One of the most destructive developments in agriculture over the past two decades has been the boom in soya production in the southern cone of Latin America. The corporations that led that boom are now moving aggressively into sugar cane, focusing on large tracts of land in southern countries where sugar can be produced cheaply. If these developments are not resisted, the impacts are likely to be severe: local food production will be overrun, workers and communities will face displacement and exposure to increased levels of pesticides, and foreign agribusiness will tighten its grip on sugar production. We look at the intersection between the development of genetically modified (GM) sugar cane and transformations in the global sugar industry.
The looming GM sugar cane invasion
Within a span of only 10 years, nearly the entire Argentine pampas and huge swathes of forest and farm land in Brazil, Bolivia, Uruguay and Paraguay have been converted into green deserts of soya monoculture.  Latin America’s soya boom was, and continues to be, a bonanza for agribusiness. It provided the handful of global grain giants who dominate the international oilseed trade and commercial feed market with a cheap and abundant site of production for the expansion and consolidation of their global operations. These same companies, such as Cargill, ADM and Bunge, have also made billions in selling the required chemical fertilisers, while other big foreign companies, such as AGCO and John Deere, have cashed in on sales of tractors. Monsanto and Syngenta have raked in record profits selling their genetically modified seeds and chemical pesticides.
The soya invasion was based on a model of production revolving around the use of seeds genetically modified to withstand huge doses of chemical herbicides. Monsanto provided both the seeds and the herbicides while a new generation of agricultural companies, run mainly by businessmen in the cities, leased or took over large areas of land and handled the farming. Wherever this model has been deployed small farmers have been driven out and local communities have been devastated by the rural exodus and chemical contamination.
As for the big agribusiness TNCs, the experience with soya in the southern cone has shown how to profit from the expansion of industrial agriculture into developing countries. It has opened the door to a new era of conquest. Sugar, a crop with a long history of environmental and cultural destruction and sheer human exploitation, might well be next in line for a soya-style boom, especially with new genetically modified sugar crops already in the fields.