Argentines link health problems to agrochemicals

By Natacha Pisarenko

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Oct. 21 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

In this May 3, 2013, photo, students stand outside their rural school in Pozo del Toba, in Santiago del Estero province, Argentina.

Natacha Pisarenko, Associated Press

BASAVILBASO, Argentina — Argentine farmworker Fabian Tomasi wasn't trained to use protective gear as he pumped pesticides into crop dusters. Now at 47, he's a living skeleton.

Schoolteacher Andrea Druetta lives in a town where it's illegal to spray agrochemicals within 500 meters (550 yards) of homes, and yet soy is planted just 30 meters (33 yards) from her back door. Recently, her boys were showered in chemicals while swimming in their backyard pool.

Sofia Gatica's search for answers after losing her newborn to kidney failure led to Argentina's first criminal convictions for illegal spraying last year. But 80 percent of her neighbors' children surveyed carry pesticides in their blood.

American biotechnology has turned Argentina into the world's third-largest soy producer, but the chemicals powering the boom aren't confined to soy and cotton and corn fields. The Associated Press documented dozens of cases where these poisons are used in ways specifically banned by existing law.

Now doctors are warning that uncontrolled pesticide use could be the cause of growing health problems among the 12 million people who live in the South American nation's vast farm belt.

In Santa Fe province, the heart of Argentina's soy industry, cancer rates are two times to four times higher than the national average. In Chaco, the nation's poorest province, children became four times more likely to be born with devastating birth defects in the decade since biotechnology dramatically expanded industrial agriculture.

"The change in how agriculture is produced has brought, frankly, a change in the profile of diseases," says Dr. Medardo Avila Vazquez, a pediatrician who co-founded Doctors of Fumigated Towns. "We've gone from a pretty healthy population to one with a high rate of cancer, birth defects, and illnesses seldom seen before."

Once known for its grass-fed beef, Argentina has undergone a remarkable transformation since 1996, when the St. Louis-based Monsanto Company marketed a promising new model of higher crop yields and fewer pesticides through its patented seeds and chemicals.

Today, all of Argentina's soy and nearly all its corn, wheat and cotton are genetically modified. Soy farming tripled to 47 million acres (19 million hectares), and just like in the U.S., cattle are now fattened in feedlots on corn and soy.

But as weeds and insects became resistant, farmers increased the chemical burden eightfold, from 9 million gallons (34 million liters) in 1990 to more than 84 million gallons (317 million liters) today. Overall, Argentine farmers apply an estimated 4.3 pounds of agrochemical concentrate per acre, more than twice what U.S. farmers use, according to an AP analysis of government and pesticide industry data.

Monsanto's "Roundup" pesticides use glyphosate, one of the world's most widely applied and least toxic weed killers. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and many others have declared it to be safe if applied properly. In May, the EPA even increased allowable glyphosate residues on foods.

Despite the wholesale adoption of Monsanto's model, safety rules vary.

Some of Argentina's 23 provinces ban spraying within 3 kilometers (1.9 miles) of populated areas; others say farmers can spray as close as 50 meters (55 yards). About one-third set no limits, and rule-breakers are very rarely punished.

A federal law requires toxic chemical applicators to suspend activities that threaten public health, "even when the link has not been scientifically proven," and "no matter the costs or consequences," but it has never been applied to farming, the Auditor General found last year.

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