Development & Aid, Environment, Tierramerica

Cotton Added to List of Argentina's Transgenic Crops

BUENOS AIRES, May 27 2001 (IPS) - A cottonseed that is resistant to the controversial glyphosate herbicide is fueling ''transgenic fever'' in Argentina.



Argentina is the country with the fastest growing transgenic farming sector in the Americas and has now added a new laboratory-created product to its agricultural portfolio: genetically modified cotton that promises resistance to a powerful herbicide and high profits for those who plant it.

The Agricultural Secretariat approved the marketing of a genetically modified (GM) cottonseed, known as RoundUp Ready, or RR, resistant to glyphosate herbicide, sold under the trademark RoundUp – both of which were developed by the US-based multinational Monsanto.

RR cotton is created by introducing into the original cotton variety a bacterium that alters the genetic structure of the seed. This modification makes the plant resistant to a herbicide Monsanto has created that is capable of killing all plant life – the active ingredient being glyphosate.

In addition to being left untouched by the effects of RoundUp, this transgenic cotton is easier to manage than conventional cotton and reduces harvest costs.

It is estimated that growing RR cotton would mean savings of 15 to 20 percent for the farmers, the same claimed by RR soy, another of Monsanto's GM products developed to be resistant to glyphosate and approved for commercial use in 1995.

GM organisms find fertile ground for expansion in Argentina, where 50 percent of farm exports already involve transgenic products, including maize, wheat and soy.

Argentina is one of the world's leading producers and exporters of RR soy, a variety that covers 80 percent of the area planted with soy in this country. This percentage is much higher than that of the United States, for example, where just 45 percent of the area cultivated with soy involves transgenic seeds.

The Agricultural Secretariat's approval of RR cotton could represent a break for a farming sector that considers the crisis it suffers to be ''terminal''. The hard times have come about as a result of falling crop prices, extreme fluctuations in the weather and lack of governmental support.

In Australia, the implementation of glyphosate-resistant cotton ''was massive because it greatly reduces production costs,'' Esteban Hopp, of Argentina's National Institute of Agricultural Technology and a member of the National Commission on Biotechnology, told Tierramérica.

Agronomist Perla Godoy, who is part of the consultation committee for evaluating the environmental impact of the widespread use of transgenic seeds, assured that the new cotton variety went through all testing phases, a process that takes several years.

But both Godoy and Hopp acknowledge that, in the long term, new seed varieties could be needed as weeds become resistant to herbicides like glyphosate.

''When developing an insecticide, we already know that with time the insects will develop resistance to the formula and that we will have to come up with a new one,'' Godoy said. The same thing can occur in the case of the weeds that impede the growth of soy or cotton.

The massive use of the same herbicide on different crops will pave the way in the short term for resistant weeds, which will become impossible to control, Emiliano Ezcurra, an expert on transgenics for the international environmental watchdog Greenpeace, said in a conversation with Tierramérica.

Environmental groups generally favor the use of environmentally sustainable pest control methods instead of the chemicals and GM seeds that foster farmers' dependence on big transnationals like Monsanto.

Scientists at the National University of Rosario, located northwest of Buenos Aires, warn that the widespread application of glyphosate results in weeds that are highly resistant to this chemical product. The university's studies found that the recovery capacity of weeds improved after several applications of RoundUp.

Glyphosate achieved notoriety following the controversy it triggered in Colombia, where it has been used since the early 1990s in the government's aerial fumigation of coca plantations as part of its anti-narcotics efforts. Coca is the raw material for cocaine.

According to environmental groups, the herbicide indiscriminately killed the flora and fauna in the regions where it has been sprayed in the Andean nation.

But Monsanto continues investing in the production of RoundUp.

The multinational giant, which was founded in 1901 as a pharmaceutical and food company, and which since 2000 has been the farming arm of the Pharmacia & Upjohn Corporation, takes in high profits from its glyphosate product. In Argentina alone, its sales doubled – from 60 million to 120 million dollars – over the last four years.

Argentina has been left in a ''very vulnerable'' position in the international farming market, due to the nation's heavy emphasis on GM crops, warned Greenpeace's Ezcurra.

''What are we going to do if more convincing data appear about the risks of these products for human health or for the environment?'' he wondered. ''This country is tied hands and feet.''

The scientific community is divided when it comes to the risks biotechnology brings to agriculture. Some believe there are sufficient controls employed in the approval process for each variety, while others are convinced that there is no way to ensure that these products will not have negative effects on the environment or on human health in the long term.

Greenpeace has charged that the National Commission on Biotechnology, which includes delegates from the companies selling modified seeds and herbicides, has no representatives from environmental organizations

However, the Argentine Ecological Society participates in this governmental commission entrusted with advising the Agricultural Secretariat on the approval of transgenic seeds. But Greenpeace does not consider the Society to be representative of Argentina's environmental movement.

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