Where Soy Is King: In Argentina, Local Health Costs Rise As Agro Booms
By Christine Legrand, Le Monde, Aug. 15, 2011
SAN JORGE—Located about 600 kilometers from Buenos Aires, San Jorge is a tidy town of about 25,000 in Santa Fe, one of Argentina’s most agriculture-rich provinces. In the poor Urquiza neighborhood, a single dirt road separates the house of Viviana Peralta from an expanse of soy fields, where herbicides and pesticides are regularly sprayed down from small airplanes.
It took a while, but eventually the young Argentine mother connected the dots: the acute asthma attacks her baby daughter Ailen suffered were triggered each time a crop duster buzzed over her house. At a nearby hospital, a pediatrician later confirmed the presence of glyphosate in Ailen’s blood.
Glyphosate is the principal active ingredient in Roundup, a herbicide developed and marketed by Monsanto, an American company. It has been widely used in Argentina since 1997. When it is sprayed on the country’s soy fields, Roundup kills all of the weeds it comes in contact with, but spares the Roundup Ready (RR) soy beans, which have been genetically modified to be Roundup resistant.
In San Jorge, cancer rates have spiked 30% in the past 10 years. Residents say that following a crop dusting, their lips turn blue and their tongues swell. Chickens die. Dogs and cats shed their hair. Bees disappear and birds become scarce.
After she was ignored by municipal authorities, Peralta decided to turn to the courts. A judge agreed to hear the case that she, along with 23 other neighborhood families, presented against the Argentine government, provincial authorities and soy producers.
On March 17, 2009, the court issued a historic verdict, prohibiting airplanes from crop dusting within 1,500 meters of residences, and tractors from spraying within 800 meters of people’s homes.
But this verdict, and other new regulations, are not always respected. Roundup, furthermore, can remain suspended in the atmosphere for a long time and travel many kilometers, carried by wind and rain.
"Glyphosate isn’t the holy water they wanted us to believe in," says Carlos Manessi, an agronomist who serves as a Santa Fe provincial coordinator for a national anti-spraying campaign. Manessi points out Argentine authorities carried out no scientific tests of their own before allowing Monsanto to market Roundup in Argentina. Instead they approved the product "based only on a Monsato report submitted in English that was never even translated."
Local soy bean producers are convinced Roundup is harmless. “Banning it would be like banning aspirin,” one of them says. ‘Green Gold’ fever has swept across Argentina, where farmers are trying to capitalize on increased demand from emerging economies and soaring world prices. Argentina is the world’s third leading soy producer, and the number one exporter of derivatives such as soy soil and soy flour. An estimated 17 million hectares are planted with RR beans.
In the cold southern winter, on either side of highway 10 which connects Santa Fe to Cordoba, another rich agricultural province, unfolds a landscape of gray land that’s been treated with Roundup prior to planting. Cows, the traditional inhabitants of the Argentine pampa, have been moved indoors. Even the smallest parcel of land, including the earth running directly alongside the highway, is reserved for soy.
"Anyone who talks about the dangers of glyphosate is called crazy. They’re accused of being anti-prosperity," says Viviana Peralta, who claims she has been offered money to move away.
Yet despite the pressures against speaking out, a resistance movement has developed in several provinces. In Cordoba, a group called the Association of Mothers of Ituzaingo says there have been more than 200 cases of cancer in their community of approximately 5,000 people.
In Argentina’s agricultural provinces, many lawmakers and other local leaders are themselves farmers, or else have major investments in soy production operations. The majority of agricultural engineers work for pesticide manufacturers. On the other side of the debate are rural doctors, more and more of whom are witnessing what they say is a “health nightmare.”
In the province of Chaco, which borders Paraguay, a study carried out over the past 10 years in a town called La Leonesa suggests that cancer rates have tripled while the incidence of malformations has quadrupled. The situation has created tensions between residents and rice farmers, who use glyphosate and spray from airplanes. Residents demand the spraying be done at a reasonable distance from homes, schools and bodies of water. They also want authorities to carry out official studies on the health of the residents and the local environment.
Andres Carrasco, an embryologist from the University of Buenos Aires, published a study in late 2010 demonstrating the toxic effects glyphosate can have on amphibian embryos. His work has earned him no shortage of enemies. He was physically attacked on a visit to La Leonesa and the conference he was scheduled to give there was canceled.
"I didn’t discover anything new," he says. "I just confirmed what other scientists had already discovered. The scientific evidence is there. Above all, there are the hundreds of [ill and malformed] people who are the living proof of this health emergency."
Carrasco recalls that in France and the United States, Monsato was found guilty of false advertising for claiming its herbicide is “100% biodegradable.”
In Argentina, the use of Roundup continues to increase since weeds develop resistance to the chemical. In 1991, the country consumed an estimated million liters of glyphosate. By 2009 the amount had risen to a staggering 200 million liters.