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BRAZIL: Soy Boom Highlights Biotech Advances, but Encounters Resistance

Mario Osava

RIO DE JANEIRO, Mar 29 2005 (IPS) - The controversy triggered by Brazil’s soy boom has grown alongside the enormous expansion of production and the biotechnological advances in soy cultivation seen in this country in the space of a few decades.

Global soy consumption has increased by an average of 4.5 million tons a year since 1970, and will continue to rise steadily in the foreseeable future, said Amelio Dall’Agnol at the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (EMBRAPA), a government agency.

And Brazil is the only major producer with sufficient available land to meet the growing demand, the researcher told IPS.

Soy has been cultivated in Asia, especially China, for 5,000 years, but only expanded in the Western world over the past century – initially as animal fodder – starting in the United States.

As it became one of the leading agricultural commodities in global trade, soy began to be planted widely in Argentina and Brazil, beginning in the 1960s.

Since then, the cultivation of soy has spread steadily as human and animal consumption of the protein-rich crop have grown.

The huge economic growth of Asia’s giants, China and India, which together are home to more than 2.3 billion people, and the modifications in livestock feed undertaken to prevent mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), guarantee that demand will continue to rise, said Dall’Agnol.

Global output stood at 44 million tons in 1970, when the United States accounted for more than two-thirds of overall production. This year, the total is expected to reach 200 million tons, 80 percent of which is produced by the United States, Argentina and Brazil.

Brazilian production climbed from 206,000 tons in 1960 to 1.5 million tons in 1970 and 8.8 million tons in 1980. The next harvest is estimated at 53 million tons, but could have exceeded 60 million tons if it were not for the losses caused by severe drought in southern Brazil, say experts.

Soy has now become Brazil’s main agricultural export product. Last year sales of soy and its by-products reached 10.05 billion dollars, representing 10.3 percent of the total exports of this country of 182 million people.

By contrast, only 2.64 billion and 2.02 billion dollars in sugar and coffee, Brazil’s leading farm commodities in the past, were exported last year.

Although still far below the 85-million-ton harvest expected in the United States this year, Brazil could become the top producer of soy within a decade, according to experts.

"We are the only country with large extensions of available land," said Dall’Agnol, who noted that the agricultural frontier could expand to include around 80 million hectares of "cerrado", central Brazil’s savannah.

A total of 22 million hectares in Brazil are currently planted to soy.

Brazil’s great achievement has been to adapt soy, which originated in temperate or subtropical climes, to a tropical climate. In the past, soy was exclusively grown at or above the 30 degree latitude line, which in Brazil only includes the southern region, the country’s sole soy-producing area up to the 1970s.

But research carried out by EMPRAPA as well as other institutions in Brazil helped farmers expand soy production to the entire country. Today the west-central state of Mato Grosso, which is located between eight and 18 degrees latitude, is the top national producer.

But "we have genetic material to plant soy even at zero degrees latitude, with the same good results," said Dall’Agnol, who works at EMBRAPA’s soy centre in Londrina, in the southern state of Paraná.

Brazil has also boosted its productivity from 1,089 kilos per hectare in 1960 to nearly 2,800 kilos today, similar to U.S. and Argentine yields.

"They have more fertile land, we have technology," Dall’Agnol said proudly.

Soy is not only useful as food for people and animals, said the researcher, who pointed out that the crop’s high oil content makes it suitable for producing biodiesel, which could also drive up demand for soy.

But environmentalists and small farmers’ associations want to curb the inexorable advance of soy, which has been fuelled by the emergence of transgenic varieties.

In Argentina, nearly all of the soy produced today is genetically modified, because farmers embraced the transgenic varieties as a solution to their problems with weeds, said Dall’Agnol.

U.S. biotechnology giant Monsanto’s transgenic Roundup Ready soy is resistant to the herbicide glyphosate, marketed by the corporation as "Roundup", and the combined use of the two products ensures high yields.

Large numbers of transgenic seeds have been smuggled into southern Brazil from neighbouring Argentina, and genetically modified soy is now widely planted in that region.

The Brazilian legislature only recently passed a Biosafety Law that will allow genetically modified crops to be legally planted.

But transgenic crops face resistance from a broad movement in Brazil in favour of a country free of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Activists point out that no conclusive studies have been carried out to demonstrate that food containing GMOs is safe for human health.

In addition, a group of non-governmental organisations in Brazil just released a study showing that the fast spread of soy plantations is contributing to deforestation in the country’s Amazon jungle region, by driving up the value of land and encouraging clear-cutting and logging.

In the meantime, the yields of the genetically modified soy grown in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul dropped sharply this year due to drought, according to farmers.

Because the seeds planted in the state are the product of contraband, and are not specifically adapted to the local climate, they are less resistant to drought, reported the Association of Producers and Traders of Seeds and Seedlings of the state of Rio Grande do Sul.

Conventional varieties of soy, developed by national companies and institutions and adapted to the specific characteristics of the region, performed better, with up to 25 percent higher yields.

Soy also causes other "environmental imbalances" by requiring intensive use of toxic agrochemicals and mechanisation, as well as economic and social problems, since it is a monoculture crop, Altermir Tortelli, the coordinator of the Federation of Family Agriculture Workers of the Southern Region, remarked to IPS.

Monoculture export crops accentuate the concentration of land ownership in Brazil, leaving millions of small farmers without land and aggravating the rural exodus, at the expense of diversified farming, which contributes to food security and the fight against poverty, he argued.

But soy already represents nearly half of all production of basic grains and oilseeds in Brazil, and is cultivated by 243,000 agricultural producers, according to the Brazilian Association of Vegetable Oils.

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