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By Darío Aranda
Lajmanovich is one of the researchers who most studied the effect of agrochemicals in Argentina, and his voice had not yet been heard outside the academic sphere. “The examples that show that agrochemicals are used in an improper way are overwhelming - he points out -, with fauna mortality, cases of human poisoning and others.” The inhabitants of the countryside or peri-urban areas are hostages of an unsustainable productive model.
The name of Rafael Lajmanovich becomes a recurrent one for anyone who enters the world of agrochemicals in Argentina. Researcher at Conicet, doctor in natural sciences and tenured professor of ecotoxicology at the Universidad Nacional del Litoral (UNL), with a very low profile and averse to the press, the consultation with the specialist was recommended by scientists from various universities, socio-environmental organizations and even by entities that group soybean producers. He began researching the effects of agricultural chemicals thirteen years ago, when monoculture was beginning to believe geometrically and few were talking about glyphosate, endosulfan, and other agribusiness staples. The editor's first contact with Lajmanovich was in April 2009, when the Conicet researcher and director of the UBA Embryology Laboratory, Andrés Carrasco, warned about the effects of glyphosate. At that time Lajmanovich declined the proposal for an interview. He understood that it was a mistake to reduce the complaint to a single product (glyphosate) and affirmed that the debate should include all the sectors involved, "especially the local inhabitants, in many cases hostages of an unsustainable production model." After a year of negotiations, the investigator accepted a report. He alerted about the consequences of the agricultural model, confirmed the harmful effects on amphibians, drew attention to the lack of studies in humans, raised suspicions about the lack of information in society, denounced the primacy of profitability over the environment and health, and provided a critical look at the actions of the academic and scientific world.
-After thirteen years of work, what do agrochemicals produce?
–Amphibians are extremely vulnerable to all kinds of chemical substances, especially those used in agriculture. Amphibians need small bodies of water for their survival, where agrochemicals can reach lethal levels. In the last decade the natural environments were altered, the relationships in fauna species began to change, some disappeared, others that were not in great quantity began to be dominant species, the relationship in the functioning of the ecosystem was lost.
–He also confirmed cases of malformations.
-So is. In the case of amphibians, it is a phenomenon that is being reported in different parts of the world and its relationship with agro-ecosystems has been proven, mainly with the use of some chemicals. Our work group has been able to observe over the years a notable increase in the frequency and in the cases of malformations, always in relation to the cultivated areas.
–How should the increase in cases of malformation be interpreted just in areas where industrial cultivation is present?
–It is interpreted as an important indicator of the degree of affectation of anthropic (human) activities on amphibian populations. The exposed results mark a clear trend that relates sites with intense use of agrochemicals and altered habitats with the highest proportion in the types and cases of malformations.
–What is the impact of agrochemicals on the environment and especially on animals?
–It is very difficult to determine exactly what the true impact is, it is also not advisable to separate environment on the one hand, animals on the other and man apart. The impacts are usually comprehensive and in many cases their derivations are usually seen after several generations, remember what happened with DDT (an insecticide used since the 1930s).
- What happened to the DDT?
- DDT was at one time a solution to problems with mosquitoes and malaria. It began to be used in a massive way and then it began to be seen that it caused reproductive problems, there were residues even in the polar caps, it came to be in the milk of human beings. It caused multiple inconveniences. What was initially a solution for humanity later became a problem that led to its being banned. However, its residues are still present in ecosystems around the world.
- Can the same happen with current agrochemicals?
–Many times the chemicals we are using seem environmentally friendly, according to the tests or certifications that we have at the moment, but there are many examples to think that there are many things that are happening at the moment at a molecular, population level, and we can see its consequences four or five generations from now.
–How is the effect of agrochemicals in the water?
–In the water the effects are enhanced. Much of the agrochemicals were designed for the terrestrial environment and when they come into contact with water they enhance their toxicity thousands or hundreds of thousands of times.
- Does your experience affirm that it is possible to control that agrochemicals do not reach the water?
–It is very difficult that they do not reach the water, perhaps impossible. The massiveness of its use makes the possibility of it reaching aquatic environments quite high.
- Where would the solution pass?
–The examples that show that agrochemicals are used in an improper way are overwhelming, with fauna mortality, cases of human poisoning and others. The issue could go through your responsible handling.
–The “responsible management” is the same thing that the companies maintain and it is the same that was said of endosulfan or DDT, until their lethal effect was recognized. Saying it is just misuse can be a corporate way of disengaging responsibilities.
-I agree. Responsible driving is an important part, in the short term. In the medium and long term, other solutions should be sought for the use of so many agrochemicals. There are too many chemicals in the environment and you would have to try to reduce or replace them with other alternatives. Returning to the case of amphibians, most of the products used in a massive way, for example cypermethrin, glyphosate, endosulfan, it is clear that they should not be spread near a body of water. They are all substances that are extremely dangerous and that must be used very responsibly.
–You are central to responsible use and control. If only soy is taken, how are 19 million hectares controlled?
–It is impossible to control.
- Leaving aside a conservation question, why is it important to study and understand what happens with fauna and agrochemicals?
–What happens to amphibians can somehow happen to humans. On the other hand, amphibians are considered excellent biological controllers of arthropods (mainly insects) that in many cases can be harmful. They also serve as food for other species of vertebrates and amphibian skins have been considered as natural sources of numerous bioactive compounds with medicinal properties.
- In order not to fall into the dilemma "agrochemical yes" or "agrochemical no", how should the environmental and sanitary aspect of what the massive use of agrochemicals implies?
- To begin with, it would be necessary to have much more information management, and download that information to society. Thus the ordinary citizen will be aware of the amount of chemicals that are in the fields and in the food. This could cause some social pressure on the massive use of agrochemicals. There should be tougher legislation, and that it is enforced, and that GMO products are listed on their packaging, as in Europe.
- The information that you ask that society should have, is it information that does not exist, and that is why it is not disseminated, or is it information that is retained somewhere?
(He smiles) –I suppose that information should be somewhere. For example, real statistics on the use of agrochemicals, since everything that is used is not declared. There is no accessible database on the subject, and they should exist.
- Why do you think it is not available?
- Information about agrochemicals is not disseminated so as not to scare people. It must be borne in mind that, even when properly managed, they can produce harmful effects and we must not forget that agrochemicals, especially pesticides, are chemical substances designed to kill, unfortunately not very selective, that do not distinguish biological groups. In another order, but linked with the same logic, as is the case with the issue of fossil fuels, although there are alternatives to their use, it is not seen that this will happen in the medium term, the same happens with the most dangerous agrochemicals, since that there are economic interests that exceed all reasoning.
- What interests?
–The companies that produce agrochemicals, that sell the seed, and achieve a vicious circle that obviously most interests them is to keep selling. It is a clear economic interest that is imposed on caring for the environment, fauna, and future generations. The current model is based on this use of agrochemicals for large crops. It is crazy to think that it can be stopped suddenly, no matter how much I think it should be done. But it is possible to alert and try to prevent this production model from swallowing us up, as it is swallowing us.
- You talk about the importance of information. It is public knowledge that many agrochemicals are approved in Argentina based on information provided by companies, without conducting studies from the State or independent areas. For example, in the case of soybeans and glyphosate, the approval file was never made public. What do you think?
(He smiles long) –There is a lot of information that should be public, without a doubt. Just as scientists from universities are forced to publish our research and our work goes through an ethics committee, in the case of companies it should be the same. They control us very closely for the microliters of agrochemicals that we use in research, and it is very good that this is the case, but others use hundreds of millions of liters of agrochemicals and nobody controls them.
–Your work focuses on agrochemicals in amphibians, but at the same time affirms that environment, animals and humans cannot be separated, that the impacts are comprehensive. What could those impacts be on humans?
–It must be clarified that at the human level the effects tend to be different due to the level of exposure, since wildlife coexists within that system with chemicals. That being clarified, many agrochemicals have a similar mode of action at the biochemical level in both amphibians and humans. Then the effect could become the same. In conclusion, amphibians are exposed before humans, they serve as a warning for the effects that could occur with humans. For something, amphibians are recognized worldwide as "the canaries of the mine", they are considered highly sensitive environmental indicators to prevent effects on human populations.
"What should be done to determine how it affects humans?"
- There should be medical supervision, medical professionals studying the subject. And important advances could be made.
- Do you know of works on the impact on humans?
-Very little. In Argentina there is not.
"Why isn't there?"
–It takes a lot of time, work, effort and resources. In Argentina, wildlife is studied more than humans.
–It is strange that a country with half of its arable area planted with soybeans does not have studies on the impact on humans.
-Prefer not to answer.
–The relationship in terms of the amount of agrochemicals used and the number of studies is very disproportionate. Why aren't there more studies on environmental and health impacts?
- I do not know why there are no more studies, but without a doubt there is a large disproportion between the amount of agrochemicals and research on their consequences. They are not priority issues on the scientific agenda, perhaps because they are more concerned with increased production, they think more about producing than conserving natural resources. It is clear that science always legitimizes productive models, with studies or with silence. In the case of the agricultural model, there is a lot of silence.
–The Justice of Santa Fe issued a ruling against the use of glyphosate. Among other issues, it does not ask those affected to show how it affects them, but rather demands that the province of Santa Fe show that it does not affect them. And he gives intervention to the UNL. What should be done to seriously study that?
(He is surprised) –I am not aware of that UNL intervention. They have not warned me.
–You are one of the most qualified people and haven't they consulted you yet?
- From the UNL can studies on the effects of glyphosate in humans?
- Any national university has the human potential to advance with these studies, which elucidate the social and health cost of the current production model. Human potential I assure you it is. Then there are the interests that each institution may have. Universities have a commitment to society and should be in charge of all this type of study.
–In the agrochemical issue, the use of an argument is recurrent: “There is no scientific evidence that they are wrong. It can be used". Do you agree?
-Not at all. It would be necessary to reason in reverse and I think the precautionary principle must be applied. Rather than prove that it produces a harmful effect, it must be proven that it does not produce a harmful effect. Especially with substances that are designed to kill, such as agrochemicals.
- Before it was said that some chemicals were not harmful. Then it was proven that it was. It happened with DDT, chlordane, dieldrin, endrin, endosulfan. Is it unreasonable to think that the same could happen with glyphosate?
"It's not crazy at all." Science can prove it in a few years. The same happens with Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs, transgenic).
- Last year there was a strong controversy with the issue of glyphosate. What was your opinion about putting the debate on the agenda?
- The discussion seemed very good, always critically addressing a taboo subject is good. That society has access to information is good. And I found the action of Andrés Carrasco very courageous (a researcher who raised the alert on the effects of glyphosate and later faced a smear campaign).
–The President created an investigative commission on glyphosate, and that space later prepared a report on the subject. What did you think?
- I had the opportunity to read the report. First of all, it caught my attention that it was never publicly presented or on the Conicet website, where all the works where the institution intervenes are disseminated. The report is a compilation of information and it is true that there were many studies that were funded by Monsanto, so they are not independent works. Like any work that claims to be "scientific," it had to have been submitted to arbitration, like any scientific document, and that basic rule was not followed.
- Why do you think it was not officially presented?
- Perhaps because it is exposed to a lot of criticism.
-The inhabitant of the countryside or peri-urban areas has long warned that there is no longer this or that animal of the mountain. They also often report harmful effects after spraying, and these sayings are almost always underestimated. Do your complaints have a scientific basis?
-Definitely. Many times the observation of local people is key. And it is a serious mistake to underestimate the alerts that the locals give, they are hostages of an unsustainable production model and should be the first wake-up call for producers, politicians and scientists.
Why Rafael Lajmanovich? A voice of scientific weight
Head of the Ecotoxicology Laboratory of the Faculty of Biochemistry and Biological Sciences of the Universidad Nacional del Litoral (UNL). Specialized in amphibian bioecology and ecotoxicology, he has a degree in biodiversity and a doctorate in natural sciences. A researcher at Conicet, he is 45 years old, he has been dealing with agrochemicals for thirteen and has 85 scientific publications. With a very low profile, she expressly asked that her work team be summoned: Paola Peltzer (doctor in natural sciences), Andrés Attademo (doctor in biology), Mariana Cabagna (biochemist), Celina Junges (graduate in environmental sanitation), Laura Sánchez (biologist), Clarisa Bionda (graduate in biology), Agustín Bassó (student of biodiversity). Lajmanovich is one of the researchers who most studied the effect of agrochemicals in Argentina, and his voice had not yet been heard outside the academic sphere.
Dario Aranda - Page 12, Argentina - http://www.pagina12.com.ar/