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American farmland has long been the largest market for genetically engineered seeds and the glyphosate herbicides used on them, but the United States is by no means the only country to have adopted the new technology with open arms. Farmers in Argentina started using genetically engineered seeds about the same time farmers in the United States did, after regulators in Argentina approved Monsanto Company’s Roundup Ready soybeans in 1996. Soy production soared over the next decade as farmers who previously had been tending to grass-fed cattle, growing rice and potatoes, or running dairy farms shifted their focus to growing soybeans. Many farmers plowed up pastures to become part of what was billed as a biotech revolution. Because the beans tolerated direct sprays of glyphosate herbicide, controlling weeds was easier than ever, and, like the Americans, Argentine farmers quickly became eager buyers of both the specialty seeds and the glyphosate chemicals. The timing was perfect. Rising demand for protein — translation: meat — was fueling strong global demand for soy needed to feed livestock that would end up on dinner plates around the world. Argentina soon became the world’s third-largest soybean supplier, and genetically modified soybeans became Argentina’s most important export. Argentine farmers adopted biotech cotton and corn as well, with roughly 24 million acres of the nation’s farmland planted with biotech seeds by 2014, most of which were designed to be sprayed with glyphosate.
As in the United States, aggressive use of glyphosate year after year on farm fields led to a rise in glyphosate-resistant weeds, spurring many farmers to use more and more of the herbicide, often alongside other chemicals, to fight back. According to data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, total pesticide use in Argentina rose by 90 percent between 1997, when the country was beginning to adopt the new type of farming, and 2011, when it was well established. Use of herbicides, including glyphosate, rose by 185 percent during that time frame. And, just as in the United States, concerns for human health and for the environment have emerged.
By 2002, less than a decade after Roundup Ready soybeans were launched, some doctors in soybean-growing areas started reporting a suspicious rise in health problems in their patients, including birth defects and several types of cancer. People living in rural soybean-growing areas were notably affected, with sharply increased rates of miscarriage as well, according to scientists and physicians. In Santa Fe, cancer rates were documented at two to four times higher than the national average. In Chaco, regional birth reports showed a quadrupling of congenital defects, from 19.1 per 10,000 to 85.3 per 10,000 in the decade after GMO crops and glyphosate took hold in Argentina. Doctors there found that more of the diseases and birth defects occurred in villages near the soy fields than near cattle ranches. A government study also noted troubling levels of agrochemical residues in the soil and drinking water in certain areas, with roughly 12 million people living in the country’s farm belt potentially at risk.
Worried parents started complaining to government officials about their children getting sick; they blamed the increased illness on intensive chemical use on GMO soybean fields and cornfields surrounding their towns and villages. As did the people of Hawaii, many Argentines sought tighter controls on how and where glyphosate and other agrochemicals were used — demanding that schools and neighborhoods be protected. Protesters, including doctors, parents, and scientists, argued that liberal spraying of pesticides near populated areas, particularly aerial spraying by planes, was clearly dangerous to people, both through the nearly invisible chemical drifts that traveled on breezes off the fields and through residues that lingered in water and soil.
By 2006, the voices of protest were loud enough to convince a division of Argentina’s agriculture ministry to recommend adding warning labels to glyphosate mixtures; the labels would have advised users to spray the chemicals only in farm areas, far away from homes and other well-populated areas. Agrochemical companies pushed back, and the ministry failed to fully implement the recommendation. Concerns persisted, and by 2009 President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner was motivated to set up a commission to study agrochemical impacts on human health. The commission found there was a need for more controls over herbicide mixing and use and for more studies of formulations containing glyphosate. But both U.S. authorities and the agrochemical industry argued that glyphosate and the other chemicals used on the soy fields and cornfields were important for maximizing production and had been shown to be safe to use on the fields. Argentine authorities found themselves caught between the farming and chemical industry interests, who had profits to protect, and protesters, who claimed their very lives were at stake.
For one small and mostly poor community in Argentina’s central farming belt, a town called Ituzaingó, the concerns turned poignantly painful as children there began to fall ill with what seemed to be increasing frequency after the area adopted intensive production of GMO soy. One Ituzaingó woman, Sofia Gatica, felt driven to act after her newborn daughter died of kidney failure in 1999. Gatica, a working-class mother of three, had only a high school education, but she was convinced her daughter’s death was tied to her own exposure while pregnant to the active spraying of agrochemicals on the soy fields that surrounded her community. Gatica began to knock on door after door around her town, talking with other mothers about their children and curious ailments. She learned that she was not alone in fearing the chemicals from the farm fields. Gatica and several other women eventually formed a group called the Mothers of Ituzaingó and filed multiple complaints with local leaders, protesting corporate influence in what the group called the poisoning of their town’s population of 5,000 residents.
The complaints from Gatica’s group and others got the attention of regulators and helped spur studies that revealed residues of glyphosate and the insecticide endosulfan in and around people’s homes in the Ituzaingó area. Both chemicals were commonly sprayed from the air onto area farm fields, a practice that many feared encouraged the pesticide’s drift into the town. At that time, glyphosate was touted as safe, but endosulfan was considered especially toxic and dangerous to human health and the environment.
By 2008, government officials were so concerned that the nation’s minister of health began an investigation of the impact of the pesticide use in Ituzaingó. Research revealed that traces of herbicide and insecticide were detected in the blood of 80 percent of the children from the Ituzaingó area. Data also showed that cancer cases had jumped by 50 percent, to 300 from 2001 to 2009, an incidence rate forty-one times the national average. The evidence of harm was enough to lead authorities to pass a local prohibition on aerial spraying in Ituzaingó at a distance of 2,500 meters (a little more than a mile and a half) or less from residences.
Gatica was honored as an environmental hero for her work and was named a 2012 recipient of the international Goldman Environmental Prize. In a videotaped interview conducted as part of the award program, Gatica explained why she was so motivated: “For me, these soybeans mean only destruction and death. When they spray the soy, they also spray us. At first I didn’t associate my daughter’s illness with pesticide spray. I felt horrible. It was very hard on me.” Eventually, she said, she realized her family was not alone. “What happened in Ituzaingó is a hidden genocide because they poison you slowly and silently.”
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Gatica said she was warned against going after the pesticide industry, told to “stop messing with the soy,” and even threatened once at gunpoint, ordered to stop her anti-pesticide protests. Gatica said many of her neighbors also were angry with her for her work, complaining their home values were diminished by the attention she drew to the area’s health problems.
Use of the insecticide endosulfan is now banned in Argentina, and in many countries around the world, after representatives from 127 governments added it to a United Nations list of pollutants to be eliminated because of its ability to cause reproductive and developmental damage in both animals and humans. Use of glyphosate has continued, however. Gatica has called for it to be banned as well and has continued her protest work.
The efforts in Ituzaingó garnered international attention, but it is just one community among many around the country that are pushing back against agrochemicals. Some doctors are so concerned that they have formed a group called Doctors of Fumigated Towns to investigate and raise awareness of what they believe are clear connections between agricultural pesticide applications and a decline in health of people living near farming areas.
When the group held its first meeting at the National University of Córdoba in August 2010, 160 doctors from ten provinces and dozens of towns showed up to share stories of alarming health trends among their patients. It was at that meeting that the doctors began to grasp the potential magnitude of the problem as one after another they laid out evidence of curious birth defects, cancers, reproductive problems, and respiratory ailments.
The group was founded and coordinated by Dr. Medardo Ávila Vázquez, a pediatrician and neonatologist from the medical faculty of the National University of Córdoba. Ávila Vázquez explained why he was driven to get involved: “The change in how agriculture is produced has brought, frankly, a change in the profile of diseases. We’ve gone from a pretty healthy population to one with a high rate of cancer, birth defects, and illnesses seldom seen before.”
In its 2011 meeting, also held at the university in Córdoba, the group called on lawmakers to restrict pesticide use and prohibit aerial spraying. The group blamed the “multinational laboratories” for promoting a growing use of dangerous pesticides. In that meeting, the organization issued a formal declaration of what it said were “certainties”:
That the effect on health in populations located in areas subjected to constant fumigation in Argentina is considerable, and that the situation is worsening day by day, with more frequent cases of severe diseases such as cancer, spontaneous abortions, fertility disorders and births of children with congenital malformations.
That different health conditions, such as respiratory, endocrine, neurological, hematological and psychological conditions, are much more frequent in populations systematically sprayed as a result of the current agro-industrial model of production.
That the use of pesticides is increasing every year. . . .
That as much as we would have wanted a different reality, the only truth is what we know today: the current agricultural production system is responsible for causing these health problems, as well as other serious ecological and sociological problems not mentioned here.
By November 2015, the group had honed in on glyphosate as a key culprit in health problems after the International Agency for Research on Cancer’s classificationof the chemical’s probable carcinogenicity. Glyphosate and other agrochemicals were contributing to increases in “spontaneous abortions and congenital malformations, endocrine problems such as hypothyroidism, neurological disorders or cognitive development problems” and rising cancer rates, the group said. “There is no doubt that the massive and growing exposure to pesticides modified the disease profile of Argentine rural populations and that cancer is the leading cause of death among them,” the organization said.
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About 500 miles from Córdoba, in Aviá Teraí, a volunteer network of doctors, lawyers, and scientists also has been working to convince authorities to put tighter controls on pesticide spraying, particularly from the air. The town is rustic and lacks running water, which leaves residents to rely on rainwater or other sources that can be contaminated with pesticides. The paucity of clean water also makes it more challenging to wash food and clothing, which can be contaminated by the chemicals used on the nearby fields. Many children suffer from an array of ailments, including odd hairy moles and nonmalignant tumors on their faces and bodies.
The connections between agrochemicals and health problems in Argentina grabbed the global spotlight again in 2013 when the Associated Press (AP) published an investigation documenting the parallel phenomena of rising disease and rising use of agrochemicals in that country’s farm belt. Overall, Argentine farmers were applying more than twice as much agrochemical concentrate per acre as U.S. farmers were, an AP analysis of government and pesticide industry data found. And the news outlet documented dozens of cases around the country where agrochemicals were being used or stored improperly, increasing the exposure risks. Those applying the chemicals were mixing glyphosate with chemicals such as 2,4-D, an herbicide associated with the defoliant called Agent Orange, used on jungles during the Vietnam War, according to the news investigation. Children were noted with a range of birth defects that included malformed brains, exposed spinal cords, blindness and deafness, other neurological damage, and strange skin problems.
Government officials largely dismissed the issue, citing “misinformation,” and said citizens were simply “dizzy and confused.” Monsanto had a similar reaction, downplaying the health concerns and saying it could not be held responsible if people applying glyphosate or other chemicals failed to use proper safety precautions. Glyphosate is far less toxic than other types of pesticides that it has replaced, the company said. And, Monsanto said, Argentines should recognize that they have benefited greatly from the farming system Monsanto’s products helped create because grain output has more than tripled since 1990.
But critics of the pesticide use say the documented health problems should not be ignored and that applications of glyphosate — used at the high volumes seen in the past two decades — must be considered more carefully. They cite the research of Andrés Carrasco, who found severe malformations from glyphosate in chicken and frog embryos significant enough to warrant further study.
Carrasco’s work, which was first reported in the local press in the spring of 2009 and then published in a scientific journal in August 2010, became a rallying cry for critics of Monsanto and its glyphosate-based Roundup Ready cropping system. Carrasco and a team of four other researchers said their work showed direct effects of glyphosate that open “concerns about the clinical findings from human offspring in populations exposed to GBH [glyphosate-based herbicides] in agricultural fields.” The findings in the lab are “compatible with the malformations observed in the offspring of women chronically exposed to GBH during pregnancy,” Carrasco argued. “I suspect the toxicity classification of glyphosate is too low,” he said. “In some cases this can be a powerful poison.”
Carrasco went to great lengths to publicize his team’s findings, presenting his findings at a press conference held at the 6th European Conference of GMO-Free Regions of the European Parliament in Brussels. He also coauthored a critical report on the sustainability of GMO soy that challenged fundamental industry assertions about the benefits of the technology and called Monsanto’s dealings in Argentina “heavy-handed attempts to dominate global seed and glyphosate supplies.” That September 2010 report included a litany of warnings:
The industry claims that glyphosate is safe for people and breaks down rapidly and harmlessly in the environment. But a large and growing body of scientific research challenges these claims, revealing serious health and environmental impacts. The adjuvants (added ingredients) in Roundup increase its toxicity. Harmful effects from glyphosate and Roundup are seen at lower levels than those used in agricultural spraying, corresponding to levels found in the environment. . . .
The cultivation of GM RR soy endangers human and animal health, increases herbicide use, damages the environment, reduces biodiversity, and has negative impacts on rural populations. The monopolistic control by agribusiness companies over GM RR soy technology and production endangers markets, compromises the economic viability of farming, and threatens food security.
Not surprisingly, Monsanto challenged Carrasco’s assertions and the credibility of his research. The company said his methodology was flawed and used unrealistic exposure scenarios. “Public health experts agree that Carrasco’s experiments with frog and chicken embryos are not predictive of health effects in humans or wildlife,” the company said in a posting on its website. “Regulatory authorities and independent experts agree that glyphosate does not cause adverse reproductive effects in adult animals or birth defects in offspring of these adults exposed to glyphosate, even at doses far higher than relevant environmental or occupational exposure.”
At the time, Carrasco was generally well regarded. Not only was he a neuroscientist at the University of Buenos Aires with expertise in embryonic development, but he was also head of the research department at the Ministry of Defense and principal investigator and past president of the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET), a highly respected Argentine research institute.
In part because of the high regard for Carrasco’s work and the troubling nature of his findings, a group of environmental lawyers filed a petition with the Supreme Court of Argentina seeking a ban on glyphosate, and the Ministry of Defense announced a ban on glyphosate use on some of its land that was used for agricultural production. Activists and others who had long been convinced that agrochemicals were to blame for health problems in their communities rallied around the scientist.
But Carrasco also quickly found himself with multiple enemies after he went public with his work on glyphosate. The Chamber of Agricultural Health and Fertilizers (CASAFE), which represents Monsanto and the other agrochemical industry interests in Argentina, sent representatives to visit Carrasco’s laboratory looking for documents related to his research, the scientist told the press. The scientist also reported receiving anonymous threatening phone calls. And he and a group of activists were reportedly physically attacked at an August 2010 gathering in the small farming town of La Leonesa, where Carrasco was scheduled to speak about his glyphosate study. Press accounts said Carrasco and a colleague locked themselves inside a car as an angry mob yelled threats and beat on the vehicle. The minister of science, technology and productive innovation, Lino Barañao, considered a chief government supporter of Monsanto, discounted Carrasco’s findings and criticized him for sharing his results with news outlets before they were published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Chemical Research in Toxicology a year and a half later.
When Carrasco died from an extended illness at the age of sixty-seven in May 2014, he was described in the press as one of Monsanto’s “most difficult public relations problems.”
Javier Souza, a regional coordinator for the Pesticide Action Network in Latin America, said that despite the questions raised about glyphosate by Carrasco and others, the power and prestige of the agrochemical companies combined to keep the chemical in common use. “The concerns are very great,” he said. “There is increasing evidence on the possible effect of glyphosate on health, yet both business and family producers are increasingly using it.”
A group of fifteen Argentine farmers and their eight children tried to take their concerns about Roundup-related health problems to court in February 2012, suing Monsanto and other companies over allegations that the farmers’ use of Roundup and other glyphosate-based herbicides in growing tobacco on their family farms had caused birth defects in their children. The farmers would mix and spray the pesticides from applicators they carried on their backs, and they often were accompanied in the fields by their spouses. Although at the time they thought they were handling one of the safest chemicals available in agriculture, they now believe their exposure to the weed killer caused their children to suffer a range of problems, including spinabifida. Not only were they exposed when they applied the herbicides, but the chemical also contaminated the farmers’ nontobacco crops, water wells, and streams, they claimed. “Monsanto has marketed glyphosate as posing little or no risk to human or environmental health when in fact Monsanto knew or had reason to know that aforementioned herbicide is a reproductive toxin, teratogenic, genotoxic and otherwise harmful,” the farmers claimed. They said they were encouraged by Monsanto to use large amounts of the weed killer, “frequently and in quantities beyond what would be necessary for effective weed control. Defendants did this purely to increase profit.”
The farmers tried to pursue their lawsuit in the United States, but a Delaware judge dismissed the suit in November 2015, saying the claims were too vague and giving the farmers an option to amend their complaints against Monsanto. The farmers then refiled in January 2016 and have continued to press their claims.
The United States government has been no idle observer of the angst in Argentina. Indeed, the U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires kept a close eye on the developments, reporting updates to the U.S. secretary of state, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and others as Argentina wrestled with what, if anything, to do about the pesticide concerns. Cables obtained and released by WikiLeaks provide some hints of the level of the embassy’s interest and action and demonstrate in many cases that U.S. officials were eager to promote and sustain the use of glyphosate. In one cable dated May 7, 2009, shortly after Carrasco’s research came to light, the embassy wrote that the “campaign against the use of glyphosate” appeared to be driven “more by local politics than health concerns.” The embassy called Carrasco’s findings “unverified” and said that while both the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Health were expressing concerns about glyphosate, the National Service of Health and Agrifood Quality (SENASA) and the Ministry of Science, Technology and Productive Innovation were defending glyphosate’s use. The embassy said Monsanto had the largest share of the glyphosate market in Argentina, estimated at 40 percent, making the company “the most prominent and vulnerable victim” of the “attacks” on glyphosate. The embassy said it was providing information to SENASA as it built a case for continued glyphosate use in Argentina.
The embassy concluded that it was unlikely the country would implement a ban on glyphosate because the economic impact could be substantial, with soybean production estimated to drop by 20 percent without glyphosate to help control weeds. The cable concluded with a note reassuring U.S. agencies that Argentine support for biotech seeds and for glyphosate was unlikely to be disrupted. Too much money was at stake:
Argentina has long been an ally of the United States with respect to biotechnology promotion in various international negotiations, and Roundup Ready biotech soybeans are Argentina’s most import- ant export crop. Post contacts within the Secretariat of Agriculture assure us that Argentina will continue to support biotechnology . . . and none of our contacts believe that the GOA will go so far as to ban the use of glyphosate, or Roundup Ready soybeans.
The United States had good reason to support the notion that glyphosate use in South America was safe. Not only were sales of glyphosate worth billions of dollars to U.S.-based Monsanto, but also, starting in the year 2000, glyphosate had been a key tool in a program promoted by the U.S. government to fight the South American drug trade. U.S. officials believed glyphosate, sprayed either from the ground or from the air, was an effective way to wipe out crops of opium poppy, used to make heroin, and coca crops used for cocaine. Colombia was a key target for the mission. Members of Congress worried that “Plan Colombia” could jeopardize the health of people living in sprayed regions, as well as damage the environment, but other U.S. leaders saw the program as an effective way to remove a lucrative source of income from Colombian drug groups. The U.S. Department of State reassured those who were worried about glyphosate, reporting that the EPA had found that “there is no evidence of significant human health or environmental risks from the spraying” in Colombia. Under the program, the United States provided technical and scientific advice, the glyphosate herbicide, fuel, spray aircraft, and a limited number of escort helicopters. The actual spray aircraft were piloted by either U.S. citizens, Colombians, or third-country national contractors. The U.S. government hoped for the same arrangement in Peru, but government officials there would not agree.
The aerial spraying in Colombia also did not sit well with officials in neighboring Ecuador, who claimed glyphosate drifted across the border the countries share, harming hundreds of people who were exposed to the pesticide. An Ecuadorian commission issued a report in 2007 that said the herbicide mixture used in the Colombia spraying was highly toxic and was causing health and environmental damage. The country asked for limits on spraying close to its border and for financial compensation for the people impacted.
The U.S. Embassy publicly appeared to stay clear of the dispute between the two countries, but privately embassy personnel expressed their “belief that glyphosate is safe” and encouraged the government in Ecuador to consider that other factors might be to blame for the health and environmental problems it was attributing to glyphosate. Ecuador did not back down, however, and in 2013, Colombia agreed to pay $15 million to settle a lawsuit filed by Ecuador for human and economic damage caused by the Colombian spraying of glyphosate.
Colombia suspended the glyphosate fumigations in 2015 because of the mounting evidence of health and environmental dangers, including fears the aerial spraying might be putting people at risk for cancer. The decision came after IARC’s classification that glyphosate was a probable human carcinogen. U.S. officials pressed the Colombian government to continue the program, and by early 2017 the government had resumed the use of glyphosate, using workers to spray the chemical on the ground by hand rather than from the air.
* * *
The diplomatic interest in the glyphosate debates in Argentina, Colombia, and Ecuador are only a few examples of a much broader program under which U.S. taxpayers have been footing the bill for overseas lobbying of the products developed by Monsanto and other seed and agrochemical makers. There are hundreds of diplomatic cables between the U.S. State Department and embassies in more than one hundred countries that show State Department officials as active promoters of the types of GMO soy, corn, and cotton that took over Argentine agriculture. Expanded use of those glyphosate-tolerant crops meant more use of glyphosate and higher sales for companies producing the chemical. The cables show that U.S. officials often worked to quash any public criticism of the technology, the chemicals, and the companies, such as Monsanto, selling the products. The cables also show that U.S. diplomats supported Monsanto’s work abroad even after the company was charged with bribing an Indonesian official and violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in 2005. Monsanto ultimately paid a $1.5 million fine in that case.
One 2009 cable showed that the U.S. Embassy in Spain sought “high-level U.S. government intervention” at the “urgent requests” of Monsanto to combat biotech crop opponents there. The cables also reveal that State Department officials instructed embassies to “troubleshoot problematic legislation” related to biotech crops, and to “encourag[e] the development and commercialization of ag-biotech products.” The State Department also produced pamphlets promoting GMOs in Slovenia, sent pro-GMO industry DVDs to high schools in Hong Kong, and helped bring foreign officials and media from seventeen countries to the United States to promote biotech agriculture.
The details contained in the cables deepened suspicions that the U.S. government does more to promote global acceptance of biotech crops than to protect the public from harm. “I believe that our government is more interested in pushing ag biotech interests than looking objectively at independent science data that shows the potential harmful effects,” said Pamm Larry, a U.S. activist who has called for more scrutiny of GMOs and glyphosate. “Why is it that our tax dollars are being used to force countries and their citizens to use and consume products they don’t want from an industry that’s poisoning the planet?”
Another South American country caught up in controversy over glyphosate is Paraguay, which borders Argentina to the north. As in Argentina, Paraguay’s landscape has been transformed as it became a leading supplier of GMO glyphosate-tolerant soy. Aerial spraying of farm fields with glyphosate and other chemicals has forced many people from their villages and raised health concerns like those seen in Argentina. People living near the farm fields have complained that their rivers have become contaminated with the pesticides used on the soybeans, and they have reported rising rates of birth defects in their children. Farmers have found it hard to grow anything but the glyphosate-tolerant soy because other crops die if they come into contact with the herbicide, which drifts from field to field.
For Judy Hatcher, who served as coleader of the international Pesticide Action Network and as executive director of the North American arm of the organization for five years, until June 2017, the U.S. government’s work to promote pesticide products enriches powerful corporations such as Monsanto at the expense of poor and vulnerable populations. “Time and time again, global pesticide corporations have exerted far too much influence over government policy,” said Hatcher. “Family farmers around the world are demanding the right to good health, not more exposure to hazardous pesticides, and are looking for greater control over their lives, seeds, farms, and livelihoods, not locked into Monsanto’s model.”
Carey Gillam is a journalist, researcher, and writer with more than twenty-five years of experience covering corporate America. A former senior correspondent for Reuters international news service, she is currently research director for the nonprofit U.S. Right to Know.
Excerpted from Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer, and the Corruption of Science, by Carey Gillam. Copyright © 2017 Carey Gillam. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, DC.
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