Depleted soils drive Argentina to sustainable farming
“With agrochemicals everything is easier: you kill everything that can harm the plant. But at the same time, you are also killing the soil,” says Amadeo Riva, a producer of soybeans and other crops in Argentina whose farm went from using 9,000 liters of pesticides per year on its 1,200 hectares to only 1,000 through agroecology.
The case of Riva is repeated with other small and large agricultural producers throughout the country, who, observing the high costs of pesticides and the dependence they generate, choose diversity in their fields and reductions in their chemical outlay.
Agroecology promotes agricultural production by conserving the basic natural resources of food production such as soil, water and bacteria. This implies a diversity of species in the soil, less use of external elements such as pesticides and recycling of organic materials.
Argentina is now the third-largest producer of soybeans worldwide with 17 million hectares cultivated, second only to Brazil and the United States. The country has experienced exponential growth of this crop in recent decades, gradually replacing others and leading to monoculture.
hectares of soy are cultivated in Argentina, the third-largest producer in the world
Soy monoculture, accompanied by an increasing use of pesticides that is today estimated at 500 million liters per year, has had severe effects on the country’s soils. Nutrients are diminishing, which in turn leads to greater use of pesticides and a vicious cycle.
“Soils function well only when there’s biological diversity. That doesn’t happen with monocultures, which stress out the soils and create imbalances, later leading to serious problems such as plagues and insects,” says Luis Wall, a biochemistry expert and advisor to agricultural producers.
Argentina went from producing 2.5 million tons of soybeans per year in 1990 to the current 50 million, making the crop central for the country's tax revenues from exports, which are largely destined for China. This was accompanied by a ten-fold increase in the litreage of pesticides used.
Today, the soybean contributes a third of the dollars Argentina generates through the export of goods, with 95% of exports of the grain directed to China. However, this has not been a guarantee of economic growth, with the country currently going through another economic crisis.
The consequences of this model are observed in soils, according to surveys of the National Institute of Agricultural Technology (INTA). Farms today have between 30 and 50% less organic matter in their soils, a key indicator of their health, than virgin soil that has not been exploited.
The soil is an addict. You have to take the drug away from it little by little
The last analysis carried out in 2018 showed a general fall in the nutrients of agricultural soils. “The producers do not replace what they take through the crops,” said Hernán Sainz Rozas, a researcher at INTA, specifically pointing to the expansion of soybeans.
The low quality of the soil worries the producers, who approach specialists in search of alternative practices to pesticides. Such was the case of Riva, advised by Eduardo Cerdá, director of RENAMA, a network of 21 municipalities that promote agroecology.
“The soil is an addict. You have to take the drug away from it little by little,” says Riva, who gradually reduced the number of pesticides by starting to rotate their crops. “I spent thousands of pesos on pesticides and the performance was bad. Then I set out to go back to old practices and little by little things started to improve.”
According to the last agricultural census, 5,277 farms out of a total of 250,881 use agroecological practices, which translates into one in 50 producers. The largest number are in the province of Buenos Aires.
farms out of 250,881 use agroecological practices in Argentina
Consultations by farmers are increasing, according to Cerdá, to whom municipalities, provinces and producers ask for more information.
“The argument that agroecology is not possible has already been overcome. Now what needs to be established is the best model; whether it is better to replace chemicals with natural products, or take a different tack,”
Replacing the pesticides
While producers like Riva seek to eliminate all use of pesticides in their fields, others replace them with natural alternatives. This is the case with the Union of Land Workers (UTT), which brings together 10,000 farmers and producers in 15 provinces.
There are an estimated 200,000 small producers in Argentina, occupying 13% of the cultivated land and producing 60% of the fruit and vegetables consumed in the country. The UTT group includes many of them, promoting their transition to agroecology.
Two hundred and fifty families associated with the organization already produce sustainably in a total of 300 hectares. They do not use transgenic seeds or pesticides, but products obtained from living organisms with beneficial properties for the soil.
“We have vegetable and cereal producers that have already joined agroecology. We want to expand more and more and add other crops such as soybeans,” says Juan Amador, a member of UTT. “With these practices, the soil improves and the plants are stronger.”
To encourage producers they carry out workshops throughout the country. Soil knowledge and techniques for preparing bio-inputs are taught. In addition, UTT provides natural pesticides to farmers produced in its own factories.
Delina Puma is one of those in charge of the workshops. “Agrochemicals are a circle that is difficult to get out of. They do not allow you to progress because the cost of production is very high. With agroecology, we make our own inputs and spend much less.”
Boosting agroecology in Argentina
In addition to damaging the soils and generating dependence, agrochemicals have a questionable impact on health. Producers often spray near populated areas, which has led to the contamination of waterways and high rates of cancer in villages in Argentina.
“There are already more than 130 municipalities that have some kind of legislation limiting the use of agrochemicals. So, the demand for alternatives from producers is strong,” said Jorge Ulle, an INTA technician. “There are many producers looking for alternative paths. The current situation isn’t good.”
The most recent case is from the province of La Pampa, which banned the sale of pesticides in its entire territory in January as there was no proper management of the packaging of chemical products by companies. The decision was supported by Juan Cabandié, the environment minister.
The new government of President Alberto Fernández has been in favour of promoting agroecology. For this, work is being done to create a specific area within the Ministry of Agriculture, which would be chaired by Cerdá, in addition to national legislation to regulate the use of agrochemicals.
“No money is needed to reduce the use of agrochemicals; legislation and programmes are. We must accompany and motivate producers to make that transition and for that the accompaniment of the state is necessary,” said Cerdá. “The future is not with more agrochemicals; it is with more life."