October 24, 2015
“If I had known there was someone from the United States in the group, I would not have allowed you into this house!” he said with a smile, hugging me and sipping his Malbec. It was his birthday, and he was in a good mood, but that didn’t change the sincerity of his statement.
I had been traveling in South America for about seven months and still knew pretty much nothing about Argentina aside from wine, mate, empanadas, and chimichuri. I had met a lot of Argentinians along the way, and they had all been extremely friendly and fun travellers. So when I arrived at friend’s family’s house in the north of Argentina, I was very surprised at the somewhat aggressive welcome I received.
I stayed with them for two weeks. By day, they made me feel very comfortable in their home and showed me around their town. We shared mate, meals, and stories. But every night, when the wine bottle got about half empty, my friend’s father would start in on me again. “How can you say that you don’t know what is happening in our country when your country is directly responsible for the economic and agricultural demise of Argentina. You are the one who votes, how can you not know what your government and Corporations are doing.” I felt embarrassed and ignorant about the power that the U.S. government and companies have in other countries.
In my subsequent research I was shocked to learn about the injustice that Argentina and other Latin American countries have suffered at the hand of the United States. But for the purpose of this article, we will focus on the events that have occurred since 1996 when the American company, Monsanto, began selling its pesticides and seeds in Argentina.
Overall the company’s presence has helped Argentina’s economy, which explains why the president and many government officials are in favor of Monsanto’s presence in the country. Because of Monsanto’s products, Argentina is now the third largest soybean producer in the world after the United States and Brazil. They export about 90% of the soy that is produced.
The products that Monsanto sells sound great to a farmer at first glance. The herbicide, Roundup, can kill unwanted weeds and plants that threaten the crop, greatly reducing the manual labor that farmers need to do to tend to their farms. Monsanto also sells soy, cotton and corn seeds that are resilient to the active ingredient of Roundup, glyphosate. This means that farmers can simply plant the seeds, spray the Roundup, and harvest when the crop is ready without nearly as much manual labor in between.
While many people across the world are uncomfortable with the idea of genetically modified foods, or GMOs, there is not a lot of scientific evidence to back-up the idea that the foods are harmful or less nutritious. Regardless of the lack of substantial scientific proof, many people are just plain uncomfortable with the idea of food that originated from a lab. In the European Union, there are nineteen countries, including Denmark, some territories of England, France and Germany that have either banned or reduced the use of GMOs. Monsanto, which is a leading company in the distribution of GMOs, has said that these countries are simply overreacting. Monsanto has produced numerous studies claiming that genetically modified foods are no less nutritious and no more dangerous than organic foods. Again, Monsanto has provided these studies.
While the GMOs are still a more controversial topic, it is harder to argue with the affect that Monsanto’s herbicide, Roundup, has on the environment and humans working with the product. Journalists have been interviewing farm workers and residents of agricultural towns in Argentina and the world is beginning to see the horrific affects that appear to be directly related to the use of Monsanto’s products.
Monsanto has largely lost the public’s trust because of their involvement in the creation of numerous violently dangerous chemicals. During the Vietnam War, they provided the US army with Agent Orange, an herbicide used to destroy food sources for the Vietnamese soldiers, weakening their army. Since the war, the Vietnamese government believes that approximately 3 million people are suffering from illnesses related to the herbicide. The US challenged this number but the US veterans association believes that many veterans from the Vietnam War are also suffering from health problems such as cancer, nerve and digestive aliments. Monsanto has also created and sold the recombinant bovine growth hormone, which increased production of milk in cows. This product has been widely rejected by consumers and has received very negative publicity. Monsanto was also a primary manufacturer of the now illegal polychlorinated biphenyls, a fluid used in machinery that was later deemed to be toxic. In 2003, Monsanto admitted to knowingly disposing this dangerous chemical into landfill in Anniston Alabama, which led to multiple health issues of residents of the town. Monsanto settled by paying 700 million in a class action suit to over 20,000 residents.
With a track record like this, it’s no wonder that people don’t trust Monsanto.
In the US, there are strict regulations on the quantity of Roundup that can be used in a given area. Despite these regulations, there are still various cases in the United States where communities or individuals are blaming the chemicals used for various health aliments including cancer and muscular dystrophy disease. Hundreds of new lawsuits against Monsanto come up every year in the US. People who came into contact with the chemical believe it is the cause of their disease, and Monsanto has settled many times.
In March 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer listed glyphosate, the main ingredient in the herbicide used in Argentina, as a possible human carcinogen. IARC is the cancer research branch of the World Health Organization. According to a spokesperson for IARC, there is no need to worry now about the affects of the chemical in small quantities, such as in your home garden, the danger comes when large amounts of the chemical is used such as at farms.
Argentina also has some regulations on how glyphosate is used, but in many provinces, it is simply not enforced. Monsanto maintains that if used correctly and in the right quantities, Roundup is not dangerous to humans, but many farmworkers in Argentina are not trained on how to use the product. Glyphosate is usually sprayed on fields by crop dusting planes. The regulations vary by province, but in general, each province sets a distance that these crop dusters must keep from schools and residential areas, but these are also frequently not enforced. Even if the farmers do follow guidelines, in some places the planes can legally spray pesticides as close as 50 meters to a school or residential area. Take into consideration a little wind, and the kids on the school yard will be showered with the poisonous chemical.
Glyphosate has even been found in rainwater, so in areas where there is a lot of Roundup used, even if all regulations are followed, glyphosate will rain down from the sky.
Another problem is that plants and pests build up a resistance to the chemical. For the herbicide to continue working, some farmers use much higher concentration than recommended or they mix the glyphosate with other chemicals, including the main ingredient in Agent Orange, 2,4-D, to make the Roundup work better. Monsanto and the Argentinian government do not condone this practice, but farmers need to see that their crops grow, and so they do what works. They also sometimes dangerously mix the chemicals in their residential neighborhoods before taking them to be sprayed in the fields that may be located further away.
Many people who work in the fields without training are now suffering life-altering consequences. A man named Fabian Tomasi worked for three years filling the crop dusters with Roundup. He was never trained on how to use the product so he just did the best he could to keep his bosses happy. Many times the chemical came in direct contact with his skin. At 47 years old he is now suffering from a severe case of polyneuropathy which has left him extremely skeletal and frail.
Pablo Vaquero, Monsanto’s corporate affairs director in Buenos Aires, discusses how many things are more harmful if used incorrectly. In response to a journal published by Andres Carrasco, who stated that glyphosate can cause spinal defects when injected into embryos, Vaquero compares that study to the incorrect use of everyday bug repellents for children. If bug repellent is ingested orally, of course it’s harmful, but if it is used correctly it is relatively safe. He compares this to the problems associated the misuse of Roundup in Argentina.
It is undeniable that the chemical is going to reach the people, whether it’s used correctly or not, and what happens when it does is horrifying. According to Vanessa Satoris, from The Malvinas Assembly in Argentina in Cordoba Province, women are regularly suffering spontaneous abortions, more children have asthma, and those who live closest to the fields have problems with leukaemia and cancer. Vanessa is a resident of Malvinas Argentina in the province of Cordoba where Monsanto had planned to come and construct more farm sites. She is involved in a community wide movement to keep Monsanto from expanding. They are already present in the city and the effects to the citizens have already been detrimental. As of March, 2015, the residents of the city have successfully been keeping Monsanto from expanding by using their bodies as shields, laying in the street to prevent the machines from passing, and constantly fighting against the expansion.
So what about the farmers that want to avoid Monsanto products and stay organic in Argentina? Well now, this is almost impossible to do in a large scale. Because of the wind, rain, and water supply, Roundup reaches neighboring farms whether they try to or not. Crops that are not genetically modified to resist glyphosate simply can’t survive.
And what if you are growing your non-genetically modified corn in a field downwind from Monsanto corn. Even if the crop survives the Roundup, the male pollen from the Monsanto corn can make its way to the non-Monsanto field and pollinate the female flower, and the subsequent corn plants will now be a hybrid of organic and genetically modified corn. It is virtually impossible in some parts of Argentina to avoid Monsanto products, and people are paying the price with their health.
Despite the government’s desire to keep Monsanto around for the economic benefit to the country, and the destruction that has already happened, there is still hope. There are hundreds of advocacy groups who are fighting to get Monsanto out. There are scientists from all over the world who have come to Argentina to see what the effects of GMOs and glyphosate have been on the farming communities. Thanks to the availability of information, it is getting harder and harder for the actions and effects of big corporations to go unnoticed by the public. The information is out there in the world and people now have more access to it. As social media and access to information unites the public, we can continue to weaken the money-hungry corporations and powers that are destroying lives to make a dollar.