The fertile South American nation is now the world’s third largest producer of soy, trailing behind the United States and Brazil. However, this lucrative industrial form of farming has come under fire with environmental groups, local residents, and traditional farmers reporting that GM soy threatens biodiversity, the nation’s ability to feed itself, and health in rural communities.
Related article: GMO Scandal: The Long Term Effects of Genetically Modified Food in Humans, by F. William Engdhal, Voltaire Network, 15 September 2009.
Interview with Rodolfo Edgardo Páramo, pediatrician and expert on farming chemicals, conducted by Juan Nicastro.
Rodolfo Páramo, a retired pediatrician in the central Santa Fe province of Argentina, is a vocal activist against the use of glyphosate. The toxic herbicide, produced by US seed and agrochemical giant Monsanto, is sprayed on fields of transgenic soy, which now cover 17 million hectares (42 million acres) in Argentina. Páramo lectures throughout Argentina along with community groups that have suffered from the use of this chemical.
Latinamerica Press collaborator Juan Nicastro spoke with Páramo in the Cosquín National Folklore Festival, in the Córdoba province in January about his campaign on the potential health damage agrochemicals pose. In December, Santa Fe’s judiciary ruled against fumigations with glyphosate less than 800 meters from family homes.
How did you first realize the effects of agrochemicals?
After working seven years in the neonatal care unit in the José María Cullen Hospital in Santa Fe, I was transferred to the village of Mal Abrigo, in the north of the province, where I worked in pediatrics. It was there in 1994 and 1995 that we started to see births with deformities, mostly in the neural axis, from the brain to the vertebrae. [We found] anancephalia, or the lack of a brain. The vertebrae were not closed in some places, mainly in the cervical and lumbosacral area, leaving the medulla exposed.
Some 10,000 people live in Mal Abrigo and there are 15 to 20 births a month. In one year, we had 12 babies born with malformations, an extremely high rate. In Santa Fe we had the normal rate: one case of congenital malformation for every 8,500 to 10,000 live births. The figure in Mal Abrigo was terrifying. We started to investigate. I suggested that there was a substance in the environment that blocked folic acid, which protects against malformations in the nervous system. That led to me to find out what product was being used in the fields.
In January 1996, Felipe Solá, deputy agriculture secretary of the government of ex-President Carlos Menem [1989-99], formally authorized the use of transgenic RR Roundup Ready seeds, which are resistant to the herbicide Roundup, Monsanto’s glyphosate.
But [Swiss transnational] Syngenta had been selling Monsanto soy and used Roundup before it was authorized nationally.
I continued to research. I spoke with agronomists during a time when the [mechanical crop sprayers called ] spiders – or mosquitoes as they are also called –– would finish spraying the fields and enter the village dripping the chemicals everywhere. It still happens in many places. In other villages, like in Mal Abrigo, the government prohibited the storage, entry or distribution of the mosquitoes or spiders within the town’s urban perimeter. And like magic, the number of deformities in newborns went down.
But the number of cases of cancer, especially rapidly advancing cancer, shot up, above all in young people, who didn’t respond to traditional anti-cancer treatment.
Are there precedents of such harmful effects in other parts of the world?
Many. Remember that in Bophal, India, more than 20 years ago, a chemical [US transnational] Union Carbide was producing spilled and there were 20,000 deaths in 10 minutes, and people there are still suffering from the effects.
At first, they thought I was crazy. That I had come to be a nuisance. Around 2000 we got a judge to rule, with scientific proof, to remove the grain silos from Mal Abrigo’s center. Showing that in an urban area, they are disastrous for the community. While I was working in Santa Fe, I didn’t see the number of children with respiratory problems that I saw in Mal Abrigo. There was environmental pollution there because the grains were left out to dry but also, at the same time, they left in the air the substances that covered those seeds, that herbicide.
The Universidad Nacional del Litoral [in Santa Fe] had been doing a study since 1997 and last year published a report that showed that there are concentrations of glyphosate in the green and mature soy grains. Also, when they studied the soy, they found residues of the insecticide endosulfan, which is highly toxic, so much so that the German transnational Bayer is going to take it off the Argentine market this year.
Does glyphosate kill everything except soy?
Almost everything. In the United States, some had to abandon their fields, some 5,000 hectares [12,350 acres], because of what was thought to be a new weed. A damning for them, a blessing for us: amaranth, a grain that is a basic food of the native peoples of the Andes that kept them strong and healthy, and no herbicide can destroy it. Amaranth is Monsanto’s new enemy.
What do you think is the most efficient way to confront this situation?
For people to become aware. There are many products made from soy, more and more. I studied in a public university and I have the obligation to give back to society what it gave me through that free education I received. The people paid for my education. If I, as a professional, see that something is being ignored but that it’s killing people, I have to react, study and spread what I learn. And glyphosate doesn’t just kill human life. It kills soil’s bacteria and fungus. It kills Mother Earth.
Source: Agencia Latinoamericana de Información, http://alainet.org/active