With the recent demonstrations against agro-giant Monsanto in Argentina, public perception of the multinational in the country has taken a negative turn. At the center of the controversy is the herbicide glyphosate, the main component of Monsanto's Round-Up widely used for weed control in agriculture. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a World Health Organization sponsored group, recently classified glyphosate as “probably” carcinogenic.
Demonstrations and campaigns on and offline have condemned Monsanto, going beyond glyphosate and advising against the company’s other products such as genetically modified organisms (GMO).
However, Monsanto is not the only company in the country using glyphosate. According to the list of registered products from the National Food Safety and Quality Service (SENASA), many other companies use glyphosate as a component in their products, but their names don’t make it into the debates and protests.
The work of Eduardo Andres Carrasco, a former researcher from the National Council of Scientific and Technical Research, shows that Argentina uses 200 million liters of glyphosate in a populated area of 20 million hectares. The use of Monsanto's products is not limited to this component — Argentina has also adopted the company's farming model, through genetically modified seeds that are glyphosate resistant.
The presence of Monsanto in Argentina is palpable, and recent demonstrations show a growing disapproval. But some wonder, given the health consequences that these and other chemicals have and the lack of response from responsible parties other than Monsanto, if these campaigns could be distracting public opinion from the need to hold government institutions accountable as well.
What happens when the government fails to protect its people?
Argentina has varied and comprehensive legislation concerning agriculture and pollution. In the province of Córdoba, for example, farmers are prohibited from aerial or land spraying of chemicals within a certain distance of populated areas. However, news coming out of that same region indicate that things are not working as they should.
Argentina's Barrio Ituzaingó in Córdoba is today a tragic example of what happens when the government fails to protect people's health from the dangers of added chemicals, even though the case is not directly connected to glyphosate specifically.
In this region, a group of mothers in 2012 won the first conviction in Argentina of a farmer applying agrochemicals from the air by proving its connection with the multiplication of cancer cases in the district. The story and the testimonies of the affected communities were reported by the Argentine news media El Puercoespín:
Aquella mañana de enero una de ellas contó que a su hijo le habían diagnosticado leucemia, y entonces lo que parecía casualidad pasó a ser sospecha, porque en la zona había muchos casos similares. Y allí mismo esas cuatro mujeres, que luego fueron cinco y llegaron a ser trece Madres de Ituzaingó, se pusieron a hacer cuentas […] Con los datos, las Madres fueron al Ministerio de Salud de la Provincia de Córdoba. El Ministerio guardó los datos en un cajón. […] En marzo, una de las Madres consiguió que un canal de TV se interesara. […] “Como hacía diez días que estábamos sin agua, cuando convocamos a los vecinos la gente salió, y en el programa también denunciamos los casos de leucemia. A partir de ese momento, el Ministro recibió a las chicas y mandó a realizar un análisis del agua del tanque”. […] El estudio –era de esperar- dio como resultado la presencia de agroquímicos y metales pesados en el agua. En tiempo récord conectaron el barrio a la red para intentar, tarde, reparar en algo el desastre.
That January morning, one of them said that her child had been diagnosed with leukemia, and then what appeared chance became suspicious, because in the area there were many similar cases. And right there the four women, who later became five and then thirteen Mothers of Ituzaingó, started to do numbers […] With that data, the mothers went to the province of Cordoba's Ministry of Health. The ministry dismissed the case and put away the data. […] In March, one of the mothers managed to get a TV channel interested. […] “As we were without water for ten days, when we called on the neighbors they attended and on the TV show we denounced the cases of leukemia. From that moment on, the minister welcomed the mothers and asked for an analysis of the water in the tank. ” […] As it was to be expected, the study found evidence of chemicals and heavy metals in the water. In record time, they connected the neighborhood to the water system trying, late, to minimize the disaster.
The article also includes the reflection of one of these mothers about the extent of the problem:
No me gusta dar números, porque no somos cifras y alcanza con un solo afectado por contaminación para que se tomen medidas, pero nosotros nos sorprendimos: imagínate que en casi todas las casas había un afectado.
I do not like giving numbers, because we are not figures and it should be enough that one person was affected by pollution for action to be taken, but we were surprised: in almost every house there was an affected person.
Raul Montenegro, who was awarded the Alternative Nobel Prize in 2004 by the Right Livelihood Award in Stockholm for his work in defense of the environment, seems to agree with the ideas that consider the state one of the many responsible parties in the Ituzaingo case:
Porque en realidad, aún existiendo esos productores o ese agroaplicador, si el Estado hubiera asumido su responsabilidad nunca debió
pasar lo que pasó en Ituzaingó […] Hay que tener en cuenta que hay una ordenanza que prohíbe la aplicación de pesticidas en la franja de 2500 metros y que es una zona declarada en emergencia sanitaria. Por eso, si el Estado hubiera cumplido y actuado, desde el año 2002 en adelante no debió haber un gramo de plaguicida aplicado.
Because in reality, even with this kind of agriculture producers or chemical sprayers, if the state had taken responsibility of protecting people's health, the problem in Ituzaingó would have never happened […] Keep in mind that there is an ordinance that prohibits the use of pesticides within 2,500 meters near populated areas and that the area is declared as a health emergency. Therefore, if the state had fulfilled its duty from 2002 onward, there should not have been one gram of pesticide applied in Ituzaingó.
With this case coming to light, why is Monsanto then the only one at the center of recent protests? JM Mulet, who defends the use of glyphosate in his blog, says that there are other more harmful herbicides. According to him, it's partly because the company invented the chemical and also due to the media's treatment of the story, in which Monsanto ends up being the transnational that everyone loves to hate:
¿De dónde sale esta campaña del glifosato cuándo objetivamente hay pesticidas mucho más problemáticos? Se juntan varios factores, pero los principales es que fue un invento de Monsanto, el malo carismático de la película, y que se utiliza para las plantas OGM. Sin estos dos factores nadie se preocuparía por el glifosato como no se preocupa por el glufosinato, que es de Bayer y cuyas plantas transgénicas resistentes no se comercializan todavía aunque son las que utilizo yo en el laboratorio (les falta carisma para que recojan firmas). Y este miedo interesado se alimenta por el hecho de noticias como ésta [noticia divulgada en El País: Los médicos ligan el cáncer de un pueblo argentino a los agroquímicos] que son publicadas a toda plana, pero en cambio cuando llega el desmentido, no se publica.
Where does this glyphosate campaign come from when objectively, there are pesticides that are much more harmful? Several factors come together to explain it, but the key is that it was invented by Monsanto, the charismatic villain, and because it is used on genetically modified plants. Without these two factors no one would care about glyphosate, as they are not concerned about the glufosinate, which is produced by Bayer, whose resistant transgenic plants are not being sold yet, but they are the ones I use myself in the laboratory (I guess, Bayer lacks charisma to inspire people to collect signatures). And this fear created by interest, is fuelled by news like this one, published in the Spanish newspaper El País: Doctors link cancer in Argentine small town to agrochemicals. They published it full-page, but when denial came, it was not published.