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The safety of pesticides and other agrochemicals is still the subject of heated debate. Despite nearly indisputable evidence of their health risks, the use of these chemicals is more widespread than ever. An incredible 9.4 million tons of RoundUp pesticide have been sprayed onto fields since the product’s inception in 1974, making it the most-used agricultural chemical in history.[1]

Unsurprisingly, Bayer has adopted Monsanto’s long-held stance that their products pose no human health risks. Meanwhile, an entire class of pesticides (those which contain the chemical chlorpyrifos) was recently banned, demonstrating that regulatory agencies are beginning to understand the dangers of these chemicals. A California court even acknowledged the dangerous association between pesticide exposure and cancer development by ordering Bayer-Monsanto to pay $289 million to a man who alleged his cancer was caused by frequent use of RoundUp.

These events are landmarks in the fight against toxic agrochemicals, but we have a long way to go. Progress is being made far more slowly in places like Argentina, an early supporter of GE agriculture that now is struggling to break free of its devastating effects on human health and the environment.

How companies exploit Argentinian farmers

The Argentinian agricultural industry has long been dominated by genetically engineered crops and heavy agrochemical usage. These practices were first approved in 1996, at which time the Argentinian government took Monsanto’s safety studies at face value.

It has now come to light that Monsanto ghostwrote its own safety studies on glyphosate, the main ingredient in RoundUp pesticide. Subsequent, independent studies, as well as voluminous anecdotal reports, have called the safety of glyphosate into question. The World Health Organization now classifies glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen.

Back in 1996, though, the GMO-agrochemical model simply seemed like a safe and prosperous one for Argentina to adopt. Monsanto’s commercials suggested that producing hardy, aesthetically pleasing crops and high yields would allow farmers to prosper, and that GE seeds and agrochemicals were the perfect tools for the job.

The commercials worked. Today, nearly 61.9 million acres of Argentinian land are planted with GE crops. Each and every year, farmers apply an astounding 300 million liters of RoundUp pesticide on their genetically modified soy, maize, cotton, corn, and tobacco (the most common crops in this region).

Such mass-scale farming has indeed brought more prosperity into the region, including up to 35% taxes on crop exports. But farming families have also seen a dramatic increase in the number of children born with severe defects and deformities, and they’re realizing they were lied to about glyphosate’s risks.

“Genetically modified children”

A new documentary film called Genetically Modified Children takes the viewer on a tour of Argentinian farming regions, where decades of agrochemical usage have led to shocking physical deformities and rare, life-threatening health conditions in children.

The story highlights the plight of tobacco farmers, who have become ensnared in a vicious cycle of industrial agriculture. Philip Morris, an American multinational tobacco company, exerts an enormous amount of control over the agriculture of Argentina’s Misiones Province. The company places unreasonable production standards on Argentinian farmers, who therefore must use more than 100 different agrochemicals (including glyphosate) to ensure a final product of pristine appearance. Otherwise, Philip Morris will simply pass over their crop yield and purchase from other farmers who present a more aesthetic product.

Because none of these farmers were told that glyphosate poses risks to human health, they’ve spent decades treating their crops without protecting themselves or their families from exposure. The results are heart-wrenching: the film shows children with severe deformities, epilepsy, hampered development of mental function and motor skills, multiple muscular atrophy, congenital microcephaly, and many other ailments stemming from genetic mutation. One child is even shown whose skin has no pores, and thus no ability to perspire—the results of a genetic incurable skin condition.

Many experts believe this disproportionate rate of birth defects demonstrates glyphosate’s genotoxicity, as both in vivo and in vitro animal studies have demonstrated.[2] Fearful of escalating health effects, farmers are doing their best to move their families away from chemical-laden farmland.

Many would like to detach from glyphosate use altogether, but this choice is not tenable for most of them, as the region lacks other avenues for generating income reliably. Tragically, the families most deeply affected by glyphosate are the ones least able to stop using it—they rely heavily on the income and social security provided by Philip Morris in order to tend to their children’s medical needs.

Help change this deplorable situation

The tide is beginning to turn, as evidenced by the victories discussed at this article’s outset. U.S. lawyers have begun to work on behalf of affected Argentinian families, but progress is slow, as agrobusinesses exert far-reaching political and economic power throughout the country.

In the meantime, you can do your part by boycotting companies who manufacture or encourage the use of genotoxic pesticides. This means avoiding the vast majority of conventionally grown produce and tobacco, as well as processed foods.

Watch Genetically Modified Children to learn more about Argentina’s agrochemical crisis, and to find out more about how you can help.

 


References

[1] https://enveurope.springeropen.com/articles/10.1186/s12302-016-0070-0

[2] https://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/jf9606518

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A federal appeals court recently ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to ban the entire class of chlorpyrifos-containing pesticides in the United States. The decree, while still subject to further delays and appeals, marks a major victory for environmental and public health groups.

This is not the first time these pesticides have been banned. As we reported in a previous article, the EPA overturned a ban on chlorpyrifos in March 2017. The decision was largely carried out by Scott Pruitt, then administrator of the EPA under the Trump administration (his own staff at the EPA recommended that chlorpyrifos-containing products be taken off the market).

Throughout his tenure, Mr. Pruitt was the targeted recipient of intense lobbying on behalf of the pesticide industry—a cozy relationship that led to lavish spending, family favors, and other ethical scandals. Since the summer of 2017, Mr. Pruitt has become the subject of no less than thirteen federal investigations into these “legal and ethical violations,” and has since resigned.[1]

The recent ruling by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit was issued in response to a lawsuit filed by environmental groups shortly after the commercial ban was rejected by Mr. Pruitt. The court ruled that there was “no justification for the E.P.A.’s decision in its 2017 order to maintain a tolerance for chlorpyrifos in the face of scientific evidence that its residue on food causes neurodevelopmental damage to children,” and ordered the agency to enact a ban with sixty days.[2]

Studies show adverse effects on childhood neurological development

The EPA still maintains that their staff has been unable to “access” sufficient data to warrant an outright ban of chlorpyrifos, but most experts agree that this stock response is nothing more than a stall tactic originally conceived by Mr. Pruitt. There most certainly is sufficient data to warrant concern over chlorpyrifos toxicity, especially in children.

For example, one study carried out by researchers at the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health reported “evidence of deficits in Working Memory Index and Full-Scale IQ” in seven-year-old children who had been exposed to chlorpyrifos-containing pesticides for all or most of their lives.[3]

Another study published in the journal Neurotoxicology examined the effects of prenatal exposure to chlorpyrifos, and found it to be correlated with mild to moderate tremors in children, as well as an increased risk of more serious movement disorders.[4]

Despite the EPA’s reluctance, environmentalists are celebrating

The EPA hasn’t yet made it clear what their next action will be. The agency reserves the right to request a reconsideration of the Ninth Circuit’s ruling, to ask for an extension on the chlorpyrifos ban deadline, or to appeal to the Supreme Court.

As mentioned above, representatives still claim that they require more data in order to make their decision. Agency spokesman Michael Abboud stated that “the E.P.A. is reviewing the decision,” and explained that “the Columbia Center’s data underlying the court’s assumptions remains inaccessible and has hindered the agency’s ongoing process to fully evaluate the pesticide using the best available, transparent science.”

While loyalty to genuine, evidence-based science is certainly an admirable sentiment, the slowness of the E.P.A.’s actions is still strange. After all, the agency’s first priority is to protect the health of the environment and American citizens, not corporate interests—one would hope that any evidence that chlorpyrifos adversely affects children would spur at least some degree of swift regulatory action.

Despite these ambiguities, though, environmental activists view the Ninth Circuit’s ruling as cause for celebration.

For starters, the current ban is more all-encompassing than the one rejected by Scott Pruitt in 2017—it prohibits not only commercial household uses of chlorpyrifos (e.g. as an insecticide), but also all industrial use on farms. The previous ban still allowed farmers to legally use chlorpyrifos, a caveat with which environmentalists took issue, given that the chemical’s adverse effects have been shown to be especially pronounced in the children of farming families.

If the ban is enacted, it will be a huge blow to pesticide companies. Over fifty different crops—including a variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and grains—are grown using chlorpyrifos-based pesticides. According to the California Department of Pesticide Regulation, a whopping 640,000 acres of California farmland was treated with such pesticides in 2016 alone.[5]

Regardless, the Ninth Circuit’s ruling serves as a beacon of hope to many environmentalists who had begun to believe that not even the Environmental Protection Agency could be trusted to, well…protect the environment. The ruling demonstrates that evidence-based science and targeted activism, coupled with a well-functioning judicial system, can still triumph over corrupt politics and corporate cronyism.

With any luck, by the time farmers throughout the United States plant and harvest their next round of crops, law will require them to do so without toxic, chlorpyrifos-containing pesticides.

 


References

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/05/climate/scott-pruitt-epa-trump.html

[2] Ibid.

[3] https://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/1003160/

[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26385760

[5] https://www.cdpr.ca.gov/docs/pur/pur16rep/chmrpt16.pdf

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