A study released by an Argentine scientist earlier this year reports that glyphosate, patented by Monsanto under the name “Round Up,” causes birth defects when applied in doses much lower than what is commonly used in soy fields.Why should Argentina care?
The study was directed by a leading embryologist, Dr. Andres Carrasco, a professor and researcher at the University of Buenos Aires. In his office in the nation’s top medical school, Dr. Carrasco shows me the results of the study, pulling out photos of birth defects in the embryos of frog amphibians exposed to glyphosate. The frog embryos grown in petri dishes in the photos looked like something from a futuristic horror film, creatures with visible defects—one eye the size of the head, spinal cord deformations, and kidneys that are not fully developed.
“We injected the amphibian embryo cells with glyphosate diluted to a concentration 1,500 times [less] than what is used commercially and we allowed the amphibians to grow in strictly controlled conditions.” Dr. Carrasco reports that the embryos survived from a fertilized egg state until the tadpole stage, but developed obvious defects which would compromise their ability to live in their normal habitats.
Argentina has seen an explosion in genetically modified (GM) soy bean production with soy exports topping $16.5 billion in 2008. The fertile South American nation is now the world’s third largest producer of soy, trailing behind the United States and Brazil. However, this lucrative industrial form of farming has come under fire with environmental groups, local residents, and traditional farmers reporting that GM soy threatens biodiversity, the nation’s ability to feed itself, and health in rural communities.Why should we care?
“When a field is fumigated by an airplane, it’s difficult to measure how much glysophate remains in the body,” says Dr. Carrasco.It’s not just frogs that are being affected by this stuff.
The study on the top-selling agrochemical has alarmed policymakers, so much so that Dr. Carrasco has received anonymous threats and industry leaders demanded access to his laboratory immediately following the study’s release. Industry leader Monsanto wouldn’t talk to the Americas Program for this story, but in a press release on its website, the company says that “glyphosate is safe.”So, no worries, eh? Monsanto says it’s safe.
And Monsanto must be able to show scientific studies that say so, right?
Many in the agro-business sector claim that Dr. Carrasco’s study has little scientific basis. Guillermo Cal is the executive director of CASAFE—Argentina’s association of agrochemical companies that counts Monsanto, Dow Agro-sciences, Dupont, and Bayer CropScience among its members. Cal dismissed the recent study conducted at the University of Buenos Aires. In an exclusive interview with the Americas Program, Cal rebuked Dr. Carrasco’s study, stating, “There are hundreds of articles about the impact of glyphosate in amphibians and none of these articles have shown the disastrous effects that Dr. Carrasco is mentioning. I have the suspicion that these are headlines and probably [this study is a] politically motivated article.”So according to the Monsanto-funded head of the Monsanto-funded agrochemical association, the Monsanto-funded studies are correct, but Dr. Carrasco’s independently funded study is not.
On further investigation, it turned out that the studies that Guillermo Cal cited in the interview were all financed and conducted by the companies that market glyphosate. When asked about that Cal replied, “The developing companies are the ones that have to finance these studies because we need to have proof of the innocuous character of the product before the product is launched.”
Nevermind clinical studies that show increasing rates of cancer, birth defects, and neonatal mortality in Argentina since RoundUp arrived in Argentina.
And of course nevermind what Argentine peasants can see for themselves:
In a small town bordering soy farms in the province of Cordoba, the Mothers of Ituzaingo group was formed in response to sudden increases in the local cancer rate. Ituzaingo has 5,000 residents—in 2001 they reported more than 200 cases of cancer and by 2009 that number has jumped to 300. This is 41 times the national average. (I conducted this calculation: the national average or percentage is 0.145 of the population diagnosed with cancer—in this town 6% of the population has cancer.) They have fought for regulations against fumigating soy crops in residential areas and a ban of agrochemicals.To be fair, it’s not just RoundUp:
Sofia Gatica is an activist with the Mothers of Ituzaingo. Sofia joined the grassroots group after suffering the death of her newborn baby. Her daughter was still born with a malformed kidney. Her 14-year-old daughter is currently undergoing treatment for toxicity in the blood. The toxin was identified as endosulfan, an insecticide used on soy fields.And it’s not just aerial spraying:
Gatica describes the many birth defects that have occurred locally. “We have had children born with only two thumbs and no fingers, malformed kidneys, children with six fingers. We have had babies born without an anus, or with malformations in the intestines.”
The case of Ituzaingo is not an isolated case. For nearly a decade, communities have reported health problems from aerial and terrestrial fumigation with the arsenal of pesticides and herbicides used in industrial soy farming. And for nearly a decade they have been ignored.In Argentina the peasants have taken many cases to court, although the courts consistently rule for the agrochemical companies.
So this happens:
Worse yet, research shows that the mostly rural communities that suffer the negative health effects of fumigations have not benefited from the soy explosion. On the contrary, in most regions families have been pushed off land taken over by soy farming, leading to a loss of livelihood in addition to the severe health risks. According to a 2002 agricultural census, in four years more than 200,000 families were driven from their traditional farms, and most of the families relocated in working class belts outside of major cities.It isn’t really the farmers who benefit.
Of course, in the U.S., that migration to the cities already happened decades ago. We have no peasants left to complain. Yet glyphosate and endosulfan continue to be sprayed on our fields, killing our birds and bees, running into our wetlands, and destroying our ecology.
No doubt that’s not serious, just as what’s happening in Argentina isn’t “serious”:
Authorities and industry representatives maintain that the clinical studies and citizen complaints must be backed up by “serious studies” in order for them to act. Gatica says that GM seed and agrochemical companies have converted Argentina into an experimenting ground to test the toxicity of their herbicides and pesticides, principally glyphosate and endosulfan. “We can prove that agrochemicals have harmed us. We can prove this with studies and with whatever is left of our children,” says Gatica. The anger in her voice reflects the grief and rage she has channeled into this David and Goliath battle.That’s happening in the U.S., too. Mutant pigweed that RoundUp can’t kill is common around here.
The expansion of soy means the increased use and concentration of glyphosate. Over time, Round Up herbicide loses its technological battle with evolution and new weeds develop that are more resistant to the herbicide, explains Javier Souza Casadinho, professor at the University of Buenos Aires and regional coordinator of the Latin American Action Network for Alternative Pesticides. “Producers must use more applications, and in higher doses with higher toxicity—the application has gone from three liters in 1999 to the current dose of 12 liters, per hectare,” says Souza.
And the problem is not just on soy fields. RoundUp is used in many other applications, such as on your lawn. Right outside your house, where you and your children and your pets absorb it.
Dr. Carrasco has a pithy saying:
“Son hipócritas, cipayos de las corporaciones, pero tienen miedo. Saben que no pueden tapar el sol con la mano.”In English:
“They are hypocrites, those corporate lackeys, but they are afraid. They know they can’t cover the sun with their hand.”