With soils without nutrients, Argentina uses agroecology.

Agroecology promotes agricultural production by conserving natural resources and increasing the diversity of species in the soil.

An agricultural producer from the Land Workers Union (UTT) grows broccoli that was produced without pesticides (image: UTT)

High costs and dependence lead farmers to quit pesticides

“With agrochemicals, everything is easier: kill everything that can harm the plant. But at the same time, the soil is also being killed, ”explains Amadeo Riva, a producer of soybeans and other crops in Argentina. In recent years, Riva, which owns 1,200 hectares of land, has reduced its use of pesticides from 9,000 liters per year to just 1,000, using agro-ecological practices.

The case of Riva is the same as that of other small and large agricultural producers in the country. With the high costs of pesticides – which also generate dependence -, some Argentine producers are privileging the diversity in their crops, reducing the use of agrochemicals to the minimum possible.

Agroecology promotes agricultural production while conserving natural resources for food production, such as soil, water and biodiversity. This means greater diversity of species in the soil, less use of external elements such as pesticides, and recycling of organic materials.

With 17 million hectares occupied by planting soybeans, Argentina is now the third largest producer of the grain in the world, behind only Brazil and the United States. The country has experienced an exponential growth in soybean cultivation in recent decades, which little by little replaced other plantations and led the country to monoculture.

Soy monoculture, accompanied by an increasing use of pesticides, has had serious effects on the country’s soils. Argentina today uses around 500 million liters of agrochemicals per year. The amount of nutrients in the soil is decreasing, which leads to a greater use of pesticides, causing a vicious cycle.

“Soils work well if there is biological diversity. But monocultures create a stressful situation. Imbalances arise that turn into more problems, such as pests and insects of all kinds ”, says Luis Wall, doctor in biochemistry and advisor to agricultural producers.

Impaired soils

From 2.5 million tons of soybeans per year in 1990, Argentina today produces 50 million. Cultivation has become essential to the country’s income due to exports, mostly to China. Along with this growth, the country also increased the volume of pesticides used by ten times a year.

Soy is now responsible for a third of what Argentina earns from exports of goods, selling 95% of the grains exported to China. These values, however, were not a guarantee of economic growth: Argentina is currently experiencing a new crisis.

The consequences of this model can be seen in the soil, according to research by the National Institute of Agricultural Technology (Inta). The country’s agricultural soils today have between 30% and 50% less organic matter than virgin soil. The amount of organic matter is a key indicator of soil health.

The latest analysis carried out in 2018 showed a generalized drop in the level of nutrients in agricultural soils. “Producers do not replace what they extract with their plantations,” explains Hernán Sainz Rozas, a researcher at Inta, referring specifically to the expansion of soybeans.

The low quality of the soil worries farmers, who consult specialists in search of alternative practices to pesticides. This was the case with Riva, assisted by Eduardo Cerdá, director of Renama, a network of 21 municipalities that promote agroecology.

“The field is addicted to pesticides, we have to take the drug out gradually,” says Riva, who gradually reduced the amount of agrochemicals when starting to rotate crops. “I spent millions of pesos [Argentine] on pesticides, and the yield was poor. Since I started to go back to what I was doing before, the results started to improve ”.

According to the last agricultural census in Argentina, 5,277 agricultural establishments out of a total of 250,881 consulted use agro-ecological practices – one in every 50 producers. The largest amount is in the province of Buenos Aires.

Consultations are multiplying, says Cerdá, from whom municipalities, provinces and producers are increasingly asking for more information. “We overcame the argument that agroecology is not a possible model. Now, what we need to find out is what is the best agroecological model, whether it is replacing chemicals with natural products or something else, ”he says.

Pesticide substitution

While producers like Riva seek to completely eliminate the use of pesticides in their crops, others have replaced it with natural alternatives. This is the case of the Union of Land Workers (UTT), which groups 10,000 families of peasants and farmers in 15 provinces.

It is estimated that in Argentina there are 200 thousand small producers, who occupy 13% of the cultivated land and produce 60% of the fruits and vegetables consumed in the country. UTT groups many of them, promoting their transition to agroecology.

Of all the producers associated with the organization, 250 families already use agroecological techniques in their crops, occupying a total of 300 hectares. They do not use transgenic seeds or pesticides, which have been replaced by “bio-inputs”, biological products obtained from living organisms with properties beneficial to the soil.

“We have vegetable, vegetable and cereal producers who have already converted to agroecology. We want to expand the practice even more and bring other crops, such as soybeans ”, says Juan Amador, a member of UTT. “With these practices, the soil improves and the plants become stronger”.

To make more producers practice agroecology, technicians from the organization hold workshops across the country. They explain the functioning of the soil and teach techniques to prepare bio-inputs. In addition, UTT has its own natural pesticide factories that it supplies to producers.

Delima Puma is one of the instructors at these workshops. “Agrochemicals are a cycle that is difficult to get out of. They do not allow progress because the cost of production is very high. With agroecology, we produce our own inputs and spend much less ”.

Impulse to agroecology

In addition to harming soils and generating dependency, agrochemicals are also questioned for their impact on human health. Farmers often fumigate crops near populated areas, which has led to high rates of cancer in certain regions of Argentina. To this is added the contamination of water bodies with pesticides.

“More than 130 municipalities already have some type of legislation that limits the use of agrochemicals. For this reason, the demand for alternatives is on the rise, ”says Jorge Ulle, technician at Inta. “There are many producers looking for alternative ways. The current situation is not good ”.

The most recent case is the province of La Pampa, which in January banned the sale of pesticides throughout its territory due to a lack of proper management of the packaging of chemicals by companies. The decision was supported by the Minister of the Environment, Juan Cabandié.

The government of the new president Alberto Fernández was favorable to agroecology. To this end, it is working on the creation of 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.

“We don’t need money, but legislation and programs to reduce the use of agrochemicals. We have to accompany and motivate farmers to make this transition and, for that, monitoring by the State is necessary ”, argues Cerdá. “The future is not to produce more agrochemicals, but more life”.

Source: Fermín Koop

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