Argentina was an early adopter of GMO technology when it was billed as the silver bullet to solve world hunger with increased crop productivity, and improved human and environmental health resulting from decreased pesticide use. The most widely used GMO crops, such as Monsanto’s Roundup Ready line of corn and soybeans, allow farmers to apply the herbicide glyphosate during and after seed plantings in order to kill weeds without risk of the main crop dying off. Today, almost all the corn, soy, and cotton produced in the country are GMO.
Both the United States and Argentina produce almost exclusively GM soybeans. In these countries, GM soybeans are approved without restrictions and are treated just like conventional soybeans. Producers and government officials in the US and Argentina do not see a reason to keep GM and conventionally bred cultivars separate -- whether during harvest, shipment, storage or processing. Soybean imports from these countries generally contain a high amount of GM content.
No Official Concern
Doctors warn that the rise in cancer and birth defects in Argentina may be attributable to the growing use of these pesticides.
This summer the non-profit organization GRAIN highlighted the "neocolonialist fervor" with which transnational agribusinesses were transforming parts of Latin America, including Argentina, into “The United Republic of Soybeans,” pushing genetically modified crops and sparking "a social and environmental catastrophe settling like a plague over the entire region."
There has been no official concern about the problems caused by the widespread planting of transgenic soybeans and the high levels of agrotoxins this requires. On the contrary, this model continues to be consolidated and defended by all of the region’s governments, which have adopted it as government policy in every case. At best -- and only when societal pressure becomes too great -- they have given slapdash consideration to the problems of agrotoxin poisoning, displacement of peasants and first peoples, land concentration, and loss of local production. But these are considered “collateral impacts.”
Researchers in the U.S. have corroborated, GMO technology only decreases pesticide use for a short period of time. After the brief decline in Argentina, pesticide use soared from 9 million gallons in 1990 to 84 million gallons today as weed resistance developed to glyphosate. In response, agrichemical companies have encouraged the use of more hazardous and toxic chemicals to kill weeds. Argentinian farmers are now mixing in and applying herbicides such as 2,4-D, a chlorophenoxy herbicide that made up half of Agent Orange, the chemical mixture used to defoliate forests and croplands in the Vietnam War. 2,4-D has also been linked to kidney/liver damage, neurotoxicity, and birth defects. Earlier this year the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) delayed the introduction of a new generation of GMO crops resistant to 2,4-D.
Widespread Health Problems
Aixa Cano (photo above), a shy 5-year-old who lives in Chaco, Argentina's poorest province, was born with hairy moles all over her body. Her mother believes the skin condition was caused by contaminated water. Her neighbor, 2-year-old Camila Veron, was born with multiple organ problems and is severely disabled. Doctors told their mothers that agrochemicals may be to blame.
“They told me that the water made this happen because they spray a lot of poison here,” said Camila’s mother, Silvia Achaval. “People who say spraying poison has no effect, I don’t know what sense that has because here you have the proof,” she added, pointing at her daughter.
Fabian Tomasi (photo above), 47, never wore any protective gear in the years he spent pumping poisons into crop-dusting planes. Today, he is near death from polyneuropathy, a neurological disorder that has left him emaciated. "I prepared millions of liters of poison without any kind of protection, no gloves, masks or special clothing. I didn't know anything. I only learned later what it did to me, after contacting scientists," he said.
Now, at 47, he's a living skeleton, so weak he can hardly swallow or go to the bathroom on his own.
Schoolteacher Andrea Druetta lives in Santa Fe Province, the heart of Argentina's soy country, where agrochemical spraying is banned within 500 meters (550 yards) of populated areas. But soy is planted just 30 meters (33 yards) from her back door. Her boys were showered in chemicals recently while swimming in the backyard pool.
After Sofia Gatica lost her newborn to kidney failure, she filed a complaint that led to Argentina's first criminal convictions for illegal spraying. But last year's verdict came too late for many of her 5,300 neighbors in Ituzaingo Annex. A government study there found alarming levels of agrochemical contamination in the soil and drinking water, and 80 percent of the children surveyed carried traces of pesticide in their blood.
The Associated Press documented dozens of cases around the country where poisons are applied in ways unanticipated by regulatory science or specifically banned by existing law. The spray drifts into schools and homes and settles over water sources; farmworkers mix poisons with no protective gear; villagers store water in pesticide containers that should have been destroyed.
Now doctors are warning that uncontrolled pesticide applications could be the cause of growing health problems among the 12 million people who live in the South American nation's vast farm belt.
GMO crops’ current mainstay chemical glyphosate is associated with a wide range of health effects. A study performed by Argentine doctor Andres Carrasco, MD that found low doses of glyphosate can cause spinal defects in frogs and chickens in communities where farm chemicals are ubiquitous. A review of the literature on glyphosate earlier this year by scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) found concerning evidence linking the chemical to inhibition of the cytochrome P450 enzymes, which are critical detoxifying agents in the human body.
“If it’s possible to reproduce this in a laboratory, surely what is happening in the field is much worse,” Dr. Carrasco said. “And if it’s much worse, and we suspect that it is, what we have to do is put this under a magnifying glass.”
Monsanto Disputes Findings
Monsanto has disputed findings that link glyphosate to adverse health effects. The company said that chemical safety tests should only be done on live animals, and that injecting embryos is “less reliable and less relevant for human risk assessments.” Dr. Carrasco’s study, Monsanto said that the results of “are not surprising given their methodology and unrealistic exposure scenarios.” On the MIT study, Monsanto released a blog post decrying the research as “Another Bogus ‘Study,’” which “fails to consider other hypothetical causes.”
Monsanto states they are working with government officials and farmers to promote better pesticide practices. But an Associated Press investigation found that Argentine farmers now use more than twice as much pesticide per acre as U.S. farmers do, making Argentina a laboratory for what can go wrong with biotech farming.
Argentina's agriculture secretary dismisses a growing call for reform as an "emotional" response from people who misunderstand the impact of agrochemicals. "We have to defend our model," he said at an industry conference this year where he promised new guidelines for spraying the chemicals.
Doctors say new guidelines aren't enough. They want strong enforcement of spraying limits as well as field research into the correlation they see between the overuse of agrochemicals and health problems -- some of which were seldom seen before the new farming model took off.
"The change in how agriculture is produced has brought, frankly, a change in the profile of diseases," says Dr. Medardo Avila Vazquez, a pediatrician and neonatologist who co-founded Doctors of Fumigated Towns, part of a growing movement demanding enforcement of agricultural safety rules. "We've gone from a pretty healthy population to one with a high rate of cancer, birth defects, and illnesses seldom seen before."
Critics worry that the EPA's recent decision could cause similar health problems in the US. On May 1, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency raised the allowable levels of glyphosate residues in food, concluding that based on studies presented by Monsanto, "there is a reasonable certainty that no harm will result to the general population or to infants and children from aggregate exposure."
Argentina's 23 provinces take the lead in regulating farming, and rules vary.
A federal environmental law requires applicators of toxic chemicals to suspend or cancel activities that threaten public health, "even when the link has not been scientifically proven," and "no matter the costs or consequences," but it has never been applied to farming, the auditor general found last year.
Government officials insist the problem is not a lack of research, but misinformation that plays on people's emotions.
"I've seen countless documents, surveys, videos, articles in the news and in universities, and really our citizens who read all this end up dizzy and confused," Agriculture Secretary Lorenzo Basso said. "I think we have to publicize the commitment that Argentina has to being a food producer. Our model as an exporting nation has been called into question. We need to defend our model."
Dr. Maria del Carmen Seveso, who has spent 33 years running intensive care wards and ethics committees in Chaco province, became alarmed at regional birth reports showing a quadrupling of congenital defects, from 19.1 per 10,000 to 85.3 per 10,000 in the decade after genetically modified crops and their agrochemicals were approved in Argentina.
Determined to find out why, she and her colleagues surveyed 2,051 people in six towns in Chaco, and found significantly more diseases and defects in villages surrounded by industrial agriculture than in those surrounded by cattle ranches. In Avia Terai, 31 percent said a family member had cancer in the past 10 years, compared with 3 percent in the ranching village of Charadai.
The survey found diseases Seveso said were uncommon before--birth defects including malformed brains, exposed spinal cords, blindness and deafness, neurological damage, infertility, and strange skin problems.
It's nearly impossible to prove that exposure to a specific chemical caused an individual's cancer or birth defect. But like the other doctors, Seveso said their findings should prompt a rigorous government investigation. Instead, their 68-page report was shelved for a year by Chaco's health ministry. A year later, a leaked copy was posted on the Internet.
"There are things that are not open to discussion, things that aren't listened to," Seveso concluded.
Scientists argue that only broader, longer-term studies can rule out agrochemicals as a cause of these illnesses.
"That's why we do epidemiological studies for heart disease and smoking and all kinds of things," said Doug Gurian-Sherman, a former EPA regulator now with the Union of Concerned Scientists. "If you have the weight of evidence pointing to serious health problems, you don't wait until there's absolute proof in order to do something."
Natasha Longo has a master's degree in nutrition and is a certified fitness and nutritional counselor. She has consulted on public health policy and procurement in Canada, Australia, Spain, Ireland, England and Germany.