About 95 percent of crops are chemically-induced in Argentina, making it one of the world's leading cereal, corn, and soybean producers. But locals say underneath this growth is a story of death and disease.
Alfredo Ceran, 63, worked for nine years as a ground crop-duster applying agrochemicals in soybean fields in Monte Maiz, Cordoba. His fingernails are burned. His blood tests have shown residues of glyphosate, chlorpyrifos, azatrine, 2.4-D and cypermethrin. He has had a liver transplant because of cancer, among other major surgeries. He also suffers from non-alcoholic cirrhosis.
“In the decade that I spent working I was never given useful or decent protection of any kind, just gloves that I would usually buy for myself," Ceran said. "To save money and time we would mix as much as seven products in the same round of application, when the norm established that you should never mix more than three products at once. We would use all kinds of products mixed, some completely illegal because of its dangers, but effective, and at the end that’s all that matters to them, if the bug or the bad weeds go away or not.”
“I felt sick every time I did it, I could tell that it wasn’t good for me, even my boss and the doctors he took me to see said that my sickness wasn't related to the work I did. It was killing me and I still did it because the pay was decent enough, but it's taking my life away.”
Ceran believes that the entire system is rigged in favour of agrochemical companies. He thinks the doctors he visited have lied to him about the cause of his disease. Deep inside, he feels it's the intensive farming that gave him all the diseases.
The big revolution in agrochemical farming came in the 1990s, when Monsanto, today Bayer-Monsanto, invented the Roundup Ready Plus soybean seed. A genetically modified seed that could be fumigated with the herbicide, Ready Plus is the commercial name for Glyphosate, which Monsanto invented and introduced in the market decades earlier. The combination allowed farmers to kill all the bad weeds without harming the soy, a major change in the way farming was done. Ready Plus introduced the possibility of direct sowing. Ploughing the land was no longer needed. Everything was done chemically. Plough-less farming would reduce soil-loss – that's how agrochemical companies sold Real Plus.
In Argentina, the GMO (genetically modified organism) agricultural model was adopted with no one questioning it in 1996. By the early 2000s, it showed convincing results, changing Argentina’s landscape. The agricultural frontier expanded at 10 percent per year. Though the country in the early 2000s had highest deforestation rates in the world, soy went from being a secondary crop with no major importance, to representing the greatest business opportunity the country had in the last century. The complete agricultural complex, including science institutions and universities shifted focus to the GMO and agrochemical model of farming. Millions of dollars from major players in the game jumped in, financing agronomy faculties and public agricultural institutions throughout the country.
About twenty years later, rural Argentina is living the environmental, but specially the health consequences of a farming model that was designed to maximize profits, while ignoring public health and sustainability aspects.
At least 28 million hectares of the GMO crops are farmed in Argentina every year. More than 300 million of liters of agrochemicals are spread over these crops. And it’s a number that’s increasing, as much as 10 percent per year. That gives on average of 3.5 liters per inhabitant. In the United States, another agricultural country where the GMO’s and agrochemicals are the norm, the average per person is 0.4 liters. Argentina has developed a compulsive habit for such farming, and Bayer-Monsanto, Basf, Dow, Dupont, and Syngenta are the fixers. These companies alone control more than 80% of the market. The profits go abroad. The consequences stay.
In 2015, the local authorities of Monte Maiz wanted to know what was happening in the town so they asked for help from the University of Cordoba. A team of doctors and experts went to the town and installed a sanitary camp to study the people of Monte Maiz. Among other discoveries, the experts found that agrochemicals could be found in the soil, air, water and in thousands of blood samples taken from the locals in different parts of the town.
But what was most alarming was the amount of population with skin and lung diseases, miscarriages, hypothyroidism, non-alcoholic cirrhosis, and especially breast cancer, colon cancer, and leukemia. In Argentina, according to the National Secretary of Health, cancer death rates are near 12 percent, which means that out of one hundred deaths, twelve persons die of cancer in any given town anywhere in the country. In Monte Maiz, however, the cancer rate turned out to be 55 percent, an alarming number as per the experts who visited the area in 2015. Out of 117 deaths that the town had in 2014, 66 were cancer related.
As the research became public, the town declared sanitary emergency. The national authorities denied the results, however, refusing to consider agrochemicals hazardous and rejecting the report for being 'biased' and unscientific.
What did change in Monte Maiz was the introduction of some regulations in the agrochemical activity, such as the prohibition of deposits inside the town or the circulation of the machinery used for the fumigations.
In Canals, a town about 60 kilometres away from Monte Maiz, it wasn’t until two years ago when people started to connect the dots about why so many neighbors were getting sick and dying.
Nancy Reinaldi, 51, Rene Battaglino, 62, and Maria Angelica Raiteri, 40, are among several dozen residents of Canals who have stood up for their health rights.
One of the first things they asked the authorities was to set up a sanitary camp like the one established in Monte Maiz. But they faced rebuke in return. The local mayor is a producer and applier himself.
Instead of doing nothing, they interviewed the families of people who had died in the town in one year, asking them what killed their loved ones. They found the same results as in Monte Maiz, 55 percent of the people had died of cancer in Canals.
Glyphosate and the rest of the agrochemicals that are used in the crops are carcinogenic, according to the WHO. But that doesn't mean much to the government, which still complies with reasons and justifications presented by the agrochemical industry. The most common response the agrochemical complex presents is that glyphosate is innocuous to humans or the environment.
If the authorities accept the chemicals are indeed harmful, the Argentinian government will have to declare a national health emergency, and come up with a concrete plan to reverse the matrix.
“We don’t expect to change the agricultural business, we know we don’t have that power. We just want our lives to be respected, to live in a safe environment” says Nancy, who lives with an agrochemical and machinery deposit just a wall away from her house.
Nobody in power is listening to them.