In August 2010, community activists and residents gathered in La Leonesa, an agricultural town in Argentina, to hear a talk by Professor Andres Carrasco, lead embryologist at the University of Buenos Aires Medical School and the Argentinean national research council.
Carrasco was due to speak about his research, which found that glyphosate, an agrochemical used on genetically modified soy and rice in Argentina, causes birth defects in animal embryos at levels far below those frequently used in agricultural spraying. A delegation of public officials and residents from the nearby community of Resistencia also came to La Leonesa to hear the talk.
But the talk never took place. As the delegation headed for the school where it was to be held, it was attacked by a violent mob of approximately 100 people. Three people were seriously injured. Carrasco and a colleague shut themselves in a car and were surrounded by people beating the vehicle for two hours. Witnesses believe that a local rice producer and officials had organised the attack to protect agribusiness interests. As the police seemed reluctant to intervene, Amnesty International subsequently called for an independent investigation.
A political hot potato
Carrasco’s research was never destined to gather dust on a library shelf. It has become a political hot potato: scientific confirmation of a human rights tragedy that is unfolding on a massive scale in Argentina. Over the past decade, doctors and residents have reported escalating rates of birth defects, as well as infertility, stillbirths, miscarriages and cancers in areas where glyphosate is sprayed on genetically modified (GM) soy. Because GM soy is engineered to tolerate glyphosate, the herbicide can be sprayed liberally, killing weeds but allowing the crop to survive. Spraying is often carried out from the air, causing problems of drift.
Carrasco and his team discovered that Roundup and its active ingredient glyphosate caused malformations in frog and chicken embryos that were similar to human birth defects found in GM soy-producing areas. In particular, the researchers found malformations of the head and cyclopia (where a single eye is present in the centre of the forehead). Carrasco said people should be worried by these findings as humans share with the experimental animals the same mechanisms of development. The researchers also pointed out that women living in soy-producing areas of South America have high rates of repeated miscarriage – often the result of a malformed foetus.
After Carrasco announced his findings ahead of publication – the study was later published in the journal Chemical Research in Toxicology – a group of environmental lawyers petitioned the supreme court of Argentina to implement a national ban on the use of glyphosate. But such is Argentina’s dependence on GM soy that Guillermo Cal, executive director of the crop-protection trade association CASAFE, said a ban would mean ‘we couldn’t do agriculture in Argentina’. Much of Argentina’s GM soy is imported into Europe as livestock feed.
No national ban on glyphosate has yet been implemented, but in a revolutionary ruling in March 2010, a regional court in Santa Fe province banned the spraying of glyphosate and other agrochemicals near populated areas. While the ruling is limited to the area around San Jorge, other courts are expected to follow suit.
Just a month after the court ruling, another bombshell dropped in Argentina’s GM soy republic. The provincial government of Chaco province issued a report on health statistics from La Leonesa, the town where Carrasco was due to give his talk. The report said that from 2000 to 2009 the childhood cancer rate tripled in La Leonesa and the rate of birth defects increased nearly fourfold over the entire province. The report said that these staggering increases in disease coincided with the expansion of GM soy and rice crops in the region and the corresponding rise in agrochemical use.
Argentina is a unique experiment in the GM soy-farming model. In the 1990s the country rebuilt its collapsed economy around growing GM soy for export, becoming the world’s largest exporter of soybean meal and oil. In 2009 the crop covered 19 million hectares – more than half the country’s cultivated land area – which were sprayed with more than 200 million litres of glyphosate.
The Argentine government has come to depend on tariffs of more than 30 per cent levied on soy exports and is protective of the industry. Critics of the soy model have complained of harassment and persecution. Carrasco said after he went public with his findings, four people from CASAFE were sent to try to search his laboratory, and he was 'seriously told-off' by Argentina’s science and technology minister.
Serious health impacts
Carrasco’s study was not the first to show that glyphosate is not as safe as is made out. A report released in September 2010 and co-authored by nine international scientists, including Carrasco, called GM Soy: Sustainable? Responsible? gathered a series of studies showing links between exposure to glyphosate and premature births, miscarriages, cancer and damage to DNA and reproductive organ cells. The roster more than justifies Carrasco’s verdict: ‘I suspect the toxicity classification of glyphosate is too low ... in some cases this can be a powerful poison.’
Resistance against the GM soy with glyphosate model is growing. On 9th November, forest engineer and activist Claudio Lowy began a hunger strike in the doorway of the Ombudsman’s office in Buenos Aires. In Argentina, the Ombudsman is called la Defensoria del Pueblo de la Nación – the Defender of the Nation’s People.
In Lowy’s view, the Ombudsman wasn’t living up to his romantic title. Almost a year earlier, Lowy had signed a 2,700-strong petition to the Ombudsman requesting him to ask the government to change the way it classifies the toxicity of agrochemicals. When Lowy arrived on the Ombudsman’s doorstep, the new GM soy-planting season was beginning, once again putting 12 million people in the path of the spray planes – and the petitioners still hadn’t received a reply.
Three days later, Lowy called off his hunger strike when the Ombudsman put in a formal request to the ministry of agriculture to reassess the toxicity of agrochemicals according to their entire range of health effects. The Ombudsman asked the ministry to consider sublethal and chronic effects involving low doses over long periods, as happens with people exposed to spraying of fields, rather than just short-term (acute) and lethal effects, as is the case now.
The Ombudsman also advised that the toxicity of agrochemicals should be assessed based on independent scientific studies, not data provided by agribusiness companies. The Ombudsman’s request will be sent to the ministry with a dossier of scientific research on the ill-health effects of agrochemicals, reports on sprayed residents and submissions from civil society organisations, scientists and health professionals.
Real science takes longer and costs more than rubber-stamping a company’s data on its own chemicals. Often, the time and money needed to carry out proper studies becomes an excuse for inaction on the part of regulators. But that escape route has been closed off by the Ombudsman’s final recommendation – that any chemicals that have not yet been evaluated for chronic and sublethal effects should be placed in the highest category of toxicity until they are proven safer. That would mean that they could not be sprayed near schools and residential neighbourhoods. Glyphosate is expected to be among them.
If the Ombudsman’s recommendations are written into law, they will set an important precedent for science-based regulation of agrochemicals worldwide. Will it happen? A reply from an activist sounded familiar. Variations on it have been voiced by several Argentine people caught up in the fight against agrochemical poisoning – from the anonymous authors of the Chaco report to Carrasco himself: ‘We don’t know. There are powerful interests at stake.’
Claire Robinson is an editor at GMWatch
Killing fields: the true cost of Europe's cheap meat
Cheap meat has become a way of life in much of Europe, but the full price is being paid across Latin America as vast soya plantations and their attendant chemicals lead to poisonings and violence
As the people of Argentina are driven by economic collapse to the point of starvation, a new solution is being imposed upon them. Ben Backwell reports on a country being force fed genetically modified soya designed not for humans, but for cattle
A weedkiller that kills a lot more than simply weeds? If it’s worse than the poison it’s no cure at all, says Pat thomas
BLT Sandwich: The Big Lifestyle Trade Off
Is it worse than Mc Donalds? The BLT sandwich is an icon, the ultimate symbol of convenience culture. Tesco alone sells 5 million a year. This is what the £1.80 you pay for your BLT buys...
Alternative Nobel Prize winner Raul Montenegro: ‘Nuclear energy is a nonsense technology’
Argentinean academic and activist Raul Montenegro on why indigenous people hold the keys to survival, why GM technologies only profit big business and how nuclear power ignores the rights of future generations