ExpoChacra, Agricultural Trade Show, Argentina 2005
Industrial agriculture, a product of the U.S., is only partly about supplying food. For a long time it has been structured to meet the problem of excess capital accumulation. So it’s a “capital-intensive” system–meaning you have to sink a lot of capital into it to make it work. Lots of expensive and complex machinery, brand name chemical herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, fertilizers, and recently, patented seeds. This also allows the banking and finance sectors to have a piece since no farmer, large or small, handles this kind of operation without extensive loans.
At an agricultural trade fair like ExpoChacra in Argentina, farm machinery is the most eye-catching display, baffling and almost fantastical to the outsider, perhaps anxiety producing to the farmer who can never quite afford the equipment that ensures success. But the exhibits reflect the role of auto manufacturers, tire companies and banks as much as they do the businesses of seeds, chemicals and products marketed to the agricultural sector alone.
To anyone following the adventures of the WTO, it becomes evident that the U.S. uses strong-arm tactics in trade agreements to export its agricultural system. After the breakdown of the 2003 WTO ministerial in Cancun, this mission continues to be realized through bilateral trade agreements. I wanted to find out more about what happens when the U.S. system is rapidly integrated into another country’s economy. Argentina is one of the globe’s biggest food producers, and their feverish embrace of GM (genetically modified) soy is unmatched anywhere. The promotion of GM agriculture is an efficient package for the promotion of American industrial agriculture, including concentrated ownership through patents and intellectuals property.
In the five years between 1997 and 2003 more than half the arable land in all of Argentina converted to soy cultivation, and 95% of this is planted in Monsanto’s Roundup Ready soybeans. These seeds are ‘genetically engineered’ to express a trait for the resistance to glyphosate based herbicides, so that the farmer can spray for weeds in a blanket application without worrying about harming his product.
Farmers welcome Monsanto’s system at first because it is simple and appears to require less herbicide. Exactly when and how much to spray are part of the instructions that come with a ‘technology package’ including seeds and the brand name herbicide RoundUp, Monsanto’s best selling product worldwide . Only two passes through the growing cycle replace five or six applications of a variety of herbicides in previous systems. Farmers can control weeds without tilling and so reduce erosion and labor.
Within a couple of years, however, two sprayings per growing cycle doesn’t seem to do it, and herbicide use escalates rapidly. Since the deployment of RoundUp Ready GM seeds, use of glyphosate in Argentina has skyrocketed from an estimated 13.9 million litres in 1997 to 150 million litres in 2003. Once thought to be a relatively benign herbicide, the popularity of glyphosate has produced undeniable evidence of its disruption of the beneficial soil microbes that break down organic matter, and its highly damaging toxicity to livestock and humans.
Maybe because of the over-application, several previously uncommon species of glyphosate-tolerant weed are documented in rising proliferation (many more by the way than have been documented in a longer period of GM soy cultivation in the USA). Unwanted GM soy from stray seed is getting hard to control, and consequently farmers are using more venomous combinations of pesticides in higher concentrations. In some places competing multinational chemical companies like Syngenta and Dow post ads declaring that GM soy is a weed and offering combinations of deadly pesticides like atrazine, paraquat, metsulfaron and clopyralid to control it.
The U.S. soy crop is also mostly GM herbicide tolerant, but the Argentine context presents some significant differences in regard to the economic, social and environmental impacts.
In 1997 even though Argentina had not signed an international patent agreement for Roundup-Ready intellectual property, Monsanto decided to market the seeds there. Perhaps they based their gamble on the preferential treatment given foreign corporations in the past and presumed the patent would soon be legalized; certainly they wanted to avoid loosing the market to generic makers. For farmers the package was incredibly cheap because there was no technology fee and no contract to sign. Today Monsanto still doesn’t have a patent in Argentina and in 2004 they took their seeds off the Argentine market, but by then it didn’t matter because RR seeds are freely reproduced and traded in the white bagging circuit. Since then Monsanto has been harassing, cajoling and threatening the government to extort a technology fee from the producers, and has also tried extracting tribute from importing countries where the patent is law.
Arable land devoted to other food crops has declined in direct relation to the rise in soy acreage (most Argentine soy is used for animal feed or export). In fact even as certain sectors celebrate the soy boom, hunger in Argentina has risen significantly in the last five years. And this is only one of the uncalculated costs of the widespread conversion of land to soy cultivation. As of last year, over 150,000 small farmers have been driven out of the path of the new megafarms, and many fragile ecosystems of the north have been clear-cut for the “green gold.” Argentina has little regulatory infrastructure compared to the subsidies and market controls that in fact do protect just enough American farmers from falling all the way through the floor. The law of commodities markets is predictable however, so as the rush to provide soy to the world catches up with the demand, prices will sink. Without subsidies or the muscle of a transnational cartel many farmers in Argentina will suffer. No doubt there will be more shuffles toward larger, fewer farms as producers can only weather price crashes by economies of scale. Nor does Argentina have the infrastructure for pesticide-use oversight, and related health problems are already being reported in villages exposed to chemical excesses. US regulations, grossly inadequate but more effective than that in most countries, slow the poisoning of our bodies and the environment to a less immediately perceptible level.
This is a case where the revenue streams deriving from the product have taken some different turns – there are no patent and technology fees or settlement for breach of contract going to Monsanto. A larger than average percent of the revenue is going to the government via taxes, and though Argentina expects and receives more social welfare than the US, much more is going to debt reservicing than toward redistribution.
But here is the fact that should interest us: even with Monsanto’s profit mechanism thwarted, even in a scenario where the priority of privatized intellectual property has run off track, the effect of the introduction of this technology has been to concentrate wealth in the farming sector at an alarming rate. This is largely because the system for which this technology is designed to work is one favoring concentration of control over resources. In the case of industrial agriculture biotechnology is used as a powerful new bait to convert regions to a system whose logic depends on labor-cutting machinery, petroleum based inputs, environmental slow-death. Because the cost of the initial outlay is high, the scale of the operation is optimally large. Larger farms. Fewer farms. Greater wealth. Fewer hands. More soy. Less food. Transgenic agriculture did not start that system and does not by itself accomplish pinpoint wealth concentration and widespread dispossession. But it is definitely the newest and potentially most powerful tool yet for proliferating that system to the exclusion of others.