Monsanto, a look at the food production model
Stories of a Wounded Land provides documentary evidences regarding one of the more complex current affair; wich involves the majority of the world Population and the planet itsefl: Agrobussines. Undoubtedly, this is one of the current affairs which has a more global focus, as it links producers from Latin American countries or African tribes with the large corporations and consumers of the developed world.
This method of large scale production of food, with high economic returns, it is based on the use of biotechnology to obtain genetically modified seeds that are resistant to agrochemicals. These methods have been called into question as a result of their eventual consequences for the health of the population, but allow to simplify the planting and harvesting tasks.
This is a project which tries to reflect the consequences of this model and to find an answer to a question that has never been discussed seriously and without fanaticism: Does agro-business represent a solution to put an end to global hunger, or it is simply a way to poison the World?
There are several vital issues intertwined behind agro-business, such as public health, the control policies of the different states, complaints about violations of human rights, the fight for the land ownership, environmental impact, the interests of large corporations and the advances of the applied sciences within the field of food processing. The consequences on the health of local populations -that coexist with the spraying of agrochemicals like Glyphosate or several substances that have been forbidden in European countries, but that are still authorised in producing countries -has been systematically denounced from Argentina and Brazil, two of the major producers of food, and it has become one of the most questionable issues of this production model.
The official surveys evidence a growing number of cancer cases and birth malformations at the fumigated areas. The new order of the disorder makes use of agrochemicals to train nature, replace traditional work on soil and dismantle Amazonia. But it is harmful for people’s health. Hundreds of people are affected by fumigation every day, being part of the ambitious chaos to impose a new cycle to the soil. The mutation of the natural order reaches human beings and modifies their genes also. Malformations registered in newborns have been four times higher in Argentine areas where massive fumigation takes place according to official studies during the last decade. The number of people suffering of cancer is 30% higher in fumigated areas comparing to those areas that are not exposed to fumigation. The results are not officially informed and large corporations make campaigns and deny disorder. The World Health Organization list of potentially carcinogenic substances dated March 2015 includes glyphosate and some other herbicides that sustain disorder helping thus the modified gen to grow.
The agro-business model also implies the need to find more arable land. The high returns obtained entail the need to incorporate new territories for farming, and in turn, on many occasions, this is done at the expense of dismantling many hectares of land, as in the case of the Amazon forest, and in many others, of causing conflicts that may even lead to violence and confrontation for the ownership of the land among rural dwellers, indigenous communities and producers. This desire to find new arable land also leads to territorial changes that can even go beyond the fight for the ownership of the land. The incorporation of this method of production also entails that traditional crops are being driven out by the transgenic ones. This phenomenon is going unnoticed, in view of the announcements of record harvests in those countries that have turned to a nearly monoculture method of production.
The mutation of the natural order
Argentina, together with the United States and Brazil, is one of the main producers of soybeans in the world. Planting of this oilseed begins in the 70´s with a whole production lower than a million tons. But during last years -and due to the use of new technologies- the planted area broke records in extension and the current harvest (2013-2014) will be 54.5 million tons. The reason of this growing is the increase of soybean consumption in China and Indian where people eat soybeans and pork meat (swine are fed by soybeans also).
Soybeans changed Argentine economy and its landscape also. Before 2002, when “soybeans boom” started, the main activity developed in the center region of the country was the cattle industry. High soybeans yields made many producers change their business from cattle to soybeans production. The need to have more land ñto raise cattle and plant soybeansñ made the “agricultural frontier” to expand bringing about many negative consequences such deforestation of typical vegetation and moving of original settlers.
Pampa Moreno is located at less than thirty kilometers from Charata, where the Argentine agro activity faces a new biotechnological “revolution” similar to the one at the beginning of last decade when the “soybeans boom” started. It is June, and many farmers are trying Monsanto´s new soybeans seeds. Monsanto is the main seed company in the world. The difference between the new seed and the traditional one lies in the fact that the so-called “Super Soybeans” grows greener and produces four beans instead of two or three. It is the INTACTA RR2 PRO. Another characteristic of this new product is that the seed “brings” technology to protect itself against the major worms which attack soybeans, allowing thus a higher yield potential -8% higher- and tolerate RoundUp Ready (variety of glyphosate-resistant soybeans produced by Monsanto), which implies, according to Monsanto, less fumigation. Besides, this new seed will allow Monsanto -owner of the transgenic seed patent-, to collect royalties. This was not possible to carry on in Argentina before, but it will be by a test at the time of selling the seeds. A private control system will monitor if farmers have paid seed rights, if they have not, the charges will be deducted at that time.
Sebastián Viscup doesn´t speak and barely walks. He is 15, he was born with hydrocephalus and has spent his last two birthdays in Roque Saenz Peña Hospital, in the province of Chaco, in Northern Argentina. When he turned 14, doctors remembered his birthday and gave him a party, but no one celebrated his last one. “Not even a cake or a small piece of candy and he´s spent most of his life in hospital”, says his grandmother, Matrona. This lady is 75, has four daughters and lives with his grandson in a small house with two rooms, on the outskirts of Napeñay, a village of few blocks, surrounded by soybeans, sunflower and cotton planted areas.
“Right here in front, they are planting soybeans; they plowed yesterday and they are about to apply glyphosate, the herbicide that kills weeds”, she points out from her house door. The planted area begins at five meters from where she is standing, right next to the dirt road. “There, all the green area is cotton”, shows Matrona, on the other side of the house. “When they fumigate, the poison soaks us. We have to close doors and windows. Yesterday they sprayed desiccant to the cotton. Luckily, it was not the same they used last year, which is forbidden. It was so strong that leaves burned out and we couldn´t breathe”, she says.
Sebastián was born in the house the family has a hundred meters from there and it is even more surrounded by crops. The government of the province promised Matrona some help to raise her grandson if she moved to the house she lives now, but they also fumigate this one. Neither the village nor the house has drinking water, (as it happens in most of this Argentine province). The water is received from a tank located behind Matrona´s house that is also sprayed with agrochemicals. Those who do not even have a water well use 20-liter containers to carry water to their houses. These are the glyphosate original containers, left out by fumigators. The use of these containers is forbidden but it is a common practice in the village. Spraying near residential areas is also forbidden by provincial act but this is not observed.
Napeñay is a fumigated village, one of the hidden faces of agro business. According to a report from the Argentine Ministry of Health on May 2012, there are 30% more cases of cancer in fumigated areas than in not fumigated ones. Cases of malformations in fumigated areas grew four times in ten years.
This situation is registered in different regions of Argentina: in Misiones where tobacco crops is the reason of serious intoxication problems; in Entre R’os where people complained against tomato plants and more similar cases registered in Buenos Aires and Santa Fe.
But while this agricultural exploitation model, pursuing high yields based on the use of genetically modified seeds and agrochemicals, is questioned due to the consequences bringing to health and environment, it is also supported by many sectors as a possible solution to the growing demand of food.
Madres de Ituzaingó (Mothers of Ituzaingó), a group of mothers led by Sof’a Gatica, who won the first trial against a farm producer and a fumigator, based on the bad effects caused by the use of agrochemicals in a neighborhood on the outskirts of the city of Córdoba. Gatica, leader of the organization, who was hit by police officers in Malvinas Argentinas, reported in 2004 that her baby who was born with an unusual malformation in his kidney, passed away. Besides, her 16 year old daughter, in under detoxification treatment, Medical studies reported that her blood shows trace elements of two herbicides.
In August 2012, after a two-month trial and four years of making complaints, a farmer and an aerial spraying company were declared guilty of polluting and affecting the health of the population, for the first time in Argentine history. They were sentenced to three years in prison even though they will not go to jail for now. The criminal complaint confirmed Madres de Ituzaingo´s suspicions. They realized that the number of kids with cancer and malformations among theirs were larger than the usual. An official study reporting that 114 kids out of 142 were contaminated with agrochemicals was submitted at trial. Most of the kids show traces of glyphosate and endosulfan in their blood.
Monsanto, however, explains that glyphosate does not represent an acute toxicity hazard and does not pose a health risk to human beings. On the other hand, endosulfan is questioned by Red de Acción sobre Plaguicidas (PAN), Action Network on Insecticides, made up of 600 organizations from 90 countries, since congenital deformities, hormonal disorders, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, cancer, skin damages, loss of hearing, sight and lung capacity are among the main side effects of this pesticide.
Monsanto faces another problem: the high opposition among population, arisen by the building of a new corn seed plant in Malvinas Argentinas, in the province of Córdoba, in the center of Argentina.
One of the reasons why people from the area are against the building of this plant is that Road 88 is too narrow to bear the large quantity of trucks going through. The traffic gets very slow when passing a school located just in front of what it would be the entrance to Monsanto´s plant, which would produce 3.5 millions of corn bags. However, the construction has been halted since September 18, 2013, when neighbors camped as a protest and block the entrances, thus not allowing the trucks loading construction materials to get in. This facility set to be one of the largest cornñprocessing plants in the world. Monsanto already has a similar corn-seed plant in the city of Rojas, in the province of Buenos Aires and according to the seed company, the area has never registered a negative environmental- impact.
However, there was a strong repression against protesters to make them leave the site during one of the first mornings of blockade in Malvinas Argentinas. Images of police officers hitting women and young protesters could be seen on local TV news. The so-called “Malvinas´s case against Monsanto” got visibility. Eduardo Quispe was one of the first protesters to camp there and one of the leaders of Asamblea Malvinas Lucha por la Vida (Malvinas Assembly struggling for Life). The camp is made up of thirty tents and environmental protesters take turns to ensure the continuous presence of people. “There are many young protesters defending the environment”, explains Quispe. “They are not concerned about whales, they are concerned about how the food we eat here and in Europe is made and the reasons of this kind of agro production”
Lot 4 Guaicurú in Quimill, in the province of Santiago del Estero, is the only one that keeps its original aspect in the few hectares of forest where Paulo Aranda´s family and the rest of the Quichua community live. A green plateau where soybeans are planted arose five years ago and surrounds the lot.
“The pressure is strong. We are almost forced to leave because fumigation dries the gardens and kills animals. They buy you the lands and it´s the best thing it can happen to us. We used to be 70 families, now we are 40. The rest moved to the city, they found more poverty there”, explains Paulo.
A fumigation plane is heard nearby, it sprays on the field surrounding the Rural School N 146 “La Pampa”. The tree in the yard is dry, caused by the herbicide applied almost directly on it. Some meters from there, a mosquito shaped truck fumigates another piece of land. Paulo looks at it with his nephew, on the other side of the wire fence. They saw the plane on their way to MOCASE´s, Movimiento de Campesinos de Santiago del Estero, (Farm Workers´ Movement of Santiago del Estero) meeting where they discuss common issues with other communities.
According to Alfredo Leonardo Montes the “agricultural frontier” expansion affects everyone. “The fear of losing our land and the deterioration of health are some of the consequences”, he says. Montes is 36 and also complains against jobs loss in the area. Soybeans production does not need extensive labor force as other crops.
When soybeans replaced the traditional cotton production in the province of Chaco, farm workers moved. But this seems to be part of the past; the small farmers´ real situation is not being able to afford high costs of soybeans planting.
Emilio Arias confesses that he feels as being the “last” of his kind. His family has lived in Pampa Moreno for two generations. Pampa is the word used in Chaco to refer to flat surfaces arising naturally in the traditional monte (non planted area covered with trees and bushes) and chosen by first settlers to live in by the beginning of the 20th century.
For this reason there are many pampas with different names to differentiate them: Del Infierno, Del Alma and La de Moreno. It is Sunday and three of Emilio´s brothers have come to enjoy the yerra (the traditional Argentine celebration to mark the cattle). Emilio is in charge of managing 80 hectares of the family. “Some years ago, when we worked with people, we used to plant cotton. I owed everything I have to those cotton harvests”, he says. He didn´t do well with soybeans. “You need to plant many hectares. I haven´t earned money for three years. I planted 50 hectares last year and two this year, I didn´t have enough money. We used to buy herbicides and seeds with credit but now you have to pay cash, and I don´t have enough”.
Arias said that the big farmers would end up managing the whole business; small and medium farmers will not survive. “This year, for the first time, some lots were not planted. I couldn´t afford it and I have debts. After two generations of workers, having been raised here, I feel I´m the last one”, he says.
Text by Silvina Heguy
She is an Argentine journalist who has written extensively, mostly general news and special reports about Argentina and Latin America.In 1994 she started her career as a journalist in Clarin, the most widely circulating newspaper published in Spanish. Her first book, “Los Juarez. Terror, corrupción y caudillos en la pol’tica argentina”, was an in-depth research about Carlos Juarez’s 50- year government in Santiago del Estero, one of the poorest Argentinean provinces. The book was used as evidence in his trial for t human right violations.In 2007, Heguy´s baby trafficking journalistic investigation showed how little children stolen from poor families were sold to rich ones. Thanks to this work a baby was recovered by his family and the traffickers went to jail. For this report, Heguy earned the Rey de España Award [ King of Spain], the most important award for the press in Spanish. She also wrote a biography about Joe Baxter, (“Joe Baxter. Del nazismo a la extrema izquierda. La historia secreta de un guerrillero”), the life story of one the most mysterious Latin American guerrillas.In the same year, her third book was published. Entitled “132.000 volts. El caso Ezpeleta”, this book reflects an investigation about the environmental struggle between a small group of neighbours in a Greater Buenos Aires district.Her last book was “Viaje al fin del Amazonas” (“Journey to the End of the Amazon”), a journalistic investigation denouncing the threats of the Amazon jungle.
In the last years, she specialised in Latin American social issues and her works were published in Perú, Spain, Germany, France and Japon. Heguy has also done work for investigative journalism documentary production for Reuters. Her last project was “Stories of a wounded land”, focused in the consequences of the agrobusiness model of food production in the producers countries.