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Argentina Still Bullish on Frankencrops

Argentina Still Bullish on Frankencrops

FEATURE-Argentine farmers bet on biotech
6/14/01 10:07 AM
Source: Reuters

By Athena Jones

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina, June 14 (Reuters) - Genetically modified (GM)
soybean seeds have made Argentine farmer Hector Salmoiraghi's life a lot
easier, he says as he stoops to examine a soybean plant in a vast field
lined with eucalyptus trees.

Salmoiraghi, whose father and grandfather were also farmers, has been
growing soybeans for 25 years, outside the port city of San Pedro, some 124
miles (200 km) northwest of Buenos Aires.

"Genetically-modified soy simplified everything," he said, adjusting his
black gaucho-style beret and standing tall in his rubber boots and Wrangler
jeans.

Salmoiraghi began using U.S.-based biotechnology giant Monsanto's Roundup
Ready (RR) soybean seeds five years ago.

Made to be resistant to the company's powerful Roundup weed killer, the
seeds cut costs by an estimated $50-$60 per hectare (2.47 acres) by reducing
the preparation needed before planting.

Salmoiraghi, who planted 250 hectares (617.5 acres) with GM soy this season
and plans to plant more next year, says he'd never go back to the
traditional seeds: "It wouldn't make sense. GM soy is much easier to work
with."

He is one of thousands of Argentine farmers singing the praises of GM
products, and now the government is behind them more than ever before.

Argentina, a major grain and oilseed producer, is second only to the United
States in the use of biotechnology products and has recently re-dedicated
itself to promoting their development and attracting biotech companies that
want to invest here.

After 3 years of a de facto moratorium on approving GM products, Argentina
in May authorized the use of Monsanto's RR cotton.

Weeks later, the government created a biotechnology commission and
Agriculture Secretary Marcelo Regunaga set off for the United States, where
he met with biotech companies and visited research centers.

"We share the biotechnology policy of the U.S.," said Regunaga in a recent
interview.

"I told (U.S. Agriculture) Secretary (Ann) Veneman that in all the
international forums, we need to present a common position in which
Argentina would have a more aggressive attitude than it has had in the
past."

Argentina is betting that biotechnology is the wave of the future. But
sharing a common policy with the United States also means the countries
could share common foes.

ANTI-GM GROUPS

While proponents say GM products increase efficiency, environmental and
consumer groups say the products are not well regulated and could contain
hidden health and environmental risks.

"We are against the sale of these products until there is conclusive
evidence of the long-term effects they could have," said Karla Irigoyen, the
Chile-based representative of watchdog group Consumers International.

"There is a lot of concern about the use of GM products in Argentina, not
only for the sake of Argentine consumers but also for consumers in all of
Latin America," where Argentina sends exports, said Irigoyen.

The goverment is well aware that GM products are controversial and will step
up measures to ensure that no unapproved products are used illegally and
that approved products are safe, said Regunaga.

Also approved in Argentina are insect-tolerant corns made by Swiss company
Novartis and Monsanto, a herbicide-tolerant corn made by Franco-German
company Aventis and an insect-tolerant cotton made by Monsanto.

THE TRADE ISSUE

Argentina's renewed commitment to biotechnology means that GM products are
here to stay, at least for the time being. But whether GM is the future will
depend on the impact the use of these products has on trade.

Agricultural shipments make up about 60 percent of Argentina's exports and
GM products are a particularly dicey topic in the European Union and Asia,
where imports of some products have been restricted on concern they may not
be safe for human consumption.

"By approving (GM products) Argentina is definitely moving in the wrong
direction and is risking its exports," said Emiliano Ezcurra, the
coordinator of the biodiversity campaign for the Buenos Aires office of
global environmental group Greenpeace.

Argentina sent nearly 30 percent of its grain exports and about 60 percent
of its vegetable oil exports to Asia in 2000, according to data from the
Agriculture Department.

China last week ruled that all production and sales of GM foods, including
imports, must have government approval certifying that they do not cause any
harm to humans, animals or the environment. It remains to be seen how the
move will affect Argentine exports.

The European Union, where Argentina shipped about 10 percent of its grain
exports and 60 percent of grain byproducts in 2000, has not approved any new
GM crop varieties since 1998.

The European Parliament in February approved strict rules to regulate GM
organisms, but France and five other countries said they would continue to
block new GM permits until further rules are put in place ensuring
gene-altered products can be traced back to their source.

"In Europe, it's a question of time," Carlos Popik, president of the
Argentine unit of Monsanto, told Reuters in a recent interview.

"The question is purely political," he said. "Europe prefers to increase
production by subsidizing it instead of making it more efficient. These are
the types of things that will be changed by time."

Regunaga seemed unconcerned about Europe: "In Europe there are people in
favor of and people against" biotechnology, he said. "Certainly, we are
going to try to find our friends in Europe so that we can have a more
aggressive international position in favor of biotechnology."

Politics aside, Argentine farmers will likely continue to support
development of GM products that cut costs.

Salmoiraghi says RR soy has helped farmers survive in San Pedro, as lower
global commodity prices, high interest rates and fuel prices and tax
pressure have sent many small producers packing.

"GM soy has helped us," he said. "It hasn't helped as much as it could have
because prices have fallen, but it has certainly helped because with these
fuel prices, I'd say that even we medium-sized producers wouldn't be around
anymore."

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