovereignty, and for poor small farmers and consumers, only increased food prices and more hunger.

AS THE CULTIVATION of soybean rapidly expands, so does glyphosate use. In southern Brazil, for every kilo reduction of non-glyphosate herbicide during the period of expansion of GM soybean cultivation, the use of glyphosate increased by 7.5 kilos. In Argentina, Roundup applications reached the equivalent of an estimated 160 million litres in the 2004 growing season, and herbicide usage is expected to increase as weeds start developing resistance to Roundup.

A recent study by Brazilian researchers found thirteen weed species that have developed resistance to glyphosate. In Argentina, resistant biotypes of Johnson grass, Ipomoea species and other weeds are also emerging, creating a typical treadmill in which glyphosate generates weeds that are harder to control, in turn requiring increased amounts of other herbicides such as 2,4-D. Instead of reducing the need for agrochemicals as proponents once claimed, GM technology has increased their use.

Biotech companies claim that herbicides should not pose negative effects on humans or the environment. In practice, however, the large-scale planting of GM crops encourages aerial application of herbicides and only 1% of what is sprayed reaches the crop – the rest ends up in the soil and water. The agribusiness companies contend that glyphosate degrades rapidly in the soil, does not accumulate in ground water, has no effects on non-target organisms, and leaves no residue in foods and water or soil, yet glyphosate has been reported to be toxic to some non-target species in the soil including beneficial predators such as spiders, mites, carabid and coccinellid beetles, detritivores such as earthworms, and mycorrhizae and other microfauna, as well as to aquatic organisms including microbial communities, frogs and fish.

Research has shown that glyphosate seems to act in a similar fashion to antibiotics, altering soil biology in as yet unknown ways and causing effects such as reduction of the ability of soybeans, clover and other legumes to fix nitrogen, and the rendering of bean plants more vulnerable to disease. During the first year of glyphosate application on RR soya, a severe sudden death syndrome epidemic occurred (an infection by the fungus Fusarium solani) in several RR cultivars, resulting in reduction of the growth of beneficial soil-dwelling mycorrhizal fungi, and other changes to the microbial community.

All these effects can alter nutrient cycling and other important processes in the soil, thus reducing plant growth and health. In a study using outdoor tanks, researchers found that even when applied at concentrations that are just a third of the maximum recommended concentrations, glyphosate killed 98% of all tadpoles within three weeks and 79% of all frogs within one day.

Researchers have also shown that the reduction of weed biomass and flowering and seeding parts under herbicide-resistant crop management causes changes in insect availability with knock-on effects resulting in abundance reduction of several beetles, butterflies and bees. Counts of predacious carabid beetles that feed on weed seeds were smaller in transgenic crop fields. The number of invertebrates that are food for mammals, birds and other invertebrates were also found to be generally lower in herbicide-resistant crop fields. The absence of flowering weeds in transgenic fields can have serious consequences for pollinators but also for pests’ natural enemies, which require pollen and nectar for survival; this in turn can lead to enhanced insect pest problems.

THE EXPANSION OF soybean monoculture threatens the ecological integrity and food sovereignty of countries as well as the rights of Indigenous and rural communities. This industrial agricultural model violates economic, social, cultural and environmental rights and, as it expands, its destructive methods of operation degrade the environment through deforestation, soil erosion and contamination of water bodies and push farmers out of their lands, resulting in rural migration and further impoverishment of rural populations. The soya agro-industry is actually expanding and becoming stronger through the growing markets for pro-cessed foods, industrial livestock and the production of biodiesel demanded by the North.

Rural social movements such as Via Campesina and Movimiento Socialista de Trabajadores (MST) reject corporate attempts for continual expansion of GM soya monoculture. Farmers’ mobilisations have led to destruction of soybean fields and occupation of corporate facilities. For example, Syngenta Seeds’ experimental research centre in Paraná was taken over by MST in March 2006 after they discovered that the company was illegally growing GM soybeans within the boundary zone of Iguaçu National Park.

The expansion of agricultural biotechnology into South America is exacerbating agrarian conflicts and historic tensions over land. More mobilisation of rural movements can be expected, as the ‘grassroots’ oppose the advance of biofuel agribusiness and GM technology. Industrial farming threatens biodiversity and native seed varieties, violating the rights of consumers and small farmers by contaminating conventional and organic crops.

If consumers in the North of the world want to continue enjoying their fair trade coffee and bananas, as well as the ‘good, clean and fair food’ from the South, they had better find ways to directly support these grassroots mobilisations, otherwise small farmers and the food they grow are in danger of genetic pollution and possible extinction.

This is an edited extract from The Slow Food Almanac 2008.

Miguel A. Altieri is a lecturer in agroecology at the University of California, USA.