(IPS) – At a time when the price of soy, Argentina’s main export crop, has reached record levels on the international markets, family agriculture experts and environmental groups are warning about its severe social and environmental effects.
Covering 16.6 million hectares, more than half the country’s cultivated land, soybeans, which command prices of around 600 dollars a tonne, are expanding at the expense of maize, wheat, citrus fruits and cattle ranching, among other farming activities.
This expansion is likely to continue after the recent repeal of the controversial hike in export taxes on soy adopted by the government in March.
"Soy is an example of the ‘boom and bust’ model, much like fishing, mining or intensive logging," said Jorge Cappato, of the Fundación Proteger. "An ecosystem is pressured beyond its limits, to generate enormous profits in the short term, at the cost of renewable natural resources."
"With such high profits guaranteed, who is going to be interested in producing wheat or milk?" Cappato asked. "But the soybean model is flawed because of its medium and long term social, environmental, health and economic impacts. It destroys family agriculture and forces rural workers to migrate to the cities."
The area sown with soybeans grew by 126 percent over the space of a decade, and according to non-governmental organisations, this is not only to the detriment of other crops and activities. The advance of soy also displaces native forests with their wealth of biodiversity, and takes over land used for family agriculture and belonging to indigenous peoples.
"In the last nine years, according to official figures, 2.5 million hectares of native forests have been lost, especially in the north of the country, and this is largely due to deforestation to plant soy, which is elbowing out all other activities," Hernán Giardini of Greenpeace Argentina told IPS.
The Centre for Human Rights and the Environment (CEDHA) said this month that in 2007 an average 821 hectares of forest a day were lost. Although a law has been passed for the protection and sustainable use of forests, it is feared that the will to apply it in the provinces may waver in the face of the lure of booming soy prices.
Apart from the damages to biodiversity, experts say that glyphosate, the herbicide used in combination with transgenic soy, pollutes groundwater, and that aerial spraying is a health hazard for thousands of rural people living near the crops.
Agronomist Walter Pengue, a researcher with the Ecology of Landscape and the Environment Group (GEPAMA) at the University of Buenos Aires, told IPS that in the early 1990s, one million litres of glyphosate a year were sold in Argentina, compared to 180 million litres last year.
"It’s a useful strategic input, like diesel, but it must be used rationally," he said. However, complaints put forward by the Rural Reflection Group (GRR), another environmental organisation, indicate that uncontrolled spraying causes health problems like allergies, intoxication, fetal malformations, miscarriages and cancer.
Pengue recognises that no-till direct sowing, associated with transgenic soybean cultivation, is a practice that can diminish soil erosion. But he warned that the method also makes it possible to grow crops on fragile land systems, where cultivation itself poses risks to the soil, for instance in Argentina’s northern provinces.
According to Pengue, a professor of agricultural and environmental economics at several universities, "Johnson grass" or "Aleppo grass," a weed that is becoming resistent to glyphosate, has already appeared in six provinces. Alternatives being discussed to combat it include herbicides that were discontinued in the 1980s as too toxic.
"Because of transgenic soy, we have been losing our experts on weeds, and those who remain are working for the companies that produce genetically modified seeds and glyphosate," he complained. Furthermore, the soil is losing nutrients that cannot fully be replaced, even with large quantities of fertiliser.
Since the 1970s, when soy began to be planted in Argentina, the soil has lost a net 11.3 million tonnes of nitrogen, 2.5 million tonnes of phosphorus, and very high amounts of other nutrients, Pengue said.
Farming analysts also say that the soy model of agriculture is not socially sustainable. "There is short term prosperity in some cities because of the high prices. Small landholders are renting their land and receiving more income than they have ever seen in their lives," said Pengue. But this kind of bonanza "does not amount to development," he said.
"A country cannot depend exclusively on the price of one product, it has to produce a broad range of foods, as Brazil is doing," he said.
In rural areas today, he said, technology is displacing agricultural workers in favour of better qualified labour, capable of driving harvesters and other machines. "These are the new rural workers; the others have been pushed aside and left out of the system."
Greenpeace’s Giardini also addressed this question. In the northeastern province of Chaco, where cotton was the traditional crop, the encroachment of soy reduced the rural population from 40 to 20 percent. The effects can be seen in the overcrowded shantytowns on the outskirts of the provincial capitals.
According to official statistics, 20.6 percent of Argentina’s 38 million people are poor. But in the northeastern region, where soy is king, 37 percent are below the poverty line, and 13.6 percent live in absolute poverty, unable to feed themselves properly.
"Small farmers in provinces like Salta and Santiago del Estero (in the north) who have precarious rights to the land, are facing the threat of the land being sold with them on it, and this is also related to large-scale soy cultivation," Giardini said.
"In some small towns, hotels, casinos and even nightclubs are being built, but there is no trickle-down effect. Many of these places do not even have sewer systems," he said.