Crossing the Pond

I’m currently in the São Paulo airport awaiting my flight to Johannesburg, and want to wrap up my time in South America with a post comparing my time in Rosario, Argentina and Londrina, Brazil. On the surface, the southwest of Brazil and northeast of Argentina seem similar – the regions have relatively temperate climates, produce a massive amount of soy, and have cultures heavily influenced by the U.S. and Europe. With all of these similarities it surprised me how much farmer and public opinion on GMOs differed in these two regions.

In Argentina, I spoke with Ricardo*, a man in his mid-20s who was raised in a farming family and is now an art student in Rosario. Ricardo said his family has planted glyphosate-resistant soy year after year because it affords the best profits and productivity. He generally supported the use of biotechnology until about a year ago, when he realized that he “had been spreading and believing lies about transgenics.” Specifically, he claimed that the technology is too new to know how it affects human and environmental health, and that higher yields means greater soil depletion.** Now Ricardo says he is against GMOs, but knows that they are impossible for farmers to avoid; if you don’t plant glyphosate-resistant soy but your neighbor does, then you will have less competitive yields and will risk crop loss from drifting herbicide.

In Brazil I spoke with Claudia, who is also in her mid-20s, raised in a farming family, and is now working toward a degree in agronomy. She said that genetic engineering is only problematic if farmers use the technology incorrectly. Farmers in her region struggle with Bt-resistant insects and glyphosate-resistant weeds due to years of relying on solely GMOs to manage pests. Claudia’s father attends soybean conferences to learn about integrated forms of pest control, but these practices are often more costly and inconvenient to implement than using transgenics. Claudia isn’t sure whether she’ll eventually take over her father’s soy and corn business, but she plans to build greenhouses soon to grow organic berries. Claudia and her father emphasized that GM crops are a powerful tool for improving yields and income, but must be used along with other tools. They said that 90% of everyday people in their region have favorable or neutral opinions of GMOs, and that public resistance isn’t common.

These farmer conversations reveal important differences in the Argentine and Brazilian rhetoric surrounding GM crops. Ricardo considered himself anti-GMO after realizing their drawbacks. Claudia doesn’t condemn biotechnology despite that she prefers organic strawberry farming and acknowledges challenges associated with transgenic crops. Ricardo’s strong stance and Claudia’s more fluid opinion illustrate that the conversation in Argentina is much more polarizing than in Brazil. Likewise, when I told the random people I met in Brazilian hostels or buses that I was conducting a study on transgenic crops, they smiled politely and the conversation moved on. In Argentina almost everyone had an opinion. I would be interested to know more about whether this difference is simply due to cultural conversational norms, or something more specific. A few of my theories include differences in the relative level of GMO use, the presence of visible GMO lawsuits in Argentina, or the greater American cultural influence in Brazil and European influence in Argentina.

*Names and identifying details have been changed

**I must note that as always it’s impossible to use interviews with a few people to generalize the opinions of huge countries, and Ricardo’s view was especially unique. The other farmers that I spoke with in Argentina said that GM crops are necessary to increase yields, and that anti-GMO activists focus too much on the politics of biotechnology without understanding the science.