Argentina, GM nation
Chances and choices in uncertain times
by Ana María Vara
Centro de Estudios de Historia de la Ciencia José Babini
Escuela de Humanidades, Universidad Nacional de General San Martín (UNSAM)
“I’ve always been a little uncomfortable about the term “Frankenstein food”. It smacks on both sensationalism and trivialization. In politics, as in shopping, the cheaper the device, the less likely it is to last. But the label is becoming even more germane. For not only are GM crops cobbled together out of bits of other organisms, but they have also begun to demonstrate a ghoulish ability to rise from the dead, given a sufficient application of power.”
“Sucede que en 1996 (un año antes de que el USDA decidiera destruir a los productores sudamericanos de soja por medio del incremento del precio sostén del LDP) las autoridades agrícolas y sanitarias de los Estados Unidos y de la Argentina autorizaron la comercialización de la soja tolerante a glifosato, que fue desarrollada por la compañía estadounidense Monsanto. Se trató de un hecho inédito: nunca un producto tecnológico tan complejo había sido adoptado con tanta rapidez por un país latinoamericano, casi simultáneamente con los Estados Unidos.
Los investigadores de la compañía de agroinsumos Monsanto jamás imaginaron que su innovación tecnológica terminaría desbaratando los planes del USDA.”
Main acronyms 4
Introduction. One crop, two wars (and a half) 5
Part I. How Argentina became a GM nation 15
A. The case of GM soybean: enthusiasm and controversy 18
B. The case of GM corn: hybrids and insurance 59
C. The case of GM cotton: corporate strategies 65
Part II. Argentina’s biosafety system: an early development 76
A. The biosafety regulatory system 77
B. Field trials 109
C. Evaluations 113
Part III. Argentina’s scientific capacity: some research, little transfer 130
A. Biotechnology projects 132
B. Regional cooperation and international evaluations 135
Part IV. Argentina’s international position: science and trade 143
Part V. Public perception: competing frames, shared delusions 153
A. What people (might) see 155 B. What (some) people have said 171
General conclusions 198
This work could not have been done without the early precious help of the late Dorothy Nelkin. David Schleifer, Tomas Hilde, Toby Miller, Moisés Burachik, Janet Grice, Eduardo Ablin, Eduardo Trigo and Diego Hurtado de Mendoza generously shared ideas and information with me, providing insights into crucial points. Dick Stewart’s enthusiasm, support and critical comments have also been essential to improve this paper. My sincere thanks to them all. Any misinterpretation or mistake are mine.
A substantial portion of the research for this paper was conducted while on an Antorchas-Fulbright scholarship in 2003.
AACREA Argentine Association of Regional Consortiums for Agricultural Experimentation (Asociación Argentina de Consorcios Regionales de Experimentación)
AAPRESID Argentine No Till Farmers Association (Asociación Argentina de Productores de Siembra Directa)
ARPOV Association for the Protection of Plant Varieties (Asociación Argentina de Protección de las Obtenciones Vegetales)
ASA Argentine Seed Growers Association (Asociación de Semilleros Argentinos)
BSP Cartagena BioSafety Protocol
CONABIA National Advisory Commission on Agricultural Biotechnology (Comisión Nacional Asesora de Biotecnología Agropecuaria)
CONASE National Seed Commission (Comisión Nacional de Semillas)
CONICET National Council of Scientific and Technical Research (Comisión Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas)
INASE National Institute of Seeds (Instituto Nacional de Semillas)
INTA National Institute of Agricultural Biotechnology (Instituto Nacional de Tecnología Agropecuaria)
BO Biotechnology Office (Oficina de Biotecnología, SAGPyA)
SAGPyA Secretariat of Agriculture, Livestock, Fisheries and Food (Secretaría de Agricultura, Ganadería, Pesca y Alimentación)
SAGyP Secretariat of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries (Secretaría de Agricultura, Ganadería y Pesca, predecessor of SAGPyA)
SENASA National Agrifood Health and Quality Service (Servicio Nacional de Sanidad y Calidad Agropecuaria)
UBA University of Buenos Aires (Universidad de Buenos Aires)
Introduction. One crop, two wars (and a half)
In the evening of September 25, 2003, after a phone talk with Brazil’s President Luiz Inácio ‘Lula’ Da Silva—who was abroad—vice-President José Alencar signed a decree that authorized farmers to plant genetically modified (GM) soybean for just one year.3 For the second time in 2003, Da Silva’s administration took a supposedly one-time pragmatic decision to address the irregular situation of GM soybean in the Southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, where farmers had illegally been planting this crop at least since 1999, using seeds smuggled from Argentina.4 A previous decree issued on March 26 allowed 2002-2003 GM soybean harvest to be sold for both animal and human consumption. It had to be labeled.5
The illegal soybean was estimated to represent around 80 percent of 2003 harvest in the state of Rio Grande do Sul: 5 to 10 million tones, or 10 to 20 per cent of Brazil’s 51-million-ton soybean harvest.6 It was Monsanto’s RR soybean, a crop designed to be resistant to Roundup herbicide—the most successful and one of the most controversial GM crops.7 The fact that it was illegal does not mean RR soybean had not been tested in Brazil: in fact, former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s administration had approved its commercial planting, after it was reviewed by CNTBio, the agency in charge of assessing biotechnological products. But this approval was blocked in court by a legal challenge from Greenpeace and a local consumer advocacy group.8
The new exceptional decree was advanced by Brazil’s pro-GM agriculture minister Roberto Rodrigues who said it was a means to prevent “civil disobedience,” in view of the fact that many gaúcho farmers already had the GM seeds. Da Silva’s administration was divided, since his environment minister, Marina Silva, opposes GM crops. Vice President Alencar resented having to sign the decree. 9
The decision was considered by observers a “u-turn” by Da Silva, since his party—Workers’ Party, Partido dos Trabalhadores, PT—had had a strong position against GM crops before coming into office. 10 The Brazilian Green party, as well as Greenpeace Brazil and other non-governmental groups protested the decision, which they considered was taken due to “pressure from economic interests.” 11 Certainly, one of the greatest winners would be Monsanto, which could gain up to U$S 62 million a year, according to estimations. The company had already made huge investments in Brazil, setting seed plants and buying Brazilian seed companies.12 According to Monsanto estimations in 2003, once definitively approved, RR soybean would account for 70 per cent of Brazilian harvest within a decade.13 But Brazilian farmers—particularly, those from Rio Grande do Sul—were celebrating, too. They also sounded as if they were ready to defy the law: “Even if they hadn’t changed the law, we would have planted again anyway. What could they do, arrest 150,000 of us?,” commented Rafael Moreno, a gaúcho farmer who had been planting GM soybean smuggled from Argentina for four years.14
Considered “by far the most important development for GM crops in 2003” by Clive James, chairman of the International Association for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA),15 Brazil’s new exceptional decree was received with mixed feelings in Argentina. “If we had no export tariff we would still be competitive before Brazil, but production of commodities in the wet pampas will have to compete strongly with Mato Grosso,” said Oscar Alvarado, an Argentine farmer who also commented he would plant 7,300 ha with soybean in Brazilian fields. But Argentina’s secretary of Agriculture Miguel Campos sounded much more optimistic: he talked about the creation of a hemispheric block in favor of biotechnology—integrated by the US, Brazil and Argentina—, and mentioned the possibility that soybean low cost might open the door for its use as a source of biodiesel.16
While pointing at the promising emergence of a pro-GM hemispheric block, Campos may have had in mind a crucial dossier written by two Argentine experts who work for the government—although the dossier itself was not official. 17 Issued in August 2001, it represented an assessment of Argentina’s position as a GM soybean exporter vis-à-vis Japan’s already enforced—and European’s expected—labeling requirements. Although prepared in such worrisome times, the dossier was very optimistic. It foresaw the possibility that “the evolution of Brazil’s position regarding transgenic crops”—that is, Brazil’s eventual adoption of GM crops—would make the global offer of GM soybean represent “almost two thirds of the total international market.” From that moment on, the authors commented, the presence of GM soybean in the international market would be “very close to reaching a critical mass to turn the soybean market into a virtually transgenic market.” They also concluded that the higher the proportion of GM soybean in the market, the lower would be the perturbations to its commercialization, “because the debate over transgenic crops would be relegated in face of the predominance of the offer.” The dossier closed with a remarkable statement, which could also be read as a call to action: “The goal now is to become a transgenic Americas.” 18
But Brazil’s move was not only celebrated in Argentina. Monsanto also took note of the apparently irreversible path towards a world soybean market dominated by its RR soybean. And began to rally Brazil as well as Paraguay—where RR soybean had also been introduced illegally from Argentina—to collect the royalties it had been missing. It also began to rally Argentina demanding royalties for RR soybean, protesting in quite urging tones against the huge black market of seeds they had somewhat accepted until then.19 Once the market was dominated, they seemed to have thought, it was time to collect, as we shall discuss in Part I.
For Argentina’s economy, any challenge to the world soybean trade is a very serious issue. Argentina is the second largest exporter of GM crops, mostly due to its extremely rapid adoption of RR soybean, which began in 1996. Soybean—in the form of whole beans, soy meal for animal feed, and soy oil—represented more than a fifth of Argentina’s exports in 2004: more than U$S 7,100 million, over U$S 31,491 million.20 More importantly, it has played a key role after Argentina defaulted on its U$S 140 billion national debt in December 2001, and an enormous devaluation took place.21 As an Argentine agriculture trader commented in 2003—the year of the beginning of the recovery: “the I.M.F. should be very happy with us. Without agribusiness and oil, Argentina would never meet the surplus they are demanding.” 22 That is why Brazil’s decision regarding RR soybean, interpreted as a crucial move toward a “virtually transgenic market,” was certainly very promising—even if it implied having to deal with certain undesirable consequences.
The problem with soybean world trade has to do essentially with Europe’s opposition to GM food, which reached a peak in 1999/2000, 23 and finally led to a new EU legislation. After years of consumer and environmental groups’ protests that convinced “the European biotech firms” to slow down their research in agriculture and focus on pharmaceuticals, 24 and after a de facto moratorium on new GM crops established in 1998 that US representatives claimed caused 300 million dollars in lost profits annually just in corn, the European Union introduced what some observers considered the “toughest” labeling law.25 Not only does it allow a mere 0.9 percent adventitious presence of detectable approved GM ingredients not to be labeled—and just 0.5 of not approved GM ingredients—, but it also requires labeling products such as glucose syrup produced from GM corn or soybean oil from GM plants. Being essentially pure oil or pure sugar, these products do not contain “any measurable GM protein or DNA”—as the science magazine The Scientist then commented.26
According to observers, Greenpeace was “delighted” with the new European legislation.27 “This will send a strong message to commodity exporting nations such as the USA, Canada, Argentina and Brazil. The times when you could sneak millions of tonnes of GM soybeans and maize unlabelled into the food chain are definitely over,” commented Lorenzo Consoli, from Greenpeace’s British office. 28 However, the possibility of deception remains open: the United Kingdom Food Standards Agency (FSA) said the rules are a “cheat’s charter,” since there are no means to detect if certain products come from GM crops—precisely because some products may not actually contain proteins or DNA. “We think the proposals will be unenforceable and impractical, and don’t represent a positive move in terms of consumer choice,” stated a FSA spokesperson.29
There is some opposition to GM crops in Argentina, but principally observers have pointed at the “lack of transparency” in Argentina’s situation regarding the issue: many Argentine consumers simply do not know that Argentine farmers are planting so much GM soybean, among other GM crops, as we shall see in Part V.
After the EU new legislation was announced in November 2002, the US threatened to file a case against the European Union at the World Trade Organization (WTO) against the four year moratorium, a move that was strategically delayed due to the debate over the war on Iraq.30 However, on May 13, 2003, before the new legislation was enforced—and even if, once in effect, it could have meant an end to the moratorium—, the US finally filed the case, together with Canada and Argentina—Egypt was initially in the move, too, but finally walked away. Nine more countries registered their support. “Some of these countries, probably not coincidentally, are keen to negotiate bilateral trade agreements with the United States,” commented The Economist.31
Commenting on the case in La Nación newspaper, an Argentine prestigious columnist drew attention to the fact that Argentina had not been affected by the moratorium, since it had been selling GM products to Europe during the 1990s. “[Argentina] could have preserved the niche, but it preferred to make clear the common strategic interests with the US and Canada.”32 He was partially right and partially wrong: it is true that Argentina had routinely been selling unlabeled GM crops to Europe since 1998—mostly soybean meal and corn for feed. However, it is also true that the EU moratorium did affect its plans regarding GM crops: to preserve its European markets, Argentina’s policy was based on the idea that no GM food crop would be approved unless it was already approved in Europe. 33 But this policy has just changed: in March and August 2005, Argentina approved two GM corn events that may not be approved in the EU by 2006, when the grain would be ready to be exported, as we shall see in Part I.
To give further support to the case at the WTO, on May 21 2003, US President George W. Bush connected the topic of Europe’s opposition against GM crops with a couple of very sensitive issues for developing countries: foreign aid and agricultural subsidies. In a speech pronounced at the United States Coast Guard Academy, which had to do mainly with “initiatives to combat AIDS and poverty,”—as a New York Times’ article described it34—President Bush talked about GM crops and world hunger not only within a food security framework—crops intended for local consumption—but also within a food to export framework. He also mentioned that subsidies imply denying developing countries “a fair chance” to compete in the global market:
“We can greatly reduce the long-term problem of hunger in Africa by applying the latest developments of science. I have proposed an initiative to End Hunger in Africa. By widening the use of new high-yield bio-crops and unleashing the power of markets, we can dramatically increase agricultural productivity and feed more people across the continent.
Yet, our partners in Europe are impeding this effort. They have blocked all new bio-crops because of unfounded, unscientific fears. This has caused many African nations to avoid investing in biotechnologies, for fear their products will be shut out of European markets. European governments should join—not hinder—the great cause of ending hunger in Africa.
We must also give farmers in Africa, Latin America and elsewhere a fair chance to compete in world markets. When wealthy nations subsidize their agricultural exports, it prevents poor countries from developing their own agricultural sectors. So I propose that all developed nations, including our partners in Europe, immediately eliminate subsidies on agricultural exports to developing countries so they can produce more food to export and more food to feed their own people. 35
An article in The Economist recognized President Bush had a point on Europe’s agricultural subsidies:
“Yet on export subsidies Mr Bush has a point. The EU is the world’s most profligate wielder of such subsidies. They are a particularly pernicious form of agricultural support, as even the French now acknowledge. As part of his Evian agenda, Jacques Chirac, the French president, has proposed a moratorium on export subsidies to Africa. Why just Africa?, asks Washington. Why not eliminate export subsidies outright, which is ostensibly the goal of current Doha development round of global trade talks?”36
However, The Economist’s article expressed doubts on the American commitment to cut its own subsidies, although the US had already presented a remarkable proposal for reducing subsidies in the Doha trade talks round.37 And to support its claim, the article mentioned President Bush’s administration farm bill, which multiplied subsidies—since it included a 40 billion dollar increase in subsidies to large grain and cotton farmers. 38 This was in turn protested by the Cairns group, a coalition of 17 agricultural exporting countries under the leadership of Australia of which Argentina is part. 39
The Economist’s article also criticized US food-aid policies,
“America clearly trouces Europe in the ambition it holds for this trade round. The administration’s proposals are bold, not just on export subsidies, but on domestic farm support and agricultural-tariff cuts. Unfortunately, when it comes to action, America is not so squeaky clean itself. Not only did its farm bill last year dramatically increased support to farmers; its pampering of certain groups (such as cotton farmers) specifically hurts poor countries. Much of its largesse has a self-serving side: according to Europeans, America’s huge food-aid programme is itself a thinly disguised export subsidy.”40
The Economist’s early evaluation of the negotiations between the US and Europe implied a predictable conflict, and soon it appeared. When on August 13, only a month before the final Doha meeting in Cancún, the US-European joint proposal to the agricultural chapter was made public, divergent interpretations were apparent. “We have agreed to substantial reductions to domestic support,” said Pascal Lamy, Europe’s top trade official. But Allen Johnson, the chief agriculture trade negotiator for the office of the US trade representative, was less enthusiastic. According to New York Times reporters, “he described it [the agreement] as a breakthrough, but warned that there remained ‘tough issues ahead’.”41
In turn, the US-EU agreement was described by Argentina’s secretary of international economic relations Martín Redrado as “too vague, a very poor beginning.” After mentioning the possibility of responding “with the same level of vagueness in the issues that they [Europe and the US] are interested in, such as tariff reduction in industrial goods,” Redrado pointed at a future alliance with other developing countries: “We are having talks with Brazil and other countries that have interests similar to ours in order for the Cancún meeting to reflect Doha’s mandate.”42 Argentina was not the only country that manifested some kind of disappointment. India’s WTO ambassador K. M. Chandrasekhar said: “This seems to be an attempt to [pry] open the developing country markets without any clear commitment on the part of [the U.S and EU] to open their own markets.”43
These conflicting views were certainly behind the “Cancún’s failure,” as journalists soon named the collapse of the WTO talks on September 14, 2003, when 21 developing nations from Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean walked out of the talks, and formed the Group 21.44 Observers in Argentina also commented the dawn of this new coalition could have signed the end of the Cairns group.45
However, beyond conflicting views and the need for further negotiations, President Bush’s address may be considered essentially adequate in order to understand how agricultural subsidies may be associated in Argentina to GM crops adoption. As Trigo et al. state in the first comprehensive study on GM crops in Argentina, the 1990s process of agriculture intensification, in which “structural reforms” as well as “incorporation of technologies”—among them, GM crops—played a key role, “took place in a context of erratic international prices, and competing with countries which, differently from Argentina, subsidize production and exports to the world market.” 46 Certainly, Tambornini’s belligerent epigraph represents an extreme case of this kind of framing. But he is not alone: in Argentina, not only GM proponents, but also GM opponents connect adoption of GM crops—particularly, of GM soybean—to competitiveness and agricultural subsidies. The rise of GM soybean, in particular, was certainly coincidental with the rise of agricultural subsidies in the US: between 1995 and 2002, soybean subsidies in the US totaled almost U$S 11 billion—mostly concentrated in the period 1998-2001.47 However, this may be changing regarding soybean: after 2002 the US seems not to be very interested in continuing subsidizing soybean production—a situation attributed by Argentine analysts to Argentina’s and Brazil’s rising competitiveness.48
The process of adoption of GM crops in Argentina cannot be explained without taking into account the impact—real or perceived by economic actors—of agricultural subsidies on the country’s economy. In this sense, Argentina represents a case in which the food security framework most commonly used for explaining developing countries’ attitudes and policies towards GM crops, is certainly misguided. Argentina adopted GM crops within a food for export framework: this is a central aspect that must be considered in order to understand the GM crops it adopted, the policies it implemented, and the state of the public discussion on the subject.