GM soy: the high cost of the quest for 'green gold'
Scientists and villagers in rural Paraguay are questioning the health and environmental impact of GM soy. Louise Gray reports.
Sitting outside her home, the mother of eight describes the day in January 2003 when 11-year-old Silvino Talavera arrived home. He had cycled to the stalls by the nearest main road to buy some meat and rice for a family meal.
"I was washing clothes down by the river, and he came to tell me that as he'd ridden along the community road, which runs through the soy fields, he'd been sprayed by one of the 'mosquitoes'," she says. (''Mosquitoes'' are what locals call the pesticide or herbicide crop-spraying machines pulled by tractors.) "He smelt so bad that he took his clothes off and jumped straight in the water."
Petrona did not think much more about it. For peasant communities living amid the soy fields, chemical spraying is a frequent occurrence. But later that day, she says the whole family fell ill after eating the food that Silvino had bought.
"Silvino was violently sick. He said, 'Mummy, my bones ache' and then his skin went black'," she says.
By the time they had begged a lift to the nearest hospital. Silvino was unable to move. His stomach was pumped, but he had lost consciousness. Petrona was told her son was ''paralysed by intoxication''. All doctors could do was to offer pain relief. Within a few hours he was dead.
His family were in no doubt that his death was caused by his exposure to the crop spray, but no autopsy was carried out. It was only after years of campaigning that Petrona managed to have the case heard in court. In 2006, two farmers were each sentenced to two years in jail for manslaughter. According to Petrona, the men, who are her neighbours, have never served their sentence, and she continues to fight for justice.
Now Silvino's story has been taken up by environmentalists concerned about the spread of GM crops in parts of the world where communities have little power to fight back when big agri-businesses arrive in town.
The latest figures from the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications show that almost 150 million hectares of land was planted with GM crops last year, 10 per cent more than in 2009. The fastest growing areas are in Brazil, Argentina and other South American countries where GM soy grows fast, needs little input and is in demand. In 2010, some 33 million tons of soy (GM and non-GM) were exported to Europe, mostly for animal feed. Britain took three million tons, but the Food Standards Agency is unable to say how much was GM.
The economies of these developing countries are receiving a boost, but groups such as Friends of the Earth (FoE) are concerned by this "soya boom". It is not only the "Frankenfoods" fears about the long-term effects of transgenic seeds in the food chain. FoE claims that "green gold" is displacing small farmers from their land and may even be poisoning communities.
On a recent visit to Paraguay with FoE, I saw trees burning in areas of deforestation and met people who claim to have been "poisoned" by chemicals used to grow GM crops.