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Campaign against pesticides grows

Glyphosate containers are piled up in a storage room in San Salvador, Entre Ríos, a small town in which half the deaths in recent years have been due to cancer.
By Fermín Koop
Herald Staff

Efforts to ban glyphosate from country’s crops appear to be gaining momentum

A contentious debate is growing in farming communities across the country as a rising number of environmental and social groups call for an outright ban on the herbicide glyphosate, which has been used on the country’s crops for years, after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared it a probable carcinogen.

The declaration by the WHO has given new impetus to groups that had often relied on piecemeal evidence of higher cancer rates and birth defects where the herbicide is sprayed.

Monsanto, which sells glyphosate under the trade name Roundup, the world’s most widely used herbicide, is pushing back. The company has gone on a campaign to insist there is no link between its product and cancer risks are “minimum” when applied correctly.

“We are asking the government to immediately ban the most dangerous uses of glyphosate, including the use of crop-dusting airplanes,” Franco Segesso, head of agroecology at Greenpeace Argentina, told the Herald. “From a political point of view, it’s hard to institute the ban. But it’s necessary.”

Greenpeace sent a letter to Agriculture Minister Carlos Casamiquela calling for a nationwide ban on glyphosate. The Herald repeatedly tried to contact the ministry, which declined to make anyone available for comment, claiming the official in charge of the issue was on a trip to China.

Glyphosate is used on more than 28 million hectares in Argentina, which are sprayed with about 200 million litres of glyphosate per year, according to the Doctors Network of Fumigated Towns.

Even though Monsanto holds more than 30 percent of the market, it is hardly alone. Syngenta, BASF, Bayer, Dupont, Dow, Agrosciences, Atanor, YPF and Nidera also produce the herbicide.

“We have many reasons to ban glyphosate once and for all. Its adverse health effects have been proven by many scientific researchers,” María Victoria Dunda, lawyer and member of the Lawyers Network of Fumigated Towns, told the Herald. “It’s an over-the-counter product that’s risky by itself, no matter how it’s used. Using it properly won’t change the fact that it’s a poison that kills everything it touches.”

Dunda is from Santa Fe, where she claims rural schools are frequently hit by glyphosate that is sprayed in nearby farms. Case in point, the number of teachers with a medical leave due to cancer has been steeply growing over the last 10 years, Dunda claimed.

Who report

Calls against using glyphosate have piled up after the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) — the World Health Organization’s cancer agency — classified it as probably carcinogenic to humans. It reached that conclusion using studies from the US, Canada, and Sweden, claiming the herbicide had been detected in food, water and in the air after it has been sprayed.

Monsanto, however, says the WHO agency went too far, making claims that are not backed up by scientific evidence.

“The IARC reached its conclusion by claiming it reviewed 800 studies in a mere week. That sounds impossible. During that time it may have been able to properly analyze five or six, so we’re convinced it was a biased conclusion,” Miguel Álvarez Arancedo, the local head of Monsanto’s Regulatory Affairs told the Herald. “Glyphosate is the most used product in agriculture and that’s because it has many benefits.”

Álvarez Arancedo insists that all the serious scientific studies show there is no connection between glyphosate and cancer. “Risk is minimal when the product is used correctly,” he said.

Therein lies the problem. According to Monsanto, any adverse effects of its products are the fault of farmers who do not use them correctly.

Monsanto has time on its side. For years, glyphosate has been considered among the safest pesticides by international agencies such as the United States Environmental Protection Agency. It’s used in more than 140 countries but many have started to put the brakes on the herbicide. Colombia, for example, recently decided to stop spraying it on coca fields, the Netherlands prohibited the product over health fears, France temporarily banned the sale and Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa gave the order to ban its use.

Long-term reports

For several Argentine researchers though, the WHO conclusions came as no surprise, backing studies they had been publishing for years.

“Since 2002, the causes of death of people living in areas where the herbicide is used began to change,” Medardo Ávila Vázquez, doctor and coordinator of the Doctors Network of Fumigated Towns, told the Herald.

The late Andrés Carrasco, a doctor and Conicet head, confirmed in 2009 that glyphosate is highly toxic and has serious effects on embryos. Intestinal and cardiac disorders, malformations and neurological damages are some of the problems caused by the herbicide, his research showed.

The research was questioned by Monsanto and even led to the US Embassy in Buenos Aires to lobby in favour of the company by filing alternative investigations at the Senasa agricultural health service, according to a US Embassy cable released by Wikileaks in 2009.

Carrasco’s research led the Health Ministry to carry out its own studies, and concluded that the herbicide has a low risk on human health and on the environment — when used correctly.

“The results of scientific reports show that there’s a very low risk on human health due to glyphosate,” the Health Ministry concluded. “Even though there’s been an increase on malformations in kids whose fathers work by applying glyphosate, it’s difficult to establish a causality.”

Recent reports, however, have backed Carrasco’s investigation. Río Cuarto University, for example, showed evidence of children suffering genetic damage from living near crops sprayed with glyphosate. That damage made those children more susceptible to a variety of diseases, including leukemia. Similar genetic damage was reported on agricultural workers exposed to the herbicide, according to an investigation by the Juan Agustín Maza University of Mendoza.

According to data collected by the network, one out of three people living in towns near crops sprayed with glyphosate die because of cancer, Vázquez said. For example, in San Salvador, a small town of Entre Ríos, the population collected information showing that almost half of all the deaths there in recent years have been due to cancer, far higher than the national average of 18 percent.

“The government is encouraging the use of glyphosate instead of restricting it. It’s a dangerous substance that should be banned,” Ávila Vázquez said. “We have an agricultural system that relies a lot on the herbicide so we can’t suddenly stop using it. But there must be a long-term plan to discourage the use of pesticides in the country.”

@ferminkoop

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