By Katharine Lowrie and David Lowrie
It is Autumn time south of the equator, and whilst the majority of Argentinians are readying themselves for another Boreal winter, the small town of Las Lajitas is ramping up for its busiest time of year.
Located in Salta province in the north of this vast country, the streets are jammed with chrome-clad Toyota Hiluxs, replete with tinted windows. Colossal agricultural machinery blocks the small, normally deserted roads. Some of the biggest grain driers in the world, interlinked with a myriad of curious pipes, dwarf the modern brick Catholic church. Local Authority workers are readying the town square for an influx of migrant farm workers, diverting the scant rains that have fallen this year into planters to bring life to the flowering borders. But the scent is not of pollen as we run through the province’s vast, seemingly endless seas of mono-culture crops, it is overwhelmingly that of Roundup and other non-selective herbicides, aerially (and indiscriminately) distributed by small planes that buzz overhead.
Hostels flip their vacancy signs over to indicate they are full, and empty beds at any end of the scale in this town of 13,000 inhabitants are tough to find. It’s harvest time. But this is no ordinary harvest. This is the coal face of the South American “gold rush” for soya – a small, green, protein-rich legume which has secured Argentina’s place at the top table in a global industry worth $35.7 billion.
Soya production, (referred to as soja locally, or soybean in the USA), is a relatively new industry in northern Argentina, but its growth has been staggeringly quick. The country is now the world’s third largest exporter of beans and its top supplier of by-products such as soy oil and soya meal. So then, it is relatively unsurprising to find that in Argentina, land acquired and converted for soya production has grown rapidly since 1996, nearly tripling the area harvested from around 6m hectares to 16.7m hectares in 2008.
What is slightly more surprising is the indirect role that Britain and the EU have in the scramble for soya, and therefore the impact we as a nation have on the landscape and inhabitants of this quiet corner of South America. Not having a great taste for tofu or soy sauce, it was a shock to find that the UK is a significant consumer of Argentinian soya. According to WWF, imports into the UK require an area almost the size of Yorkshire to be planted with soya overseas, in order to meet demand. So where does it all go?
Feeding factory farms
About two-thirds of all manufactured food products contain derivatives or ingredients made from soya. Studies suggest that intake of soya in the UK is between 1-3.5g per day. But that’s the tip of the iceberg – the vast majority of soya used in the UK ends up in chicken and pig feed, which then lands on our tables almost without trace.
Over the last two months running, resting, conversing and running again, day-on-day through the northern provinces (the epicentre of South America’s latest land conversion to soya), we have had an unusual opportunity to glean an understanding from the roadside as to the winners and losers of this explosive growth.
The winners: the farmers, of course. But we have had to redefine what we think of as a “farmer”. The soya industry is highly concentrated down to a handful of multinational firms who dominate the entire market; from the very first seed through to sowing, spraying, harvesting, post-processing, all the way to the port. This is agribusiness at its most ruthlessly efficient.
The norm is for us to see roadside fencing emblazoned with Monsanto, BASF, and Dow Industries logos. We spoke to the local hosteleria owner, and she told us ‘none of them live here, you know? No, they have big places in the city in Salta and Buenos Aires, they don’t like it here, it’s boring!’ She might be right.
We too are the winners. Cheap soya shipped to the UK and other EU countries which produce our food have kept our prices down. They have also allowed us to fill the gap in the animal feed market left in the wake of the BSE crisis, in which more stringent controls were applied on what could be fed to herbivores.
And such expansion couldn’t be possible without governmental support; perhaps the biggest winner of all. In the decade since the start of serious soya production in 1995, Argentinian export tax revenue grew nearly 100 times to 1,600 million USD. In fact, many commentators believe that Argentina’s recent growth has been fuelled largely on this commodities boom.
The Toyota salesman must be doing pretty well too, if the fleets of white Hilux 4×4s that have whisked past us are anything to go by. Some of the wealth is trickling down, but not everyone in town is benefiting from the gold rush. So, we come to the losers: the old boys, watching the world go by at an unaccustomed pace, bemoan the loss of traditional employment in forestry, fruit cultivation and livestock. ‘Work here is now highly mechanised, seasonal, and largely undertaken by a migrant workforce, and rather than an average 500 jobs per 100 hectares, the soya firms now provide only five jobs per 1,000 hectares’, they recount.
And then, the land; the first thing one notices is that just about every flat piece of land within access of the road has been burned and cleared for crops. In fact there simply isn’t enough land available as demand for soya exports from China and the EU outstrips supply. For hundreds of miles before arriving into Las Lajitas, we witnessed soya being sewn in the verge between the edge of the asphalt road and the fence line!
The biggest losers of all, predictably, are the displaced flora and fauna. A huge area of wilderness has been burned here to make way for soya. The natural landscape is dominated by what is known as “chaco”, a bio-diverse, flat zone of woodland-scrub running up to the first wrinkles of the mighty Andean mountain chain. It is (or was) home to charismatic species such as parrots and parakeets, toucans, armadillos and anteaters. Even the majestic jaguar once roamed here. They don’t do well on soya ground.
The majority of soya here is Herbicide Tolerant, a trade description for Monsanto’s Genetically Modified strains which can resist the weed killers – which they also supply – which kill other plant cells. Aeroplanes constantly circle the sky following an invisible GPS map dispersing chemicals over the fields; only the soya can survive.
We run past a lonely dead tree in a sea of soya which serves as a reminder of the impact, roots ploughed up and leaves destroyed. A flock of small picui ground doves perch for a second, one of the few species that seem to survive on the influx of seeds provided by maize, a crop rotated with soya. But further up the road, a group of five are dead by the road with no car-damage, so perhaps they are not so tough?
The rains, when they do arrive, will leach chemicals, and the minerals of any ploughed areas, into the waterways. Algal blooms follow. If the rains don’t arrive, then water is pumped from the groundwater and dispersed with selected chemicals in enormous 2km wide rotating rigs, visible from space. We don’t drink from the waterways here.
The problem is compounded too by the displacement of the people who used to tend the land. In many cases small farmers that sell land to the multinationals simply move on to other land illegally (so it’s not just an exchange of land use, it’s a huge ingress into previously wild areas), taking with them their domestic animals and livestock. The “islands” which remain between these areas are shrinking to a dangerously small size, unusable for some species.
As we run through we contemplate Carson’s “Silent Spring” scenario and imagine what the lands must have been like before. And we think what it might be like 10 years from now, because the clearing of land is happening in front of our eyes. Should UK consumers be avoiding products which have such a hefty footprint? And would we, if we knew more about the sacrifices being made to produce them here? Or should we stay in the global market using our influence to make sure that crops are farmed sustainably?
In the wake of the horsemeat scandal, will governments insist we have improved traceability on our food, all the way to the places where it actually grows? Or in the case of animal products, what food they are being fed? If we want a choice on GM foods, should animals fed on them not be labelled accordingly? And as an importing nation, how long can we consider our footprint on the planet (including CO2 targets) without including the impact our consumption has on lands abroad?
Time to think, better run.
Ecologist husband and wife team, Katharine and David Lowrie, are currently 2,500 miles into their world first expedition to run the length of South America, over 5000 miles, in a year, unsupported, for the continent’s wild lands and wildlife. They pull a trailer they made from recycled materials containing all they need to survive, including food, water, camping equipment, laptop and binoculars. As well as their daily 20 mile run, they undertake wildlife surveys, present to schools and interest groups and write articles about the environment they’re running through. Their goal is to connect people from the UK and the world to South America’s remaining wildernesses; showing how our actions impact upon them and how with small steps we can help to conserve them.