Weedkiller’s super-bonus: human birth defects!



"There is life in the ground: it goes into the seeds; and it also, when it is stirred up, goes into the man who stirs it."

- Charles Dudley Warner, My Summer in a Garden (1871)

by Selvam Canagaratna

That was then, in 1871; this is now. [And we seem to have already scurried past a whole century, to say nothing of the entire first decade of the New Millennium as well!]

Whether Monsanto, the multinational agro-chemical giant of today, subscribes to the uplifting philosophy of Charles Dudley Warner quoted above is beside the point; what Monsanto continues to do on the ground – literally – is endangering the safety and survival of all life-forms on Earth, including humanity’s future generations.

Because Monsanto’s trade-marked weedkiller happens to destroy far more valuable things than mere weeds.

Monsanto has raked in billions of dollars over the past several decades by packaging its genetically-modified (GM) seeds with ‘Roundup’, its own glyphosate-active herbicide. The marketing pitch is ‘you-can’t-have-one-without-the-other’ if profitability is the aim. This ‘package’ has been successfully sold since the mid-1970s, resulting in increased resistance to the herbicide and the emergence of ‘superweeds’, which in turn calls for ever-increasing use of Roundup to maintain crop yield levels.

Calling this approach "an irresponsible type of agriculture" Pat Thomas, Editor of Britain’s leading environmental magazine Ecologist observed that "farmers worldwide are on a chemical treadmill they are finding it increasingly difficult to get off."

Genetically-modified seeds and Roundup, together, now play a major and universally destructive role, transforming agriculture throughout Planet Earth into one massive industrial monoculture. [Diversity, after all, is the essence of all life, but try telling that to Monsanto!]

[For the record, I’m aware that Monsanto has, chameleon-like, changed its name many times over, but intend sticking here to the name it’s best known by just about everyone. As far back as February 2000, Dan Bennett, a British lawyer, wrote in The Guardian, UK: "What’s in a name? The news that Monsanto is soon to be known as Pharmacia is part of an old Monsanto strategy, intended to allow a fresh start." That didn’t apparently help Monsanto in legal proceedings on behalf of 165 Britishers who suffered chemical poisoning following a leak of hydrogen sulphide gas at one of its rubber chemical factory in their neighbourhood. By September 1997, the multinational had changed its name, again, to Solutia UK Ltd.]

So this isn’t exactly a case of a rose being called by some other name. If anything, Monsanto is, and has always shown itself to be, the equivalent of an industrial skunk. It stinks, period.

Now to get down to the nitty-gritty, or the stink, if you will. It’s all in the Report issued in October last year by the Institute of Science in Society (ISIS) which focused on the havoc caused in Argentina by the use of Monsanto’s ‘Roundup Ready’ (RR) with the corporate giant’s genetically-modified Soy seeds. [It turned out to be a marriage made in Hell.]. And appropriately enough, the Report was titled GM Soy: A death sentence for humans and the environment. Excerpts:

The Argentine government, eager to pull the country out of a deep economic recession in the 1990s, restructured its economy around GM-soy grown for export to feed livestock in Europe. By 2009, GM soy was planted on 19 million hectares - over half of Argentina’s cultivated land - and sprayed with 200 million litres of glyphosate herbicide, often sprayed from the air, causing problems of ‘drift’.

In 2002, two years after the first big harvests of Monsanto’s GM-soy in Argentina, residents and doctors in soy-producing areas began reporting serious health problems, including high rates of birth defects as well as infertility, stillbirths, miscarriages, and cancers. Environmental effects include killed food crops and livestock and streams strewn with dead fish.

One of the first medical doctors to report problems from glyphosate spraying of GM soy was Dr Darío Gianfelici, from Cerrito, Entre Ríos, Argentina. According to Gianfelici, there are two levels of toxic effects from glyphosate: acute effects, such as vomiting, diarrhoea, respiratory problems, and skin rashes; and chronic effects, which take 10–20 years to show up. These include infertility and cancer.

Reports of birth defects in glyphosate-sprayed areas of Argentina gained scientific credibility in 2009, when senior Argentine government scientist Prof. Andrés Carrasco went public with his research findings that glyphosate causes malformations in frog and chicken embryos at doses far lower than those used in agricultural spraying. "The findings in the lab are compatible with malformations observed in humans exposed to glyphosate during pregnancy," said Carrasco. "I suspect the toxicity classification of glyphosate is too low . . . in some cases this can be a powerful poison."

At a recent conference, Professor Carrasco, Director of the Laboratory of Molecular Embryology, University of Buenos Aires Medical School and lead researcher of the National Council of Scientific and Technical Research, said a frequent result of malformations in human embryos was miscarriage. He said that it was now not unusual for women in GM soy-producing regions of Argentina to have up to five miscarriages in a row.

Things took a violent turn in 2010, when an organized mob of thugs attacked people who gathered to hear Professor Carrasco talk in an agricultural town that had become a centre for activism against agrochemical spraying of soy and rice crops. Three people were seriously injured. Carrasco and a colleague shut themselves in a car and were surrounded by people making violent threats and beating the car for two hours. Witnesses said the attack was organized by local officials and a local rice producer. Amnesty International has called for an investigation.

In March 2010, just months after the release of Carrasco’s findings, a regional court banned the spraying of agrochemicals near populated areas of Santa Fe province. The ruling was revolutionary in that it implemented the ‘precautionary principle’ and reversed the burden of proof. No longer do residents have to prove that agrochemical spraying causes harm; the onus is on the government and soy producers.

It was Viviana Peralta, a housewife, who instigated the lawsuit. She and her family were hospitalized following aerial spraying near her home. Her newborn baby had turned blue and Peralta herself suffered respiratory problems. Peralta said, "When I saw my baby like that, I said ‘Enough. This cannot go on’."

Shortly after the residents’ court victory, a Commission of the provincial government of Chaco State reported that between 2000 and 2009, the rate of childhood cancers tripled in La Leonesa and birth defects increased nearly fourfold over the entire province. These staggering rises in disease coincided with the expansion of the agricultural frontier into Chaco province and the resulting rise in agrochemical use. The Commission identified the main problem as glyphosate and other agrochemicals applied to "transgenic crops, which require aerial and ground spraying (dusting) with agrochemicals."

Even without soy, glyphosate is all around us. Apart from its use in agriculture, Roundup is marketed to home gardeners as safe to use around children and pets. It is sprayed on schoolyards and verges by local authorities. The myth of Roundup’s safety persists despite two court rulings forcing Monsanto to withdraw advertising claims that Roundup is biodegradable and environmentally friendly.

Let Viviana Peralta have the last word on the supposed safety of glyphosate and other agrochemicals sprayed on GM soy: "I do not know about chemistry, I did not go to university, but I know what my family has suffered. Reject agrochemicals. Do it for the life of your children."

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