In 2005, Argentina produced more than 3 million tons of beef and ranked 3rd in beef exports. By 2012, however, Argentine exports had plunged 78 percent and the nation slipped to 11th place.
U.S. beef exports more than doubled during the same seven-year period. But Argentina’s decline offers a dramatic illustration of unintended consequences of government policy.
In March of 2006, the Argentine government banned beef exports for 180 days, hoping to lower domestic retail beef prices. It also imposed a 15 percent export tax on beef that is still in effect.
The tax choked off exports and domestic beef prices dropped. The government assumed ranchers would continue to raise cheap beef. Instead, they cut their herds and converted their pastures to soybean production.
Thanks largely to biotechnology pioneered in the United States, Argentina is now the world's third-largest soybean producer. But the use – AND APPARENT MISUSE – of agricultural chemicals powering the biotech boom is now being linked to serious health issues in Argentina.
The Associated Press reported on two studies last week that indicate an increase in miscarriages, birth defects and various cancers in Argentina may be linked to the rising use of pesticides and herbicides.
A home-to-home survey of 65,000 residents in Santa Fe Province, one of Argentina’s richest agricultural regions, revealed the incidence of cancer was two-to-four times higher than the national average. And a survey of over 2,000 residents in the Chaco Province, found the occurrence of congenital birth defects increased four-fold between 1996 and 2006. with a significant increase found in villages surrounded by industrial agriculture compared to those surrounded by cattle ranches.
The rise in what were once considered rare health problems appears to correspond with the introduction of genetically engineered crops and the increased use of pesticides and herbicides. The data has physicians in the region calling for more extensive, long-term studies to be conducted.
But the validity oft he reports is being called into question by the Argentine Corn and Sorghum Growers Association.
Alberto Morelli, President, Argentine Corn and Sorghum Growers Association: (translated from Spanish) "What we have discovered is that in many of these cases and a lot of those studies, all of these limitations are based not on scientific results and have much more to do with the empirical or emotional situations.”
The Associated Press reporters documented dozens of cases in Argentina where agricultural chemicals were applied incorrectly or in ways specifically prohibited by Argentine law. The reporters were told chemicals applied to nearby fields drifted into schools and homes and settled over water sources. And villagers were found storing water in pesticide containers that should have been destroyed. Reporters also spoke with a farmworker who mixed agricultural chemicals for aerial spraying without appropriate protective gear and who now suffers from polyneuropathy– a debilitating neurological disease.
Fabian Tomasi, Argentine farmworker: (translated from Spanish) "With our (unprotected) hands we would take it out, arrange the poison in spray holders. If one of these holders was leaking the poison, we would have to manually change the rubber or something. All the time touching, physically in contact with the poison. If we began to feel bad and get dizzy sometimes, for instance, we would sit down at the side of the plane for a bit until we felt somewhat better and then we would continue."
Once known for its grass-fed beef, Argentina has undergone a remarkable transformation since 1996, when the St. Louis-based Monsanto Company marketed a promising new model of higher crop yields and fewer pesticides through its patented seeds and chemicals.
As genetically engineered crops, like Roundup Ready soybeans, gained acceptance, the use of farm chemicals surged. According to Argentina’s pesticide industry trade association the amount of all agricultural chemicals used by farmers -- including all types of pesticides and herbicides -- have increased from 9 million gallons to 84 million gallons annually over the past two-and-a-half decades. And according to an AP analysis of government and pesticide industry data, Argentine farmers apply an estimated 4.3 pounds of agricultural chemicals per acre -- which is more than twice the amount used by U.S. farmers.
Monsanto, the world leader in GE seeds, issued a statement in response to the Associated Press story saying - "If pesticides are being misused in Argentina, then it is in everyone's best interests - the public, the government, farmers, industry, and Monsanto - that the misuse be stopped."
Monsanto went on to criticize the news story as lacking in specifics about the health impacts of agricultural chemicals and said-
“the absence of reliable data makes it very difficult to establish trends in disease incidence and even more difficult to establish causal relationships. To our knowledge there are no established causal relationships.”