"Glyphosate is like salted water." Lino Barañao, Minister of Science of Argentina.
"Ignorance does not kill, it only makes people suffer", Jorge Gattini, Minister of Agriculture of Paraguay (referring to the peasants who denounce the fumigations with pesticides).
“It is a less toxic class herbicide. Humans could even drink and not die because we don't have the plant metabolic pathway. Furthermore, it is biodegradable in the soil ”. Edilson Paiva, president of the National Technical Commission of Biosafety (Ctnbio) of Brazil.
The herbicide glyphosate, the most widely used in agribusiness, has had the most unusual defenses of pro-GMO governments, from officials to journalists.
Hundreds of scientific studies, court decisions and, above all, thousands of people affected by spraying are proof of the herbicide's effects.
Large transgenic homeland
Only ten countries in the world concentrate 98 percent of transgenic crops (with the use of pesticides): the United States, Brazil, Argentina, Canada, India, China, Pakistan, Paraguay, South Africa and Bolivia (1). Four of them from Latin America and, together with Uruguay, form what the multinational Syngenta called in a corporate advertisement (2003) "the united republic of soybeans."
The large soybean homeland has 47 million hectares with transgenic soybeans (2). It covers:
- 66 percent of the cultivated land of Paraguay.
- 52 percent of Argentina.
- 35 percent of the cultivated land in Brazil.
- 30 percent of Uruguay.
- 24 percent of Bolivia.
One of the central arguments of the transgenic companies was that, with the genetically modified seeds, fewer chemicals would be used.
In Argentina, according to official data from INTA (National Institute of Agricultural Technology), in 1995 42 million liters of herbicides were used. In 1996, the first transgenic soybean (from Monsanto) was approved and the growth in herbicide use was geometric: 252 million liters in 2011 (last year published by INTA). Glyphosate is the main herbicide used. In 2016, data from Casafe (Chamber of Agricultural Health and Fertilizers) reached 290 million liters per year.
The increase in use does not correspond to the increase in the area, but to the need to increase the quantity per hectare. INTA itself recognizes that 1.95 liters per hectare were used in the 90s. In the 2011/2012 agricultural season, nine liters per hectare were used. It is due to the appearance of "weeds", unwanted plants that created resistance to glyphosate. Therefore, producers use more and more quantity and also a mixture of poisons (2-4D and paraquat, among others).
“They cannot hide the reality. They want to cover the sun with their hand, ”explained scientist Andrés Carrasco in 2009. Head of the Molecular Embryology laboratory, former president of Conicet (National Council for Scientific and Technical Research), confirmed in the laboratory that glyphosate produced malformations in amphibian embryos and alerted that it was transpolatable to humans
He suffered a campaign of media and political discredit. The journalist Matías Longoni, from Clarín, called Carrasco's work a "supposed study". He questioned its existence and the reputation of one of the greatest embryologists in Argentina. “The agricultural industry was on alert. Chambers Casafe and Ciafa clarified that glyphosate "is classified in the category of lower toxicological risk." In a low voice, the sector assures that it is a new official offensive to 'demonize' soybean producers, "wrote the journalist who covered the agricultural issue for 18 years in Clarín, who rarely questions the consequences of agribusiness and works as a press agency for agricultural companies.
The newspaper La Nación also targeted Carrasco and, like the "agricultural journalists", came out in defense of glyphosate, transgenics (and the companies that sell them and, coincidentally, they advertise in those media).
On November 27, 2017, from his journalistic SME “Bichos de campo”, full of advertisements from pesticide companies, Longoni celebrated: “Long live glyphosate! Or better yet, a little more life to glyphosate. The Germans, when they want, beat. They did it with Brazil in the soccer World Cup and now they do it with France, in the dispute within the European Union (EU) to ban or extend the useful life of the controversial herbicide glyphosate. The vote to decide whether to renew the product license was won, once the Germans decided to play, by 18 to 9. ”.
From the political sector, the defense of glyphosate was (and is) led by Lino Barañao, Minister of Science during the government of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and holder of the portfolio with Mauricio Macri. In 2009 he disqualified Carrasco from the TV program of Héctor Huergo, one of the biggest lobbyists in agribusiness (director of the Clarín Rural supplement) and from the Aapresid Congress (Association of Direct Sowing Producers). "Glyphosate is like salted water," he said in an interview on Radio AM 530, of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo. No Kirchner official questioned him.
At the end of 2015, days before Mauricio Macri took office as Minister of Science, he once again defended the use of chemicals, with an unscientific argument: "With antibiotics there is also misuse and deaths, and nobody complains."
Carrasco died in May 2014 and left the best definition for glyphosate and GMOs: "It is a massive experiment in the open."
The transgenic story
Act 1. The agrochemical (in this case glyphosate, in the 60s it was the insecticide DDT) does not affect health or the environment.
Act 2. There is no scientific evidence.
Act 3. The scientific evidence is inconclusive or "there are two libraries" (for and against).
Act 4. They are harmful but if they are used well there are no risks (at that time they propose technical solutions for their use, today called “good agricultural practices”).
Act 5. Replacement of that chemical with another (and back to "act 1").
Agribusiness uses the same strategy as the tobacco companies (for decades they denied that they caused cancer) and the oil companies (for half a century they denied climate change).
The agribusiness theater is mounted on a main myth: GMOs are necessary to feed the growing world population. Argument denied even by the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations), a space that supported the transgenic advance in the world. The hunger of the world is not due to the lack of food, but to its unfair distribution.
In the first years of the 2000s, the “Stop Fumigating Campaign” was born in Argentina, a reference space in the production of material and debates on the health impact of agrochemicals. Assemblies, talks, mobilizations and all imaginable actions to protect the health of the population. In dozens of towns they achieved ordinances that limit fumigations and, in others, they promoted the judicial process.
The NGO Nature of Rights (3) systematized the rulings that stop spraying with pesticides:
2003. Loma Senés (Formosa).
2008. Alberti (Buenos Aires) and Ituzaingó Annex (Córdoba).
2009. San Jorge (Santa Fe) and Alberti (Buenos Aires).
2010. La Leonesa and Las Palmas (Chaco). Alberti (Buenos Aires).
2011. The Antilles (Salta).
2012. Alberti (Buenos Aires) and Ituzaingó Annex (Córdoba).
2013. Alberti and Mar del Plata (Buenos Aires), Merlo (San Luis).
2014. Paraná (Entre Ríos), Coronel Suárez and Mar del Plata (Buenos Aires).
2015. Guernica (Buenos Aires) and Totoras (Santa Fe).
2016. Alberti (Buenos Aires) and Piedmont (Santa Fe).
2017. Santa Ana (Entre Ríos).
2018. Between Ríos and Chascomús (Buenos Aires)
2019. Parchment and Exaltation of the Cross (Buenos Aires) and Entre Ríos.
Judges and prosecutors have tools to stop fumigations, especially the General Environmental Law (25.675), which establishes the "precautionary principle": "When there is danger of serious or irreversible damage, the absence of information or scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for delaying the adoption of cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation ”.
The multinational Bayer bought Monsanto in 2018 for 63,000 million dollars. It thus became the largest transgenic and agro-toxic seeds company in the world.
His first announcement was that the name of Monsanto would disappear (although it will continue to market all its products) and began an advertising campaign to improve its image. It uses the same arguments as Monsanto to increase its sales of agrochemicals: it denies the hundreds of independent studies that confirm the effects on health.
Bayer's Coordination Against Hazards is a European network of organizations and activists who disseminate complaints about the company's actions, both in its pharmaceutical and agribusiness aspects. “Bayer and Monsanto's business model is unscrupulous. Both derive their benefits from pesticides and genetic manipulation techniques, damage the health of farmers and consumers, alter the climate, destroy biodiversity and endanger the foundations of food and livelihoods for future generations. Bayer, by merging with Monsanto, enhances this threatening business model and seeks to increase the profits of its large shareholders at the expense of people and nature, "said the organization.
Bayer has a new slogan: "Science for a better life".
In August 2018, in the United States, the first conviction against Monsanto-Bayer was handed down. Dewayne Johnson was awarded 78 millions of dollars for contracting cancer from using glyphosate in his work as a gardener.
On March 27, 2019, a California jury sentenced the company to pay $ 80 million for “negligence”, for having concealed the risks of its Roundup herbicide (Monsanto's trademark of glyphosate). The lawsuit was filed by Edwin Hardeman, a retiree from the City of Sonoma. It was the second part of the trial. In the first, ten days earlier, it had been concluded that the pesticide was a "determining factor" in the Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma (cancer) that Hardeman was diagnosed with in 2015.
"The jury held Monsanto responsible for its 40 years of corporate criminal conduct," explained the plaintiff's attorneys, Jennifer Moore and Aimee Wagstaff in a statement to the press.
On May 13, courts in California (United States) ruled that the multinational must pay $ 2 billion to a married couple (Alva and Alberta Pilliod) who used Roundup and contracted cancer. The sentence affirms that the company acted with "negligence", when hiding the consequences of the poison. The jury found that the "design" of Roundup (Monsanto's trademark) was the primary cause of the damage, confirmed that the chemical poses "a significant hazard" to people who use it, stated that Monsanto "did not provide adequate warning about the potential risks ”and this represented an important factor in causing the damage to the health of the Pilliod.
The United States jury found that Monsanto designed, manufactured and distributed Roundup in a "negligent manner," asserted that the company knew (or should have known) that Roundup was dangerous or could cause harm, and failed to provide appropriate warning. The other key point, which raised the sentence of 2 billion dollars, the ruling confirms that Monsanto acted with "vice, fraud or bad faith" by putting its herbicide on the market and failing to warn of the risks involved.
Monsanto-Bayer accumulates, in the United States alone, more than 13,000 lawsuits. A sample of the crisis of the German company: it lost almost 40 percent of its market value since it acquired Monsanto.
Schools or GMOs?
In August 2018, the Ecological Forum of Paraná (Entre Ríos) and the Agmer teacher union (Asociación Gremial del Magisterio de Entre Ríos) presented an environmental protection to protect children and workers in rural schools from pesticides. Judge Oscar Daniel Benedetto, of Chamber II of Chamber II, was issued on October 1: in an unprecedented court ruling, he prohibited the spraying of pesticides within 1000 meters of the schools of Entre Ríos. And the protection distance is extended to 3000 meters if the applications are aerial. Protection covered all schools in the province.
“It is impossible to ignore that the agricultural production model can generate a growing public health problem, because pesticides contain toxic chemicals that affect crops, but that most likely also have harmful effects on the health of the rural population. ”Is read among the grounds of the ruling, 21 pages.
Judge Benedetto took into account the precautionary principle in force in the General Environmental Law (25675): “In environmental matters, the need to adopt a precautionary approach is imposed (…) The imminent danger materializes in the threat of the application of pesticides . And he stressed that the lack of scientific certainty about its consequences does not seem to me to be an argument that justifies the inability of the action, but quite the opposite, since it is not possible to avoid that it is an extremely delicate and sensitive situation, with the health of thousands of entrerrianos children ”.
The protection that protects the schools was appealed and questioned by Governor Gustavo Bordet, who on January 2, 2019 published a decree contrary to the ruling and reduced the protection of rural schools to only 100 meters.
The Ecological Forum of Paraná, already as part of the“Coordinator for a Life without Toxics in Entre Ríos. Enough is enough ”(brings together socio-environmental assemblies, social organizations and teachers), filed an injunction against the decree. In March 2019, a court ruling annulled Governor Bordet's decree.
President Macri, in explicit support of agribusiness, questioned the Judiciary: “It is an irresponsible ruling. It endangers the work of many entrerrianos ”.
The Coordinator "Enough is Enough" replied in a statement: "Mr. President, our gurus deserve the same atmosphere as your daughter Antonia."
On Wednesday May 15, the Superior Court of Justice of Entre Ríos, the highest provincial court, declared the unconstitutionality of the decree of Governor Gustavo Bordet, which allowed spraying only 100 meters from rural schools. In this way, the environmental protection that keeps land fumigations away from 1000 meters from the schools (3000 if they are aerial) continues in force.
On Thursday, May 23, an unusual demonstration took place in Paraná: soybean producers demanded that the Judicial Power reverse the ruling and proposed to close the schools in order to continue spraying with pesticides.
A recurring argument from agribusiness advocates is that there is "no evidence" of the effects of glyphosate. At the international level, the studies of the French researcher Gilles-Eric Seralini, specialist in molecular biology and professor at the University of Caen (France), are well known. He confirmed that the herbicide Roundup stimulates the death of human embryo cells, which could cause malformations, abortions, hormonal or reproductive problems, as well as different types of cancers. He also demonstrated the conformation of tumors in rodents fed transgenics.
It implicated him personalized replicas of Monsanto, including a smear media campaign.
The main thrust happened in March 2015. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) is a specialized area of the World Health Organizations (WHO). After a year of work by 17 experts from eleven countries, he issued an unpublished document: "There is convincing evidence that glyphosate can cause cancer in laboratory animals and there is limited evidence of carcinogenicity in humans (non-Hodgkin lymphoma)." He explained that the evidence in humans corresponds to the exposure of farmers from the United States, Canada and Sweden, with scientific publications since 2001. And he highlighted that the herbicide "also caused DNA and chromosome damage in human cells" (a situation that is related to direct with cancer).
With the new evaluation, glyphosate was categorized in “Group 2A”, which means in parameters of the World Health Organization: “Probably carcinogenic to humans”. This category is used when there is "limited evidence" of carcinogenicity in humans and "sufficient evidence" in experimental animals. "Limited" evidence means that there is a "positive association between exposure to the chemical and cancer" but that "other explanations" cannot be ruled out. The IARC-WHO works on five categories of substances that are related to cancer. “Group 2A” is the second level of danger, only surpassed by “Group 1”, where, for example, asbestos and ionizing radiation are located.
Monsanto, which until then used IARC reports among its arguments, went on to accuse it of doing “junk science”.
At the local level, in 2018 “Toxic Anthology of Glyphosate” was published, a meticulous compilation of 830 academic works (from Argentina and abroad) that account for the effects of glyphosate and its link with cancer, malformations, poisonings and spontaneous abortions , among other consequences.
“This compilation adds up to 830 scientific articles or papers, that is to say: clinical, experimental, laboratory research reports, reviews, answers, compilation, conference summaries, which have been published in scientific journals or magazines. All the works have been reviewed by a committee of scientists and approved for publication as they are considered significant ”, explains the work, carried out by Eduardo Martín Rossi, a member of the Paren de Fumigar de Santa Fe collective, which decided to analyze and study all publications to disprove the sayings of agribusiness publicists.
Of 182 pages, it can be accessed via the Internet (https://bit.ly/2mewyYH), it has the details and link of the investigations. More than one hundred are from public universities in Argentina (UBA, La Plata, Río Cuarto, Litoral). The first chapter requires 141 papers on the impact of glyphosate on human health. Chapter two details 102 investigations on "mechanism of cellular pathophysiology of cancer." Chapter three is devoted to "toxicity in organ systems", with 89 academic publications. Chapter four is dedicated to specific studies of impact “on biodiversity”, with 336 investigations.
"It is no coincidence that hypothyroidism, bronchial asthma, reproductive disorders and oncological diseases multiply in agricultural towns, producing an evident change in the pattern of morbidity and mortality", warns the work.
The compilation recalls that Monsanto advertised "with false information that glyphosate was biodegradable." In 2007 Monsanto was convicted in France of misleading advertising. Dozens of investigations show, for decades, that the herbicide "is highly persistent in the environment, in the soil and water courses."
Among the companies that market glyphosate in Argentina are Monsanto, Bayer, Syngenta, Red Surcos, Atanor, Asociación de Cooperativas Argentinas, Nufram, Agrofina, Nidera, DuPont, YPF and Dow.
The anthology recalls that the authorization of pesticides (called "phytosanitary" by companies and officials) is based on studies carried out by the companies themselves and that it only analyzes the acute effects (they do not investigate what a chemical produces in the long term of exposure ). In the case of glyphosate, "Monsanto only experimented with rodents for three months." Based on this study, the company assured that the herbicide did not produce adverse effects.
“Independent scientists measured chronic effects (over two years). From the fourth month the male rodents presented tumors. From the seventh month the same process began in females. And in month 24, 80 percent of the rodents had tumors ", explains the compilation.
More than a hundred scientific works are from public universities in Argentina, among them the research group of Rafael Lajmanovich (doctor in natural sciences from the Universidad Nacional del Litoral), who confirmed the lethal effect of glyphosate on amphibians, and the Multidisciplinary Team of Socio-Environmental Interaction (Emisa), from the National University of La Plata, which demonstrated the presence of glyphosate in food, rivers, schoolyards and even in the rain.
The underlying problem is not glyphosate. It becomes the axis in it because it is the most used, the one that produces the most turnover for companies and, at the same time, that causes the most complaints.
Critical voices against transgenic agriculture (peasants, indigenous people, socio-environmental assemblies, academics) question the agribusiness model, based on transgenics and dozens of agrochemicals, and in the hands of a handful of multinationals.
Four companies that dominate the seed and pesticide market: Bayer-Monsanto, ChemChina-Syngenta, Brevant (Dow and Dupont) and Basf. In 2015 they had a turnover of 85,000 million dollars and, according to Bayer projections, they will reach 120,000 million in 2025.
“They control price, innovation and impact on agricultural policies. Countries with a high degree of industrial agriculture, such as Argentina, become vulnerable. Even in terms of sovereignty. These companies have a bargaining power that is much more than bargaining, it is imposing on a country, even with tailor-made laws ”, explained Silvia Ribeiro, Researcher at the ETC Group (Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration).
The Office of the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food is the maximum space of the United Nations dedicated to the subject. Leading the way is specialist Hilal Elver, of Turkish origin. He visited Argentina in September 2018 and prepared a report for the United Nations Human Rights Council.
“In the context of large-scale industrial agriculture, it is essential that the true cost of production methods in relation to soil and water resources, and the impact of environmental degradation on future generations be taken into account, rather than to focus solely on profitability and short-term economic growth, "warned the United Nations special rapporteur.
He dedicated a special section to glyphosate: “It is applied indiscriminately in Argentina, without taking into account the existence of schools or towns in the vicinity. As a result, I have been informed of an increase in the number of people who have lost their lives or suffer from life-threatening diseases (…) Exposure to pesticides can have very dangerous effects on human health. humans, especially for children and pregnant women who are more vulnerable ”.
Hilal Elver questioned that industrial agriculture is controlled by a few large companies, and warned that the Government has already decided its role: support, staff and budget of the Family Farming sector, including the dismissal of almost 500 workers and experts ”.
He claimed the role of peasant agriculture. In the conclusion he highlighted: “I reiterate the importance of family farming to achieve the objective of an adequate and healthy diet for all Argentines. Effort should be made to promote family farming as a priority. It is the only way to achieve a balance, the only way to achieve a sustainable and fair solution for the Argentine people.
Last May, in the city of Buenos Aires, an unprecedented "agrarian forum" was held, which brought together more than 3,000 peasants, indigenous people, family producers for two days. Promoted by the Union of Land Workers (UTT), among other organizations, it drew up specific proposals for public policies for the rural sector, with an urgent democratization of agricultural policy.
Among the policies to be implemented: access to land, enough pesticide spraying, promotion of agroecology as a State policy, food sovereignty, and an issue that irritates Argentine GM conservatives: comprehensive agrarian reform.
This article is part of the Atlas project of Transgenic Agribusiness in the Southern Cone carried out with the support of Misereor
1 Pengue, W. 2005. Transgenic crops: where are we going? Industrial Agriculture and Transnationalization in Latin America. UNEP. Basic Texts Series for Environmental Training.
By Darío Aranda