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Argentina’s Roundup Human Tragedy

Argentina’s Roundup Human Tragedy

We thank the Institute of Science in Society Sustainability http://www.i-sis.org.uk for permission to publish

Ten years of GM soy and glyphosate poisoning have escalated the rates of cancer and birth defects. Claire Robins

GM soy a death sentence for humans and the environment

Argentina has become a giant experiment in farming genetically modified (GM) Roundup Ready (RR) soy, engineered to be tolerant to Roundup, Monsanto’s formulation of the herbicide glyphosate. 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, most of which goes to feed livestock in Europe. In 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 [1]. Spraying is often carried out from the air, causing problems of drift.

In 2002, two years after the first big harvests of RR soy in the country, residents and doctors in soy producing areas began reporting serious health effects from glyphosate spraying, including high rates of birth defects as well as infertility, stillbirths, miscarriages, and cancers [2]. Environmental effects include killed food crops and livestock and streams strewn with dead fish [2, 3].

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 [4].

Gianfelici said [4]: “Our town experienced drastic changes before and after soy. I’ve seen people die from cancer at age 30. I have witnessed pregnancy problems and a significant increase in fertility problems. I have seen an increase in respiratory diseases, as has never been seen before.

“GM soy has been a death sentence for humans and for the environment. No money can compensate for the damage that has been caused – the contamination, the deaths, the cases of cancer and malformations.”

Scientists corroborate birth defects & threatened by organised mob

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, fully published a year later [1], that glyphosate causes malformations in frog and chicken embryos at doses far lower than those used in agricultural spraying (see [5] Lab Study Establishes Glyphosate Link to Birth Defects, SiS 48). “The findings in the lab are compatible with malformations observed in humans exposed to glyphosate during pregnancy,” said Carrasco [6], “I suspect the toxicity classification of glyphosate is too low … in some cases this can be a powerful poison.”

At a recent conference, Carrasco, professor and 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 (CONICET), said a frequent result of malformations in human embryos is 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 [7].

The research findings of Carrasco and his colleagues were not welcomed by some sectors of government and industry. After he announced them, four people from Argentina’s crop protection trade association CASAFE were sent to try to search his laboratory and he was “seriously told off” by Lino Barrañao, Argentina’s science and technology minister [6].

Things took a violent turn in 2010, when an organized mob of thugs attacked people who gathered to hear Carrasco talk in La Leonesa, an agricultural town that has 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 [8]. Witnesses said the attack was organized by local officials and a local rice producer to protect the economic interests behind local agro-industry. Amnesty International has called for an investigation.

Revolutionary ruling ban agrochemical sprays

Based on Carrasco’s findings and other reports of health problems from spraying, the Environmental Lawyers Association of Argentina petitioned the Supreme Court of Argentina to ban the use of glyphosate (see [9] Glyphosate Herbicide Could Cause Birth Defects, SiS 43). But such is Argentina’s dependence on the GM soy farming model that Guillermo Cal, executive director of CASAFE, said [6] a ban would mean “we couldn’t do agriculture in Argentina”. In addition, the cash-strapped Argentine government relies heavily on tariffs levied on soy exports and is protective of the industry.

No national ban on glyphosate has yet been implemented. But in March 2010, just months after the release of Carrasco’s findings, a lawsuit brought by sprayed residents resulted in a regional court banning the spraying of agrochemicals near populated areas of Santa Fe province [10]. The ruling was revolutionary in that it implemented the precautionary principle and reversed the burden of proof [11]. No longer do residents have to prove that agrochemical spraying causes harm, but the government and soy producers have to prove it is safe.

Viviana Peralta, a housewife, 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 [11], “Enough. This cannot go on.”

State commission reports birth defects up fourfold in ten years

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 the birth defects increased nearly fourfold over the entire province [12]. 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”.

A member of the Chaco commission, who did not want to be identified due to the “tremendous pressures” they were under, said [13], “all those who signed the report are very experienced in the subject under study, but rice and soy planters are strongly pressuring the government. We don’t know how this will end, as there are many interests involved.”

Embryonic defects at well below legal exposure levels

Speaking at a conference, Carrasco noted the irony that Argentina’s people are suffering from the production of a commodity (GM soy) destined for Europe, which European consumers do not want [7]. Europe imports around 38 million tonnes of soy per year [14], much of which is GM soy sprayed with glyphosate. Because of consumer resistance to GM, most of it ends up hidden in animal feed.

Carrasco found malformations in frog and chicken embryos injected with 2.03 mg/kg glyphosate – nearly ten times lower than the maximum residue limit (MRL) for glyphosate allowed in soy in the EU (20 mg/kg) [15]. Soybeans have been found to contain glyphosate residues at levels up to 17mg/kg [16].

Defenders of glyphosate may say that these figures do not show a risk to consumers, because embryos are designed to keep toxins out. However, studies show that the added ingredients (adjuvants) in Roundup make cell membranes more permeable to glyphosate, increasing its toxicity to cells [17, 18].

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 [19, 20].

Long list of peer-reviewed studies document glyphosate toxicities

In reality, the research of Carrasco’s team is the latest in a long list of peer-reviewed studies showing dangers to health and the environment from glyphosate. Many of these studies are collected in a new report co-authored by nine international scientists [21], “GM Soy: Sustainable? Responsible”. The report challenges claims of sustainability for GM soy and the glyphosate herbicide on which it relies. Published by GLS Bank, Germany and ARGE Gentechnik-frei, Austria’s GM-free industry association, the report has been released together with the powerful testimonies of Argentine people affected by glyphosate spraying on GM soy [22].

Carrasco remains humble about his study, saying [11], “The origin of my work is my contact with the communities victimized by agrochemical use. They are the irrefutable proof of my research.” So the final word on the claimed safety of glyphosate and other agrochemicals sprayed on GM soy must go to Peralta. She said [11]: “I do not know about chemistry, I did not go to university, but I know what my whole family has suffered. To people who are not familiar with this model of agriculture, I say: Do not trust these companies. Reject agrochemicals. Do it for the life of your children.”


1. Paganelli A, Gnazzo V, Acosta H, Lopez SL and Carrasco AD. Glyphosate-based herbicides produce teratogenic effects on vertebrates by impairing retinoic acid signalling. Chem Res Toxicol, August 9. http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/tx1001749

2. Gianfelici, D.R. 2009. La Soja, La Salud y La Gente. http://zatega.net/zats/libro-quotla-soja-la-salud-y-la-gente-quot-dr-dario-gianfelici-27052.htm

3. Branford, S. 2004. Argentina’s Bitter Harvest. New Scientist, April 17, 40-43. http://www.grain.org/research/contamination.cfm?id=95

4. Dr Darío Gianfelici, Interview by Darío Aranda, August 2010. http://www.gmwatch.eu/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=12484:reports-dario-gianfelici-interview

5. Ho MW. Lab study establishes link to birth defects. Science in Society 48 (to appear).

6. Webber, J., Weitzman, H. 2009. Argentina pressed to ban crop chemical after health concerns. Financial Times, May 29. http://www.gene.ch/genet/2009/Jun/msg00006.html

7. Prof. Andrés Carrasco, speaking at the GMO-Free Regions Conference at the European Parliament, Brussels (September 16–18, 2010)

8. Amnesty International. 2010. Argentina: Threats deny community access to research. 12 August 2010. http://bit.ly/cJsqUR

9. Ho MW. Glyphosate herbicide could cause birth defects. Science in Society 43, 36, 2009.

10. Romig, S. 2010. Argentina court blocks agrochemical spraying near rural town. Dow Jones Newswires, March 17. http://bit.ly/cg2AgG

11. Dario Aranda, Interview with Viviana Peralta, instigator of the lawsuit, August 2010. http://www.gmwatch.eu/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=12486:reports-viviana-peralta-interview

12. Comision Provincial de Investigación de Contaminantes del Agua. 2010. Primer informe. Resistencia, Chaco. April. Report available in original Spanish: http://www.gmwatch.eu/files/Chaco_Government_Report_Spanish.pdf or in English translation: http://www.gmwatch.eu/files/Chaco_Government_Report_English.pdf

13. Aranda, D. 2010. La salud no es lo primero en el modelo agroindustrial. Pagina12, June 14. http://www.pagina12.com.ar/diario/elpais/1-147561-2010-06-14.html

14. Cert ID. Cert ID Certified ‘Non-GMO’ Soy Meal and Other Soy Products: Volumes Available from South America. Porto Alegre, Brazil, July 14, 2008.

15. Pesticide residues in food – 1997: Report. Report of the Joint Meeting of the FAO Panel of Experts on Pesticide Residues in Food and the Environment and the WHO Core Assessment Group on Pesticide Residues. Lyons, France, 22 September – 1 October 1997. http://www.fao.org/docrep/w8141e/w8141e0u.htm

16. Pesticide residues in food – 2005. Report of the Joint Meeting of the FAO Panel of Experts on Pesticide Residues in Food and the Environment and the WHO Core Assessment Group on Pesticide Residues, Geneva, Switzerland, 20–29 September. FAO Plant Production and Protection Paper 183, 7.

17. Haefs R, Schmitz-Eiberger M, Mainx HG, Mittelstaedt W, Noga G. Studies on a new group of biodegradable surfactants for glyphosate. Pest Manag. Sci. 2002. 58, 825–33.

18. Marc J, Mulner-Lorillon O, Boulben S, Hureau D, Durand G, Bellé R. Pesticide Roundup provokes cell division dysfunction at the level of CDK1/cyclin B activation. Chem Res Toxicol. 2002, 15, 326–31.

19. Attorney General of the State of New York, Consumer Frauds and Protection Bureau, Environmental Protection Bureau. 1996. In the matter of Monsanto Company, respondent. Assurance of discontinuance pursuant to executive law §63(15). New York, NY, Nov. False advertising by Monsanto regarding the safety of Roundup herbicide (glyphosate).


20. Monsanto fined in France for “false” herbicide ads. Agence France Presse, 26 Jan 2007. http://www.organicconsumers.org/articles/article_4114.cfm

21. Antoniou M., Brack P, Carrasco, A., Fagan, J., Habib, M., Kageyama, P., Leifert, C., Nodari, R., Pengue, W. 2010. GM Soy: Sustainable? Responsible? GLS Gemeinschaftsbank and ARGE Gentechnik-frei. Download full report and summary from: http://bit.ly/9D9J2k. At the time of writing, the full report is available in English or Portuguese, but will soon be available in French, German, and Spanish translations.

22. Interviews with Argentine people affected by glyphosate spraying, conducted in August 2010 by journalist Dario Aranda, are available here: http://www.gmwatch.eu/component/content/article/12479-reports-reports