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.
Alexander Fleming found penicillin growing in a petri dish in the basement of St. Mary’s Hospital in London.
Bryan Hiromoto discovered his plant growth enhancer in a bag of nutrients for mushrooms on his farm in Haiku.
The magnitudes of their discoveries vary greatly. Fleming won a Nobel Prize for bringing antibiotics to the world and saving lives. Hiromoto’s work led to an organic solution that speeds up the metabolism of plants at the molecular level and enhances growth.
What they do have in common is a chance happening that led to their discoveries.
“It’s kind of cool. . . . It’s one of those things we found by accident,” said Wesley Chun, chief science officer of Grower’s Secret, the company that markets Hiromoto’s discovery.
The result of Hiromoto’s accidental finding and the development of the plant growth enhancer have led to Grower’s Secret being selected as a finalist in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation 2011 Hawaii Business Innovation Showcase. If the company is selected in early September by a panel of government and business leaders as the state or county winner, Grower’s Secret will have an opportunity to promote itself at venues and events surrounding the international economic conference in November.
The April 23 Washington Post article about the Blue Plains Sewage Treatment Plant Upgrade contains a number of false claims about the nature and safety of Class A sewage sludge/biosolids. Class A contains robust pathogens that have not been killed by the new process and which can regrow in cool and moist climates. It also contains an array of toxic metals and synthetic chemicals that are neither regulated nor monitored, including some that are highly toxic and can harm organisms in very small doses.
Every month, every industry, institution, and business in the Washington DC area is permitted to discharge 33 pounds of hazardous waste into Blue Plains. As these industrial pollutants are removed from the waste water, they concentrate in the resulting biosolids. To compare sludge with toothpaste and claim it is safe to put in your mouth is irresponsible. There is no similarity between pre-industrial night soil and modern sewage sludge. Field studies indicate that sludge pollutants can be absorbed by plants and get into milk of dairy cows that graze on sludged pastures.
There is nothing “forward looking” or “green” about spreading industrial waste on farms or in gardens.
By Darryl Fears,
After moving tons of earth for an expansion, Stafford Regional Airport in Virginia faced an embarrassing problem: severe and seemingly irreversible baldness. Virtually nothing grew on its dusty, damaged land.
The airport’s worried manager, Ed Wallis, tried different treatments before he was advised to consult with officials at theBlue Plains Advanced Water Treatment Plant, a sprawling facility at the southern tip of the District that processes 375 million gallons of the area’s wastewater per day.
Airport officials liked what they saw and began accepting a dark substance called a biosolid from Blue Plains. Five months later, grass started to sprout. A year later, it was thigh-high.
“It was unbelievable,” Wallis said.
That transformation a decade ago is a legend at Blue Plains, the first thing officials from the plant mentioned recently while promoting theirbiosolid fertilizer. That’s a fancy scientific marketing name that masks what the biosolids truly are — sludge made primarily from human waste.
Probably the world’s original fertilizer, this cleaned and treated version of what was long known as “night soil” may well loom large in the future, too.
TORONTO (AP) — Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan Inc. said suitor BHP Billiton is calling its customers “to sow seeds of doubt and confusion about the future” of the Canadian company.
Australia’s BHP Billiton Ltd., the world’s biggest mining company, launched a hostile $130-a-share takeover on Aug. 18 after Potash directors rejected its offer. The Canadian company said it’s in talks with several other companies instead.
Potash Corp’s sales president, Stephen Dowdle, said in a letter to customers filed with regulators this week that they recently learned that Chris Ryder, director of Potash marketing for BHP Billiton, has begun calling Potash customers. Dowdle called it “inappropriate and highly unethical.”
Potash, the world’s largest fertilizer company, has rejected BHP hostile $38.5 billion takeover offer as wholly inadequate.
Dowdle said they can only assume that BHP’s “purpose is to sow seeds of doubt and confusion about the future of PotashCorp by raising questions about our ability to do business across the nutrient spectrum as well as the future and makeup of our sales organization.”
Mobile ‘biochar’ machine to work the fields
An ancient technique to fertilize soil by creating charcoal from plant waste is being revived to tackle some of today’s environmental problems.
The latest company to pursue manmade charcoal, called biochar, is Biochar Systems, which has developed a biochar-making machine that can be pulled by a pickup truck. Two customers–a North Carolina farm and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management–will be begin testing the units this fall.
The unit, called the Biochar 1000, is designed to convert woody biomass, such as agricultural or forestry waste, into biochar, a black, porous, and fine-grained charcoal that can be used as a fertilizer. It uses pyrolysis–slowly burning biomass in a low-oxygen chamber–to treat 1,000 pounds of biomass per hour, yielding 250 pounds of biochar.
There still isn’t a well established market for selling biochar, but there’s growing interest among researchers in the process as a way to cut greenhouse gas concentrations. The United Nations has proposed classifying biochar as a carbon credit for sequestering carbon from the atmosphere.
The room was packed, and the message came through loud and clear at the informational briefing this morning on the state of Hawaii’s agriculture industry. It was a joint meeting of the Committees on Agriculture and Water, Land & Ocean Resources.
The industry faces its more critical period ever, and without significant changes, agriculture as we know it, may cease to exist in Hawaii in the near future. Here are some of the highlights from the briefing:
Dean Okimoto – President of Hawaii Farm Bureau, Owner of Nalo Farms
Nalo Farms is at great risk. Okimoto has been working on an expansion project for a few years which he hopes to open on Monday. He has poured much of his savings into the project as he has had to pay off a loan with no incoming project revenue for the past 15 months. He says that it feels like he is losing business, not gaining business, and even the farm itself is not doing well.
The danger for the industry is that once we lose a farm, it never comes back. Nalo Farms is not alone. Several farms have closed in recent months. Part of the problem is that agriculture is like "the Rodney Dangerfield of the economy" – it gets no respect. In particular, Hawaii’s tourism industry is highly dependent on agriculture, but Okimoto believes that there is little recognition from the tourism industry, nor collaboration between the two industries.
Buddy Nobriga – President of Nobriga Ranch
Nobriga contends that the Hawaii Department of Agriculture is one of the smallest Ag Departments in the nation. The state needs a larger, stronger department that can help the farmers and ranchers. There are not enough inspectors to monitor the quality of imported milk. We don’t have strong relationships with the USDA. We don’t have the land to establish dairies.
We need agriculture in order to be sustainable. In a way, agriculture and farmers are like the "security" of the state.
Meredith Ching – Alexander and Baldwin (large landowner)
Large landowners face the same problems as small farms. The lack of rainfall in the past decade has had a cumulative effect on island crops. 2008 was the driest year over the past 85 years. In addition, the state has been in a prolonged drought for the past decade, with the past two years being exceptionally dry.
Yvonne Izu – Hawaii Farm Bureau, former state water commissioner
The legislature needs to amend the state water code law. The East Maui decision is a perfect example of how the water code does not support agriculture. This is one way the legislature can help farmers without spending money. Farmers do not have hope that agriculture can survive in this state.
Richard Ha – President, Hamakua Springs
The world has changed. He has had to lay off 20 workers recently. He says you can tell that farming is bad when fertilizer sales go down. Fertilizer sales have been going down since last spring. There is, however, an opportunity to use agricultural lands for energy crops. A bill passed last year allows farmers to finance loans for energy projects, although this may not be quite enough incentive to bring more people into farming.
He has a blog now. "These days, you gotta blog if you’re a farmer."
Eric Tanouye – Greenpoint Nursery
Tanouye’s 20-year-old son is in college and has said that he wants to work in the family business. This excites Tanouye because it would mean three generations working in the business. Tanouye is also the President of the Florists and Shippers Association and he has visited members across the state on all the islands. All of them face very difficult times. It is unprecedented.
Kylie Matsuda – Matsuda and Fukuyama Farms in Kahuku
She represents the 4th generation of farmers in Kahuku. She has a degree in Tourism Industry Management, but wanted to go back and be part of the family farm business. Her parents did not want her to do it, but she wanted to use her tourism expertise and expand the business into agri-tourism. She had to fight to get her job at the farm. She feels that farming can become viable again if you consider value-added products which will bring additional dollars.
For example, tourists can’t take home fresh fruits and vegetables, but they take back dried fruit, jams and jellies, and other products. There are also farm-related activities to market.
What can be done? Some suggestions:
*Clarify the state policy on water. The East Maui decision seemed to put farmers at a lower level of beneficiary than others. The water commission needs to understand the importance and value of the agriculture industry to the state.
*Provide tax credits for new farmers. Incent farmers to start farming.
*Support more farmers’ markets. It provides more revenue and forces farmers to interface with their market and the public, and through dialog, they can improve their product and have fun talking to people.
*Dean Okimoto summarized: He wanted to make it clear that the farmers are not looking to the legislature to solve all their problems. However, the legislature can be helpful in making other industries and the general public more aware that farming is critical to our state. Right now, tourism does not appreciate or support agriculture. Someone needs to hold their (tourism’s) feet to the fire in helping agriculture.
Chair Clift Tsuji and Chair Ken Ito expressed their appreciation to the farmers for coming today; they understood the gravity of the situation. They will be using the information from the briefing to propose legislation for the 2009 session.