Devastating Impacts of Glyphosate Use with GMO Seeds in Argentina
GM soybean cultivation and accompanying pesticide spraying is wreaking havoc on
the health of millionsDr
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
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 .
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 .
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  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 .
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)
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 , 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 .
In usage studies conducted by
agronomists from the Sociedad Rural Argentina (Rural Society, the main
soy-business institution in the country) , 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
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 .
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
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 , 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 and
Paraná rivers in its entirety ; in the levels of glyphosate
collected in rainwater from soy-growing areas  exceeds by 10 times those
detected in USA; 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,
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 .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 . 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 .
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 , 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 . 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 . 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
*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.
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