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‘Glyphosate will lead to largest health scandal’

Marie-Monique Robin speaks at a summit in Rosario last week.
Marie-Monique Robin speaks at a summit in Rosario last week.
By Fermín Koop
Herald Staff
French journalist and documentary filmmaker Marie-Monique Robin talks with the Herald

A contentious debate is growing in farming communities across the world 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 carcinogenic.

French journalist and documentary filmmaker Marie-Monique Robin was one of the first to make public the risks of glyphosate with her book and documentary The World According to Monsanto (2008), which was then followed by Our Daily Poison (2011) and Crops of the Future (2012) to complete a trilogy on food, chemicals and the agricultural sector. She is also the author of The Death Squads: The French School, where she investigated ties between the French secret services and their Argentine and Chilean counterparts

Speaking to the Herald in a break of her intensive week in Argentina with lectures and conferences, Robin said she was shocked after seeing how much soy has expanded and the use of glyphosate has grown in the country since her last visit in 2005, warning about the high costs of following that path. Argentina should change its agriculture model to agroecology, a viable option even though Monsanto says it isn’t, Robin said.

The World Health Organization recently categorized glyphosate as a probable carcinogenic after reviewing many investigations over its health effects. How did you react to the news after having warned over the health risks in many of your books?

I interviewed some of the WHO researchers while I was working with Our Daily Poison and they described the many pressures the organization had faced from multinational companies and chemical producers, which has now thankfully changed. Nevertheless, I’m sure Monsanto put a lot of effort into trying to prevent the publication of the paper. Monsanto claims there are studies that weren’t taken in account when doing the paper but they never say which ones. Two company officials used that argument in a lecture I gave in the United States during a book tour but they weren’t able to tell me which papers when I asked them.

In Our Daily Poison, you warn about the shocking account of dangerous chemical compounds that have infiltrated the food chain. How did you reach such conclusion?

Chemical products aren’t correctly evaluated and companies manipulate all the major world food agencies. There are more than 100,000 molecules that have been inserted into the market after World War Two. There’s a direct link between them and grave diseases such as cancer, diabetes, parkinson and reproductive system disorders. The number of people who die because of those diseases grows every year.

But companies claim that following that path is the only solution to a growing population that needs more and more food. Can the world take an alternative path?

I completely disagree with the companies’ point of view. If we want to feed the world, another path can be taken, an argument I proved on Crops of the Future. Monsanto says that if we ban glyphosate we can’t feed the world but they forget to mention that we aren’t feeding it today. There are about 900 billion people that suffer hunger and most of them are farmers. The system has completely failed. Argentina has more than 20 million hectares harvested with soy and that doesn’t help to feed anybody except for pigs and chicken in Europe. The path Argentina has chosen leads to a extreme ecological disaster with a completely destroyed soil, water and air polluted and sick people. We need to change the system, also because of global warming.

How much is the agricultural sector responsible for global warming?

Up to 50 percent of the greenhouse gases are directly linked to the agro-industrial model. A food product bought in a supermarket in the United States travels an average of 4,000 kilometres before arriving there, a figure that reaches 3,000 when looking at Europe. Deforestation is also one of the main sources of emissions as trees are cut down to farm more hectares. I saw that in my first trip to Argentina 10 years ago in Santiago del Estero. If we want to face global warming, we need to start planting trees and choose agroecology as an alternative model. Argentina will pay a high cost because of the use of glyphosate and soy. All the fields are being destroyed by this system.

High rates of deaths linked to cancer and malformations in kids were recently discovered in towns of many provinces in which high amounts of glyphosate are used. Were you surprised by those new findings?

I wasn’t surprised by them but I was regarding the change the country has seen since my first visit. Almost nobody cared about these issues in 2005 but now I’m impressed to see the many scientists, doctors and organizations involved and trying to find solutions. There are constantly new studies about the risks of glyphosate. Europe imports transgenic soy sprayed with glyphosate and data shows that the animals who are fed with that soy are dying faster. I’m doing a new documentary about glyphosate and there’s so much information that I don’t know where to begin. France recently banned over-the-counter sales of glyphosate.

Social and environmental organizations and scientists are asking Argentina to do the same and ban glyphosate. Could that be done?

I’m not sure but I’m surprised that so much glyphosate continues to be used in the country. After I published The World According to Monsanto, many mayors of France started a campaign to ban the herbicide as they were using it to control weeds in parks. Argentina keeps using it on a massive scale and I’m really shocked. The government has a short-term vision as soy brings many dollars into the country. But on a longer term the costs of following that path will be high. Soybeans to feed pigs in Europe doesn’t feed the Argentines. I hope the government wakes up and starts thinking on the longer term. Haven’t they heard about the WTO paper?

What differentiates Argentina from other countries in the region regarding Monsanto, glyphosate and transgenic soy?

Argentina is considered the country in which the highest amount of transgenic crops are harvested. United States reports warn the use of glyphosate in the country has grown 800 percent over the past few years. When I came in 2005 all the problems were there but now it’s a much more complicated scenario. There’s an active participation of the citizens but nothing seems to change.

What are some of the common practices used by Monsanto in the countries it works?

Monsanto arrives in Argentina during the Carlos Menem administration. I wasn’t able to prove if there was corruption involved in the process or not but the fact is that transgenic soy arrived in the country without many difficulties and a large support of the press. GMO crops were authorized by a decree, which was published in English and wasn’t even translated. Monsanto wanted to work in Brazil first but the country had more rigorous rules so they chose Argentina instead. Argentina wasn’t a soy producing country back then and now is now of the largest. That’s an amazing change in only 20 years. Monsanto arriving in a country means corruption, pressures on politicians and a large part of the press supporting it.

Can a federal government take a different stand in order to avoid those pressures?

When it all started, nobody knew that glyphosate was so toxic and that transgenic crops were correctly evaluated. Now the scenario has changed and glyphosate will lead to the largest health scandal in the world’s history. Glyphosate is in the air, water and food so it leads to serious health problems. It’s a poison in many ways.

What does it mean for Argentina to keep moving on the same direction and increase every year the amount of hectares harvested with soy and the liters of glyphosate used?

It means hunger. I called my documentary on Argentina The Soybeans of Hunger but I could have called it The Soybeans of Death since the health costs are really high. Glyphosate is an accumulative poison, it can’t be destroyed and it’s not biodegradable. It’s unbelievable that the government is still blind. Europe has a law that makes companies label all transgenic products that could have been sprayed with glyphosate. Now we are asking to label animals who are fed with transgenic soy. What will Argentina do if that happens? Exports will for sure drop. What will Argentina do with all its fields destroyed and polluted and without any vegetation and trees?

@ferminkoop
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