Filmmakers: Glenn Ellis and Guido Bilbao
For much of the past decade Argentina has seen a commodities-driven export boom, built largely on genetically-modified soy bean crops and the aggressive use of pesticides.
Argentina’s leaders say it has turned the country’s economy around, while others say the consequences are a dramatic surge in cancer rates, birth defects and land theft.
People & Power investigates if Argentina’s booming soy industry is a disaster in the making.
Filmmaker’s view: Bad seeds
By Glenn Ellis
As I flew in to Buenos Aires to make this film, all the talk was of President Cristina Kirchner’s latest gambit. Her foreign minister had pulled out of a meeting with the British foreign secretary to discuss the Falklands (or the Malvinas depending on your outlook). And for the people I rubbed up against in Argentina’s smart and chic capital, on discovering I was English, this, along with Maradona’s ‘hand of god’ moment, was the topic on everybody’s lips. “We won the war”, they would say. “After the fighting we got rid of our dictators but you had another 10 years of Thatcher.”
When I explained I was in the country to cover the soya boom, which has given Argentina the fastest growth rate in South America, but also allegedly caused devastating malformations in children, there was a look of disbelief. “Here, in Argentina? Why haven’t we heard about it?”
A good question: why had not anyone heard about it? And when I ventured a little further explaining I also wanted to cover what is best described as a dirty war in the North of the country where campesinos are being driven off their land, and sometimes killed, to make way for soya plantations – the bemusement increased. “That’s historical” people would say, “it’s been going on since the time of the conquistadores.” So when I arrived with my crew at Argentina’s second city, Cordoba, 700 kilometres North West of the capital, to meet Alternative Nobel Laureate Professor Raul Montenegro, I was not quite sure what to expect.
Montenegro, a world-renowned biologist, looked the part of a pioneer, in khaki shirt and jungle boots. “I have pesticide in me”, he said, almost as soon as he opened the door. “Here we all have pesticide in our bodies because the land is saturated with it. And it is a huge problem. In Argentina biodiversity is diminishing. Even in national parks, because pesticides don’t recognise the limit of the park.” Montenegro is a man in a hurry. “You must see for yourself”, he said pointing to his Land Rover and taking us a short drive out of Cordoba to a slight rise in the vast plain which surrounds the city. Here, as far as the eye can see, endless acres of soya stretched to the horizon. “More than 18 million hectares are covered by this GMO soya but it’s not solely a matter of soya because over this plant on this huge surface more than 300 million litres of pesticide are used.”
A soy republic
Not so long ago Argentina topped the world for meat production, but here there was not a cow in sight. It is a picture replicated across the country. The transformation has taken little more than a decade and the vast majority of soya seed in Argentina is provided by US chemical giant Monsanto.
Carlow, Ireland — Ewen Mullins is the face of modern Ireland: Young, cosmopolitan, highly educated, he is a plant scientist whose work on a genetically modified potato inherently looks to the future. But Mullins also must think back to one of Ireland’s darkest chapters, the Great Famine of the 1840s.
“It’s always there,” he said. “It’s not something we forget or something we should be allowed to forget.”
From his laboratory and greenhouse in a research farm outside Carlow, 42-year-old Mullins deals daily with a disease that not only afflicts his native land but haunts it: the potato blight, a pernicious rot caused by a fungus that still thrives in Ireland’s wet, cold climate.
The disease has become even more damaging in the past five years with the arrival of new, highly aggressive strains. Unchecked, blight can destroy entire crops in just days.
Mullins and his team have spent the winter cloning new potato stock in a locked, temperature controlled room and, nearby, a secured greenhouse bay where the plant is isolated and any waste must be sterilized in a steamer.
In the spring, they will start the test by setting out more than 2,000 transplants in a fenced field at the Irish agricultural research service’s farm.
“There’s a lot of public interest” in his work, Mullins said. Not all of it is friendly. Genetic engineering remains highly controversial in Europe, and the research in Ireland has spawned a campaign against it.
The field trials in Carlow are harming Ireland’s reputation for local, organic and artisanal food, said Kaethe Burt-O’Dea, a Dublin-based local-food activist. “People feel that once you let GM in, there’s really no turning back,” she said.
But proponents of the genetically modified potato say its eventual use could prevent harmful and expensive applications of pesticides and bolster potato yields, which are decimated by the blight in poorer countries today.
The potato is the third-most-consumed crop on the planet after wheat and rice and has become increasingly important in the developing world, which now has more potato fields than developed countries, according to Dutch scientists at the forefront of the effort.
Today the amount of Irish farmland devoted to the potato pales in comparison with pasture land and cereal production. And yet the potato remains an iconic vegetable here, in many homes arriving nightly on the dinner table in a big steaming bowl — boiled, floury and in their skins.
Like other potato farmers, David Rodgers is wary of a biologically engineered superpotato.
“We are fighting the blight, we are growing the potato,” he said. Pressed some more, Rodgers says everything depends on consumer acceptance. “You can’t decide to do it without finding out if the consumer would want to buy it. Europe is so against GM.”
While St. Patrick’s Day marks the traditional start of the new potato planting season, some growers have already put seed spuds in their fields. Rodgers and his three brothers will plant a total of 250 acres in County Dublin next month. He knows he will do battle with the blight, especially if the season again is cool, humid and wet, conditions that favor the spread of spores.
Farmer’s use of genetically modified soybeans grows into Supreme Court case
By Robert Barnes, Saturday, February 9, 3:12 PM
In SANDBORN, Ind. — Farmer Hugh Bowman hardly looks the part of a revolutionary who stands in the way of promising new biotech discoveries and threatens Monsanto’s pursuit of new products it says will “feed the world.”
“Hell’s fire,” said the 75-year-old self-described “eccentric old bachelor,” who farms 300 acres of land passed down from his father. Bowman rested in a recliner, boots off, the tag that once held his Foster Grant reading glasses to a drugstore rack still attached, a Monsanto gimme cap perched ironically on his balding head.
“I am less than a drop in the bucket.”
Yet Bowman’s unorthodox soybean farming techniques have landed him at the center of a national battle over genetically modified crops. His legal battle, now at the Supreme Court, raises questions about whether the right to patent living things extends to their progeny, and how companies that engage in cutting-edge research can recoup their investments.
What Bowman did was to take commodity grain from the local elevator, which is usually used for feed, and plant it. But that grain was mostly progeny of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready beans because that’s what most Indiana soybean farmers grow. Those soybeans are genetically modified to survive the weedkiller Roundup, and Monsanto claims that Bowman’s planting violated the company’s restrictions.
Those supporting Bowman hope the court uses the case, which is scheduled for oral arguments later this month, to hit the reset button on corporate domination of agribusiness and what they call Monsanto’s “legal assault” on farmers who don’t toe the line. Monsanto’s supporters say advances in health and environmental research are endangered.
And the case raises questions about the traditional role of farmers.
For instance: When a farmer grows Monsanto’s genetically modified soybean seeds, has he simply “used” the seed to create a crop to sell, or has he “made” untold replicas of Monsanto’s invention that remain subject to the company’s restrictions?
An adverse ruling, Monsanto warned the court in its brief, “would devastate innovation in biotechnology,” which involves “notoriously high research and development costs.”
“Inventors are unlikely to make such investments if they cannot prevent purchasers of living organisms containing their invention from using them to produce unlimited copies,” Monsanto states.
Bowman said Monsanto’s claim that its patent protection would be eviscerated should he win is “ridiculous.”
“Monsanto should not be able, just because they’ve got millions and millions of dollars to spend on legal fees, to try to terrify farmers into making them obey their agreements by massive force and threats,” Bowman said.
WASHINGTON » The Supreme Court agreed today to hear a dispute between a soybean farmer and Monsanto Co. over the company’s efforts to limit farmers’ use of its patented, genetically engineered Roundup Ready seeds.
The justices said they will hear an appeal from Indiana farmer Vernon Hugh Bowman, who is trying to fend off Monsanto’s lawsuit claiming Bowman made unauthorized use of the seeds.
Monsanto’s patented soybean seeds have been genetically engineered to resist its Roundup brand herbicide. When Roundup is sprayed on a field, the product will kill the weeds without harming the crop.
The Obama administration urged the court not to take the case and warned that the outcome could affect patents involving DNA molecules, nanotechnologies and other self-replicating technologies.
Monsanto has a policy that prohibits farmers from saving or reusing the seeds once the crop is grown, ensuring that farmers have to buy new seeds every year.
Bowman used the patented seeds, but also bought cheaper soybeans from a grain elevator and used those to plant a second crop. Most of the new soybeans also were resistant to weed killers, as they initially came from herbicide-resistant seeds, too. Bowman repeated the practice over eight years. Monsanto sued when it learned what he was doing.
The company has filed lawsuits around the country to enforce its policy against saving the seeds for the future.
Bowman’s appeal was among seven new cases the court added today to its calendar for argument during the winter.
The justices also will consider whether a government’s refusal to issue a development permit can amount to “taking” private property for which the owner must be paid.
Crops genetically modified to poison pests can deliver significant environmental benefits, according to a study spanning two decades and 1.5m square kilometres. The benefits extended to non-GM crops in neighbouring fields, researchers found.
Plants engineered to produce a bacterial toxin lethal to some insects but harmless to people were grown across more than 66m hectares around the world in 2011.
Bt cotton is one type and now makes up 95% of China’s vast plantations. Since its introduction in 1997, pesticide use has halved and the study showed this led to a doubling of natural insect predators such as ladybirds, lacewings and spiders. These killed pests not targeted by the Bt cotton, in cotton fields, but also in conventional corn, soybean and peanut fields.
“Insecticide use usually kills the natural enemies of pests and weakens the biocontrol services that they provide,” said Professor Kongming Wu at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences in Beijing, who led the research team. “Transgenic crops reduce insecticide use and promote the population increase of natural enemies. Therefore, we think that this is a general principle.”
Researchers have discovered why courtship rituals – which can be all-consuming, demanding time and effort – might actually be worth it.
Attracting a mate – which can take significant effort, such as in a peacock’s show of feathers or the exhaustive rutting of stags – can produce benefits for a species in the long term, a study suggested.
Scientists have shown that animals and plants, which reproduce sexually are at a considerable advantage to those species – such as some insects and reptiles – that reproduce without a partner.
Researchers at the University of Edinburgh studied sexual reproduction in tiny fruit flies to learn more about how DNA is randomly shuffled when the genes of two parents combine to create a new individual.
They found that this recombination of genetic material allows for damaging elements of DNA – which might cause disease or other potential drawbacks – to be weeded out within a few generations.
Individuals who inherit healthy genes tend to flourish and pass on their DNA to the next generation, while weaker individuals are more likely to die without reproducing.
Genetic engineering has failed to increase the yield of any food crop but has vastly increased the use of chemicals and the growth of “superweeds”, according to a report by 20 Indian, south-east Asian, African and Latin American food and conservation groups representing millions of people.
The so-called miracle crops, which were first sold in the US about 20 years ago and which are now grown in 29 countries on about 1.5bn hectares (3.7bn acres) of land, have been billed as potential solutions to food crises, climate change and soil erosion, but the assessment finds that they have not lived up to their promises.
The report claims that hunger has reached “epic proportions” since the technology was developed. Besides this, only two GM “traits” have been developed on any significant scale, despite investments of tens of billions of dollars, and benefits such as drought resistance and salt tolerance have yet to materialise on any scale.
Most worrisome, say the authors of the Global Citizens’ Report on the State of GMOs, is the greatly increased use of synthetic chemicals, used to control pests despite biotech companies’ justification that GM-engineered crops would reduce insecticide use.
In China, where insect-resistant Bt cotton is widely planted, populations of pests that previously posed only minor problems have increased 12-fold since 1997. A 2008 study in the International Journal of Biotechnology found that any benefits of planting Bt cotton have been eroded by the increasing use of pesticides needed to combat them.
Additionally, soya growers in Argentina and Brazil have been found to use twice as much herbicide on their GM as they do on conventional crops, and a survey by Navdanya International, in India, showed that pesticide use increased 13-fold since Bt cotton was introduced.
At the supermarket, most shoppers are oblivious to a battle raging within U.S. agriculture and the Obama administration’s role in it. Two thriving but opposing sectors — organics and genetically engineered crops — have been warring on the farm, in the courts and in Washington.
Organic growers say that, without safeguards, their foods will be contaminated by genetically modified crops growing nearby. The genetic engineering industry argues that its way of farming is safe and should not be restricted in order to protect organic competitors.
Into that conflict comes Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who for two years has been promising something revolutionary: finding a way for organic farms to coexist alongside the modified plants.
But in recent weeks, the administration has announced a trio of decisions that have clouded the future of organics and boosted the position of genetically engineered (GE) crops. Vilsack approved genetically modified alfalfa and a modified corn to be made into ethanol, and he gave limited approval to GE sugar beets.
The announcements were applauded by GE industry executives, who describe their crops as the farming of the future. But organics supporters were furious, saying their hopes that the Obama administration would protect their interests were dashed.
“It was boom, boom boom,” said Walter Robb, co-chief executive officer of Whole Foods Markets, a major player in organics. “These were deeply disappointing. They were such one-sided decisions.”
By Howard Dicus
HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) – Hawaii grows more corn for seed than for eating, and the seed industry is the new sugar for Hawaii, accounting for more than a third of all farmgate revenue in the islands.
All four of the nation’s largest seed manufacturers have substantial farming operations in Hawaii now, including farms on Molokai, Kauai, Oahu and Maui. The vast majority of seed produced is corn, driven in part by farmers growing corn for ethanol on the mainland, but diversification into other seeds is under way.
Using figures from 2009 for a report released Tuesday, the National Agriculture Statistics Service and the Hawaii Department of Agriculture reported that seed farms account for more than $222 million of the more than $627 million in statewide farmgate revenue.
Total revenue is up 4% from the year before, and also represents 37% more milk farm revenue as the dairy industry regroups on the Big Island, along with smaller rebounding in cattle operations and improved revenues for bananas, basil, sweet potatoes, head cabbage and other crops.
Drought, which has been a problem for local cattle operations since 2009, caused lower revenues that year in the flower and nursery industry, which had been the largest chunk of Hawaii diversified agriculture before the advent of the local seed industry.