'Green Branding' - A Healthy Bet For Argentina Agrobusiness

Already known for its agricultural output, the South American country would do well to grow its reputation as a leader in sustainable food production.

Argentinian native farmer works on onion fields with her husband
Argentinian native farmer works on onion fields with her husband
Fernando Vilella*


BUENOS AIRES — For the first time in history, we have successfully developed food production technologies that, while increasing the number of fields, not only prevent deterioration of the soil, but actually improve it as a resource.

They are available in Argentina, where important steps have been made regarding sustainable farming practices, including efficient use of natural resources, environmental care, traceability, and certification to assure food quality. Such technologies also ensure adequate labor conditions for farmworkers and their families and improve both the quantity and quality of food production.

The key thing now is to promote these practices, both to generate a country brand identity within markets that require more and more certifications and traceable origins and to safeguard the natural assets that sustain production.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) considers sustainable farming as applying available knowledge to sustainable use of basic natural resources to grow edible and non-edible farming products that are harmless and nutritive while assuring economic viability and social stability. Not plowing the land and keeping constant stubble cover are directly related to direct seeding, which in Argentina covers more than 80% of all lands used for grain farming. This contributes to greater biological activity, less soil erosion, reduced fuel use and carbon emissions, better water quality, improved fertility, stabilized production and lower production costs.

Crop rotation, intensified rotation, and alternating cover crops present advantages in agronomic terms by blocking pathogens, generating a balanced use of nutrients, improving physical, chemical and biological soil conditions and even bettering estate management for spreading production risks. Argentina still has a partly unresolved problem here, namely not using enough grasses in the rotation process. The reasons for this decline have been mainly institutional.

Integrated plague management optimizes control of pests and disease, reducing many of the economic, environmental and social problems associated with the use of phytosanitary products. This requires deep knowledge of the biology of diseases, pests and the environment. It is no longer about eliminating pests but keeping them below the level of economic harm, with minimal environmental impact and maximum cost-effectiveness.

Argentina's Wet Pampa, with Las Tunas lake system — Photo: Coordenadas do centro da imagem via Flickr

The efficient and responsible use of chemical products means better crop protection following responsible agronomic decisions. This entails choosing the least toxic product and greater selectivity (or controlling targeted pests without affecting other elements). Other considerations include gauging the minimum time-lapse needed between application and harvesting, correct transportation and storage of such products, workers' health and correctly managing wastewaters and packaging. Fortunately, Argentina has gone from not using Class IV chemical products (the least toxic), in 1985, to using these in 80% of cases now.

It is of the utmost importance that Argentina develop a country brand linked to sustainable food production and certified, traceable products.

Likewise, plant nutrition must become strategic through a rational fertilization plan. This will not just consider how much nutrients to apply, but their efficient use per crop in each production unit. It is a challenge to be resolved in any sustainable farming operation, as the soil's chemical balance must be maintained or recovered.

Evaluating the balance of soil nutrients would be part of this integral production strategy, which raises the importance of soil analyses. While advances have been made here, we are still restoring a very low percentage of nutrients taken from the soil during production. This has to do with the limited use of rotation in cereal farming, and with farming distortions caused by the price imperative.

We have many of the techniques for producing more and better foods, in a more environmentally-friendly manner, with traceability and certification tools like Aapresid certifications. In all cases, registered agronomists have a key role in making sure such practices are responsibly implemented.

Given these advantages, it is of the utmost importance that Argentina develops a country brand linked to sustainable food production and certified, traceable products. This is a crucial strategic challenge and one we urge all those working in the sector to tackle at the first opportunity.

*Vilella is a professor of agronomy and head of the Bioeconomy Program at the University of Buenos Aires.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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