The impact of soybean expansion in Argentina

by Walter Pengue | 24 Sep 2001




Seedling September 2001

In the past two decades, soybean production has increased sharply in the Pampas region of Argentina. Genetically modified (GM) soybeans have been particularly popular to the extent that all soybean production is now GM. This article provides a resume of the original article by Pengue on the socio-economic and environmental implications of the exponential growth of transgenic soybean production in one of the world's leading soybean-producing countries.

The Argentine Pampas is one of the six most agriculturally productive regions in the world. Its soils cover some 9 million hectares and are rich in nutrients and organic matter. During the last quarter of a century, soybean production has increased at an unprecedented rate from an area of 38,000 hectares in 1970 to 10 million hectares today. Around 70% of the soybean harvested is converted in oil-processing plants most of which is exported, providing 81% of the world's exported soybean oil and 36% of soybean meal.

New technologies

Two major technological innovations have fuelled soybean's exponential growth in Argentina: the farming technique known as direct seeding and the introduction of herbicide resistant soybeans.

1) Direct seeding was introduced 10 years ago as a tool for reducing soil erosion on farms. Seeds are planted directly into the soil, without the need for ploughing, and herbicides are used to remove weeds. For this reason, direct seeding is often promoted as an environmentally friendly farming technique.

2) Argentina has been eager to adopt GM crops, and produces 23% (in 2000) of the world market in GM products. Herbicide-resistant soybeans have been the most popular, of which 67% are sold by the company Nidera. Other companies involved in the GM soybean seed market include Dekalb, Monsanto, Pioneer Hi-Bred and some national companies such as Don Mario, La Tijereta and Relmo. The rate of adoption of GM soybeans has surpassed even the industry's highest expectations.

Both these innovations have also had the advantage of complimenting each other. Direct seeding is particularly suited to the soybeans grown in Argentina as they are grown in rotation, most commonly with wheat. This in turn has ensured the highest adoption rate in the world of direct seeding. The rapid adoption of these two new techniques has also led to increased imports of specialised machinery and herb-icides. Both techniques are dependent on the use of herbicides, such as glyphosate, which explains the rise in sales from 1.3 million litres in 1991 to 59.2 million in 1998 of this herbicide (see table below).

A shock to the system

The combination of these two techniques has increased the level of intensive farming for export. The main aim has been to compete on the agricultural world market. This is not an easy task a market that is often distorted by the agricultural subsidies received in many countries. And Argentina has been relatively successful … but at a price.

The initial problem that direct seeding was supposed to address was the serious soil erosion and the subsequent loss of soil fertility. Although direct seeding has reduced the rate of erosion, other problems have arisen from the further intensifications of agriculture that it requires. These include the emergence of new diseases and pests, a marked reduction of the levels of nitrogen and phosphates in the soil, and - most recently - herbicide-resistant weeds.

Already, in the Pampas, there are several types of weeds that are suspected of being tolerant to the recommended doses of glyphosate. Some of these require a doubling of the application, with a consequent increase in herbicide use. The herbicides have also been affecting ecosystems adjacent to the areas of application and aquatic ecosystems, which receive the runoff from the treated zones.


Roundup Ready (RR) soybean has been a great commercial success. More than 60% of soybean in the US this year will be planted with RR varieties, only five years after its introduction in 1996. Although it is more expensive, farmers adopted the technology because it greatly simplified weed management. RR systems achieve it by allowing the farmer to spray a wide spectrum herbicide - glyphosate (Roundup) - over the growing soybean plants, killing the majority of weeds, but leaving the herbicide-resistant RR soybean untouched for the most part.

Contrary to industry's claims, RR soybean clearly requires more, not less, herbicide than conventional soybean. This conclusion is firmly backed up by comparisons in the field of the total weight of active herbicide applied to an average acre of RR soybean as against conventional soybean (1 acre = 0.405 hectare). Looking ahead to the harvest of 2001, it is likely that the average acre of RR soybean will be treated with approximately 0.5 lb (0.23 kg) more active herbicide ingredient than conventional soybean. The result is that this year more than 20 million pounds (9.1 million kg) of extra herbicide will be applied to the harvest.

Evidence shows that RR soybean crops produce 5% to 10% less yield per acre as against other identical varieties grown under similar soil conditions. The reasons for this drop in performance are beginning to become clear. Scientists at the University of Arkansas showed that root development, node formation and nitrogen fixation worsened in some varieties of RR soybean and the effects are worse under strong drought conditions or in relatively infertile fields. This problem arises because the symbiotic bacteria responsible for nitrogen fixation in soybean, (Bradyrhizobium japonicum), is very sensitive to drought and also to Roundup.

It is remarkable that the first research data documenting the sometimes-serious depression of nitrogen fixation in RR soybean fields did not appear until 2001. By this time, more than 100 million acres of Roundup Ready soybeans had already been planted in the US. The US regulatory system is better at avoiding problems that dealing with them once a technology is entrenched, with profits and market shares to defend. In the case of RR soybeans, the regulatory system's ability to seek out risks and resolve uncertainties was, in effect, silenced because regulators had little to go on in formulating their questions.

Source: Charles Benbrook (2001), "Troubled Times Amid Commercial Success for Roundup Ready Soybeans: Glyphosate Efficacy is Slipping and Unstable Transgene Expression Erodes Plant Defenses and Yields" AgBioTech InfoNet Technical Paper Number 4, May 3.

Goodbye to the rural economy

Indicators show that the country has reached many of its economic goals, but has failed to incorporate many social and environmental benefits. These include the disappearance of small and medium-sized businesses (farmers and industry), an increase in urban and rural unemployment (7.1% in 1989, 15.4% in 2000), increased population migration, and low wages.
In the 1990s, the number of people living below the poverty line in Buenos Aires grew from 2.3 to 3.5 million. In 2000 the number of beggars and homeless people increased from 325,000 to 921,000, and some 15 million out of a population of 37 million people in the country are considered to be poor. Unemployment is increasing, incomes for almost 70% of the population in the region are going down, and fewer people are eligible for unemployment benefit and economic aid.

The benefits of introducing transgenic soybeans have been largely limited to large-scale producers. Smaller producers have been hampered by pressure from taxation, banks, and access to and dependence on agricultural inputs. This had led to a concentration of farms (increase of farm size), a shift towards high-tech innovation and productivity and a move away from quality. More than 60,000 agri-cultural establishments disappeared from the Pampas between 1992 and 1999, while at the same time there has been an increase in farm size, from 250 to 350 hectares.

The need for government support

The dramatic rise in the planting of GM soybeans in Argentina may well not live up to peoples' expectations. Studies in the US demonstrate that the soybeans do not live up to their promises of fewer inputs and greater yields (see box opposite). The dramatic increase in herbicides documented in Argentina over the last five years bear witness to the "fewer inputs" myth. In Argentina, the 'success' of the GM soyeabean story must largely be attributed to marketing by the seed companies involved, rather than scientific evidence and farmer experience. Given that GM soybeans are still an 'experimental' crop, the industry has done a good job of convincing farmers of its benefits with little evidence of performance.

The increased influence of corporations in agriculture is not limited to determining what farmers plant. Agricultural research is bec-oming dominated by the private sector; the take-over of science and technology by an inc-reasingly small part of society. Developing countries are becoming the mere recipients of technology imported form the North. In Argentina, INTA (the National Institute of Agricultural Technology) has historically played a fundamental role in the country's agricultural research. Although its work was clearly biased towards increased production and concentrated in certain regions, the hybrids produced by the institute were adapted to local conditions. Today, the organisation has limited resources, extension workers have left and, like that of many other scientific and technical org-anisations, its role is now inadequate.

In the absence of other recognised alternatives to industrial agriculture, an alternative type of farming is emerging from the farmers them-selves. This alternative model is based on technologies that are intensive in their use of human resources, low use of inputs, and addresses both domestic and export markets. For example, the Prohuerta programme supplies seeds which produce organic vegetables and poultry to sustain approximately three million Argentineans living under extreme conditions of poverty in urban, peri-urban, and to a lesser extent, rural areas. There is an increasing demand for "green" products, especially amongst those with higher incomes and Argentina is in a good position to respond given its extensive certified organic production.

It is now necessary for the government of Argentina to discuss much more broadly the true costs and benefits of different production models. Though GM soybean may dominate agriculture in the Argentine Pampas, alternatives are desperately needed to provide both for the Argentinean environment and rural population.

Walter Pengue is an agricultural engineer specialised in genetic improvement at the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina. He can be contacted at [email protected] His fully referenced paper (in Spanish) "Expansión de la soja en Argentina. Globalización, Desarrollo Agropecuario e Ingeniería Gené-tica - un modelo para armar" can be obtained from GRAIN's website ( or on request.

Reference for this article: Pengue W, 2001, The impact of soya expansion in Argentina, Seedling, Volume 18, Issue 3, June 2001, GRAIN Publications

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Author: Walter Pengue
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