Thank you to the Institute of Science in Society for this article-
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 .
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)
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 , 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
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 .
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 , 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, 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 . 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 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.
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