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Devastating Impacts of Glyphosate Use with GMO Seeds in Argentina

Widespread GM soybean cultivation and accompanying pesticide spraying is wreaking havoc on the health of millions Dr Medardo Ávila-Vázquez

Dr Medardo Ávila-Vázquez, a paediatrician and neonatologist at the Faculty of Medical Sciences, National University of Córdoba, Argentina is the coordinator of the Physicians of Crop-Sprayed Towns, a University Network for Environment and Health that campaigns against agrochemical spraying and provides medical treatment to villages suffering from illnesses as a result of agrochemical exposure. Since noticing the health of his patients deteriorate and patterns of illness change, he has campaigned tirelessly for the protection of local people, particularly children who are some of the worst affected.

Toxic Agriculture and Crop-Sprayed Towns

Over the last 20 years, industrial agriculture in Argentina has expanded by almost 50 %, taking over regions intended for other productions, for family farming, and most of all, forests.

A ton of soy was priced at US$16o in 2001; in July 2012, it reached US$600. At an average yield of 3 to 4 tons (T) per hectare (ha) and production costs 200-250 US$/ha, the profit is enormous.

Of the 300 000 farmers nationwide, 80 000 are engaged in transgenic and chemical agriculture; of those, 20 000 account for 70 % of the production, and are basically corporations and agricultural conglomerates renting fields or trespassing on lands belonging to peasants and native peoples [1].

The prevailing monoculture agribusiness model comes in a technology package that includes direct sowing, transgenic seeds, and the application of pesticides. In order to sustain production, increasing amounts of agrochemicals are applied in an area where transgenic crops coexist with more than 12 million people.

We must recognize that the agrochemicals used are all poisonous: herbicides like glyphosate, 2,4-D ((2,4-Dichlorophenoxy)acetic acid) or Atrazine, are designed to kill plants, and endosulfan, chlorpyrifos, dimethoate, cypermethrin, imidacloprid, etc. are designed to kill insects and are the most widely used; they all have deleterious effects on human health and the environment. The use of these pesticides has been increasing exponentially since 1990: back then, 30 million litres* of poisons were used; during the 2012/2013 crop season more than 318 million litres were applied. On the same hectare where 2 or 3 litres of glyphosate were used per year, today 8 or 12 litres are used with 1.5 litres of 2,4-D in addition. In Santiago del Estero, Salta, and Chaco (north-western Argentina) up to 20 litres/ha/year of Round Up are used [2].

To grow 100 ha of GM soy today requires 14 working days for a single worker: one day for sowing, another for harvesting at the end, and the remaining 12 days in between for applying poisons over the same field.

Birth defects and increasing cancer

After 18 years of systematic sprayings, health teams in fumigated towns detect a change in the pattern of diseases in their populations: respiratory problems are much more common and are linked to the application of agricultural poisons, as is chronic dermatitis. Similarly, during fumigation, epileptic patients convulse much more frequently, and depression, immune and endocrine disorders are more frequent.

High rates of miscarriages are recorded (up to 23 % of women of reproductive age had at least one abortion in the past 5 years) and consultations for infertility in men and women have significantly increased. Herds of goats belonging to farmers and indigenous people in some areas record up to 100 % of abortions or premature deaths due to malformations linked to pesticide exposure. Increased thyroid disorders and diabetes are also detected in local people.

More and more children are born with defects in these areas, especially if the first months of pregnancy coincide with the time of spraying. Down’s syndrome, spina bifida, myelomeningocele (neural tube defect), congenital heart disease, etc. are diagnosed more frequently in those areas; in some towns and during some years, at triple the normal rates, and directly linked to increased pesticide applications around the towns [3, 4] (see Figure 1). Neural tube defects are among the most common developmental birth defects observed, which is consistent with lab studies and farm observations see [5] A Roundup of Roundup® Reveals Converging Pattern of Toxicity from Farm to Clinic to Laboratory Studies, SiS 65].

Crop-sprayed towns also show a change in the causes of death. According to data from the civil records offices to which we had access, over 30 % of deaths are from cancer, while nationwide, the percentage is less than 20 %. Cancer death rates have clearly increased in those areas, and this is a new phenomenon detected by our colleagues since 2000 [3, 4, 6]. Significantly, the date coincides with the expansion in the use of glyphosate and other agrochemicals massively applied in those areas. In May 2014, the Ministry of Health of the Province of Córdoba published data from its cancer registry, confirming that in the most intensive agricultural areas, deaths due to cancer exceed by 100 % those in the city, and by 70 % the provincial average [7].

The toxic agrochemicals affect everyone, but it is the poor people, the labourers, their wives and children, who are the least likely to be protected and to recover their health. Also, in the North of Córdoba and Santa Fe, most of the new ventures into toxic agriculture are owned by corporations and agricultural conglomerates that use air fumigation, delivering much higher doses of poison due to the climatic and biological conditions in the region; and mainly indigenous peoples and peasants suffer the consequences.

Figure 1 The rise in birth defects correlates with the rise in cultivation of GM glyphosate-tolerant soybeans in Chaco, Argentina. Birth defects per 10 000 live births from 1997-2008 have risen drastically (top), as has the hectares of land dedicated to GM soybean cultivation (bottom)

Scientific evidence

The clinical manifestations that physicians working in the crop-sprayed towns find in patients are consistent with the results of scientific research on the effects of various pesticides including glyphosate on experimental animals. Laboratory research by our scientists show how glyphosate acts on embryonic development to produce birth defects [8], and how this poison damages DNA molecules in the cell nucleus, promoting mutant cell lines that will cause cancer if they cannot be eliminated by the individual [9-11].

Also, a number of scientific papers worldwide show how exposure to toxic agrochemicals significantly increases the rate of birth defects, miscarriages, cancer, and hormonal disorders in people subjected to repeated sprayings [12-15].

The Systematic Reviews of Evidence-Based Medicine – representing the highest standard of critical analysis of scientific and medical information - supports the need to reduce exposure on the strength and consistency of the available evidence indicating that exposure to pesticides increases the risks to human health [16-18].

Despite all the complaints presented to the authorities, the use of toxic agrochemicals in our country is still continuously increasing. In 1990, according to data from the business chambers of toxic agrochemicals, 39 million litres of agrochemicals (herbicides, insecticides and fungicides) were used; in 2013, the same chamber reports that its business nearly reached u$s3000 million with the sale of 318 million litres. Glyphosate is the most commonly used toxic agrochemical in Argentina, comprising 64 % of total sales, and 200 million litres of glyphosate were applied during the last crop season [2].

In usage studies conducted by agronomists from the Sociedad Rural Argentina (Rural Society, the main soy-business institution in the country) [19], in 2010 in the core area (main agricultural area), almost 10 litres of pesticides were applied per hectare per year, which in the study area is equivalent to 31 litres of agricultural poisons for each of the residents of the Department concerned (Gral. Lopez in Santa Fé). In Argentina, we estimate that 7 litres of pesticides are applied for each of the 40 million inhabitants per year, but in the productive areas of agribusiness, the toxic dose rises to between 30 to 45 litres per person per year, generating a cumulative load of chemical toxicity inevitably reflected in the hardest health indicators such as death rates.

Rethinking scientific postulations for bio-technology and safety

The model of agricultural production foisted on Argentina by international biotechnology companies has led to 858 % increase in the amount of pesticides used per year, resulting in a massive environmental and health impact in the region.

This 858 % increase in the use of toxic agrochemicals far exceeds the increase in cultivated areas. Between 1990 and 2010, the area growing cereals and oilseeds increased by 50 % from 20 million hectares to 30 million hectares, while the use on fruit and vegetable crops and regional crops such as vine, tobacco and sugar account for less than 15 % of total applied [2].

The premise that transgenic seeds use fewer toxic agrochemicals cannot be verified in Argentina. In 1996/7, the time when transgenic soybean began to be sown, 3 litres per ha per year of glyphosate were applied; currently the applied amount of glyphosate adds up to 12 litres per ha per year. This shows the failure of the toxic agricultural model to overcome the adaptation responses of nature, such as the emergence of resistance in plants and insects. The only recourse is to increase the poison applied, thereby selling more pesticides to farmers, and adding even more dangerous and toxic agrochemicals to the fumigating mixtures, or adding transgenic “events” so that plants secrete several Bt insecticidal toxins.

Another myth perpetrated by the biotech industry is that it increases crop yields. However, the number of independent scientific studies proving this a lie is accumulating. An increase in grain production (cereal and oilseed) is admitted, but these researches show that the increase in yields per hectare (ha) is related to the application of traditional agricultural techniques incorporated during the last 20 years, such as the increase in density of plants (less separation between plants in the furrow and between furrows), etc. [20, 21]. In Argentina the average yield in 1994 was 2.2 T per ha, and 3 T in 2010, an average increase of 30 % in crop yields [2], yet during this period we used 858 % more agricultural poisons.

Thus, the 858 % increase in the toxic agrochemicals is far in excess of the 50 % increase in cultivated areas, and the 30 % increase in crop yields per hectare.

The inefficiency of the biotechnology model is evident also in the environmental damage created by the massive clearing of the country; the increasing pollution that is observed along all surface watercourses in the region, such as the Suquia [22] and Paraná rivers in its entirety  ; in the levels of glyphosate collected in rainwater from soy-growing areas [23] exceeds by 10 times those detected in USA [24]; in the increasing rate of cancer, birth defects, miscarriages, mental disabilities, endocrine and immune disorders suffered by rural populations systematically exposed to increasing doses of toxic agrochemicals every year (see earlier); and in the growing load of pesticide residues in grains exported from Argentina, as has already been verified in Denmark and the Netherlands, where, as of 2015 the purchase of organic soybeans and corn to feed their livestock will be prioritized [25, 26].

Increasing pesticide residues in foods made with grains are a growing concern in Europe, and its danger has become evident especially after investigations by the French researcher Gilles-Eric Séralini [27]. Recently, glyphosate was detected in urine of students from the University of Berlin and other Europeans from 18 different countries, and was less high in those on organic diets; in cattle and rabbits similar results were obtained: higher levels of glyphosate in urine and tissues from those fed GM fodder [28]. The export market to Europe is poised to shrink as consumers reject GMOs and glyphosate tainted food.

To overcome the problems caused by the resistance of weeds and insects, the biotech industry (Monsanto, Bayer, Dow, Dupont, etc.) is providing more of the same. New transgenic seeds are promoted, which are tolerant to glyphosate, glufosinate and 2,4-D [29]. Do we want yet higher levels of more and more dangerous herbicides in our food, when the existing burden on health is already intolerable?

Seeds are also promoted, which, in addition to tolerating several herbicides also produce several Bt toxins, such as Cry1A.105, Cry2Ab, Cry3Bb [30], offering, for now, protection against Lepidoptera and Coleoptera but damage many insects that are beneficial and useful for preserving ecological balance. The safety of these toxins to humans is open to question.

For 100 000 years our species was in contact with minimum amounts of these toxins, but now, thanks to biotechnology, we are exposed to massive amounts of these proteins. They have been found in human breast milk, in human blood and in the blood of the human umbilical cord, and we also know that they produce immune and allergic risks to people [31]. They may well turn out to be much more toxic when we start seeing the consequences of this new exposure within a few years.

Today we know that 40 % of the genes of the human genome are shared with plants and regulate our cellular activities as in the plants, we also know that 60 % of the genes of insects such as the fruit fly are in our genetic code [32]. In other words, we share with insects and plants many mechanisms of cellular metabolism. When we attack these mechanisms with a heavy arson of chemicals, to block or distort them, to kill plants or insects, we cannot ignore the fact that these toxic products can reach people, either through occupational exposure, residential exposure or by ingesting food or water contaminated with residues, and may well have adverse effects on them; we cannot presuppose that they are harmless.

*Note added by the editor: The amount of glyphosate used is commonly measured as kg/L in Argentina, as quoted by The Chamber of Agricultural Health and Fertilizers (CASAFE). We understand that this might mean either kilograms or litres, and refer to all formulations of herbicides and insecticides. The specific gravity of Roundup® Original Max is 1.36, so in the case of Roundup, 1 litre = 1.36 kg.

Article first published 18/02/15


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There are 9 comments on this article so far. Add your comment above.

dhinds Comment left 19th February 2015 08:08:04
Thank you Dr Medardo Ávila-Vázquez and the Institute for Science in society for presenting this scandalous destruction of the environment and human health to the attention of the public. Only a highly irresponsible and dysfunctional government would allow these abuses to occur and from here on I will refuse to support a candidate that does not strongly oppose the transgenic fraud and to commit to social and environmental responsibility in agriculture and rural development. I also highly recommend purchasing food only from farmers and distributors that reject transgenic technology and commit to 100% sustainable practices and products. Please keep us posted regarding further developments.

dhinds Comment left 20th February 2015 01:01:00
Is a copy of this article available in Spanish? (I assume so, due to your location). And if that is the case, please provide me with it in order to make this known in other Spanish speaking countries. De antemano, gracias.

Aruna Rodrigues Comment left 19th February 2015 19:07:11
Thank you for this. It confirms the Prof Carrasco research and Prof Walter Pengue analyses of the Chacco region in Argentina. The importance and parallels of these findings for India cannot be over-estimated. We have essentially small-scale farming in India and about 65% of the population is rural-based. Are we going to be a country of shanty towns because we succumb to GM agriculture?

Melinda Comment left 19th February 2015 19:07:55
What many people are not aware of is that the pesticides themselves have changed dramatically- same ingredients but now they are at nano scale. The USA Environmental Protection Agency decided that (similar to the FDA with GMO foods) a molecule is a molecule and anything that has been previously approved can now have nano scale particles of the same previously approved molecules. This is truly absurd as the very first paragraph in Nanotoxicology texts usually states that 1) Molecules at the nano scale have different properties and 2) because of the small size and greatly increased surface area they have different toxicological profiles than the same molecule in bulk form. They are being very secretive about this change to nano scale ingredients however a toxicologist in Oregon, USA has started pulling pesticides off the shelves to see what is going on and has found nano materials in 90% of the pesticides she has tested so far.

Jennifer Symonds Comment left 20th February 2015 01:01:04
I've stopped buying the standard fruit & veg & only get organic foods, mostly to be sure I'm not ingesting quantities of dodgy chemicals + GMOs; I'm well aware' however, that what's being sprayed ( even by the neighbour) is in the environment & air we breathe. The only way to to bring the likes of Monsanto down is by simply not purchasing their products or the food associated with them. (The bigger they are the harder the fall, sooner rather than later --- I hope)

Eva Sirinathsinghji Comment left 20th February 2015 01:01:04 Here is a link from an international conference held in China last year, that was the basis of this article we have posted. There are also summaries of many of the other talks there, from doctors, vets, scientists, civil society organisations and activists on the harms of GMOs and agrochemicals.

Acacia Alcivar-Warren Comment left 15th March 2015 19:07:21
I would like to share information from Dr. Diego Alejandro of Ecuador who has also documented 252 cases of congenital malformations in children from the Santa Elena peninsula of Ecuador, 1987-2010. These cases were only from his practice as an Emergency Room Physician at the Hospital Ancon of Santa Elena, Ecuador. He tested 30 metals (15 toxic and 15 nutrient elements) in hair of 14 mothers of children with congenital malformations, and found high levels (above the reference range) of 4 nutrient elements: calcium, magnesium, strontium and vanadium, and 4 toxic elements: barium, gadolinium, mercury and uranium in all 14 mothers. 9 of the mothers had high levels of known EDC metals cadmium and lead. The possibility of a link between these metals and the malformations presented is suggested. An in-depth review of the scientific literature provide evidence for genetic etiology and environmental influences related to the NTD conditions identified. The pathologies observed appear similar to those associated with exposure to Glyphosate. But Dr. Alejandro did not test for Glyphosate. He had to pay for the hair tests himself, they were done at a US lab, the government of Ecuador never helped him to perform any research. In Ecuador, we swim in Glyphosate. We spray it on the banana plantations by airplane, some of which are located near the coastal shrimp farms by the estuarine mangroves wetlands. Glyphosate appears associated with diabetes type 2. Diabetes is the #1 killer disease of Ecuadorians. Because Santa Elena province is also home of an oil refinery, fish meal factories, and most of the shrimp hatcheries / laboratories that provide larva to shrimp farmers (most farmed shrimp is for exportation to EU and USA), I decided to test 15 metals and other contaminants in wild shrimp Litopenaeus vannamei from 3 provinces of Ecuador. The shrimp from Santa Elena province contained the highest levels of cadmium, compared to shrimp from other provinces. In Daphnia, Glyphosate appear to interact with cadmium to influence reproductive outcome. DDE, HCH and Dieldrin were also detected at low levels in shrimp. DDE is another EDC of concern. The health costs associated with exposure to DDE alone in the EU is aprox. 835 million euros (Legler et al. 2015). Eva: I suggest we meet with Dr. Medardo Avila-Vasquez to discuss publication of the findings from Argentina and Ecuador in a peer-reviewed journal. Please send the email of Dr. Medardo Ávila-Vázquez to discuss this possibility. We could publish them as case studies, and request support for additional funding from NIH and other agencies in the US and EU to prepare new cohorts to be tested for Glyphosate, AMPA and other EDCs, and followed for at least 3 generations (to address epigenetics mechanisms). The proposal should include Ecuador, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Central American countries, among other countries with heavy use of GM-based crops. Acacia Alcivar-Warren, DVM, MS, PhD Director, ONE HEALTH Epigenomics Educational Initiative 6 Sunrise Drive, Southborough, MA USA cell: 508-344-8106, office: 508-624-6564

andi Comment left 27th May 2015 02:02:47
footnotes, very good

Dianne Comment left 4th October 2015 16:04:58
Informative article making reference to Séralini's rat study.... It was how Monsanto debunked the study that helped me realize how power hungry, irresponsible and reckless corporations like Monsanto really are. I am praying that citizens united supreme court 2010 ruling gets overruled and people votes actually count.