An investigation by scientists at the Faculty of Medical Sciences of the University of Rosario (UNR), Argentina has found that younger people in villages sprayed with pesticides are 2.5 times more likely to suffer and die from cancer than people who live far away from agrochemicals, writes journalist Darío Aranda, reporting on a study published in Clinical Epidemiology and Global Health.
The data, Aranda writes, were obtained in an unprecedented investigation of its kind, which took seven years and is based on epidemiological studies of eight localities in Santa Fe (a province situated in north-eastern Argentina), involving 27,000 people. “After three decades of this agro-industrial model, no one can deny that scientific evidence confirms that agribusiness damages health, generates illness and death,” said Damián Verzeñassi, from the Institute of Socio-Environmental Health of the Faculty of Medical Sciences at the National University of Rosario, first author of the research.
The vast majority of Argentina’s arable area is occupied by GMO soybeans, corn and cotton. These GM crops are engineered to tolerate being sprayed with herbicides, the use of which has boomed since the introduction of GMO agriculture.
The impact of the GM agricultural model on health has been denounced for more than two decades by many groups in Argentina, including the Mothers of Ituzaingó, the collective Paren de Fumigar, the Coordinadora Basta es Basta, the Encuentro de Pueblos Fumigados and the Red de Salud Popular Ramón Carrillo. The new study, notes Aranda, confirmed what these organisations (and other scientists and activists) have been shouting about for many years – that there is a direct relationship between the GM agricultural model, agrochemical spraying, and cancer.
The research was carried out by the Institute of Socio-Environmental Health of the Faculty of Medical Sciences at the National University of Rosario (UNR). It consisted of epidemiological studies in eight rural towns that are all dedicated to agribusiness, with a predominance of genetically modified crops and the accompanying agrochemicals. The authors concluded their paper, “Our findings suggest that living in small rural towns affected by nearby AP applications has a negative health impact, namely in cancer outcomes.”
The study found that among younger people (between 15 and 44 years old), the probability of dying from cancer is 2.48 (women) and 2.77 (men) times higher in these localities compared to the rest of the country. The percentage of cancer deaths (taking the international benchmark of 100 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants) in these eight localities was 30 percent, while nationally the figure is much lower (19.8 percent).
Aranda quotes the authors as saying, “It was shown that the incidence of cancer in the population of the eight localities was significantly higher compared to the general population. And, in particular, for the female population, it was determined that they have a 66 percent higher probability of suffering some types of cancer compared to the general female population of the country”.
Damián Verzeñassi is quoted as saying: “The current agro-industrial model has only increased the damage to the health of the territories and, therefore, of the people who live in those territories. Our work is one more contribution to a large amount of clear scientific evidence that has been produced for many years now and which provides concrete proof of the consequences of pesticides”.
In their paper, the authors wrote that, on average, 27 percent of the pesticides used in high-income countries (such as the United States) are in the “highly hazardous” category, while the percentage rises to 45 percent in low- and middle-income countries (such as Argentina): “Thus in Argentina the quantities per hectare are far greater than those used in Europe or the USA, and a greater proportion of them are highly hazardous.”
Aranda quotes Verzeñassi as saying, “The main responsibility lies with the state, which enables this model. We are also talking about the officials, of different political persuasions, who support and defend this model in a quasi-fundamentalist way, without accepting a serious discussion.” He also points to the complicit role of the judiciary and the national and provincial legislative powers. And he points to the large producers: “They are participants in this process that is ecocidal and kills our populations”.
Verzeñassi added, “And of course, we must not forget the companies that produce and sell these toxic substances, they are among the most responsible. They know about the damage they cause and continue with their business without caring about the suffering of the populations”. Among the companies that market glyphosate in Argentina are Bayer-Monsanto, Syngenta, Red Surcos, Atanor, Asociación de Cooperativas Argentinas, Nufram, Agrofina, Nidera, DuPont, YPF, and Dow.
In their conclusion, the study’s authors stress the need to reduce the use of pesticides and call for the application of the precautionary principle, in force in Argentine legislation, which justifies taking protective measures when health and the environment are at risk. “After three decades of this model, and of countless tests both in the territories and in laboratories, it is urgent to apply the precautionary principle to this form of production that threatens the lives of [rural] populations,” said Verzeñassi.
In 2020 the organisation Naturaleza de Derechos published the 270-page report, “Antología Toxicológica del Glifosato +1000”, compiled by Eduardo Martín Rossi. It detailed 1,100 scientific papers confirming the health and environmental effects of the herbicide glyphosate. It included more than 200 research studies by Argentinean academics, from CONICET (Argentina’s National Scientific and Technical Research Council) and public universities. In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC, a specialised agency of the World Health Organisation), linked glyphosate to cancer and confirmed that it produces genetic damage in humans.
In contrast, writes Aranda, “No independent research (where companies and scientists with conflicts of interest are not involved) can prove the innocuousness of the agrotoxics used in the fields. In fact, in both Argentina and the United States, state agencies approve these chemicals on the basis of studies carried out by the same companies that sell them”.
A unique and censored experience
Aranda notes that the Faculty of Medical Sciences at the University of Rosario offered a unique experience, in the form of “health camps”, a course in the final year of the degree (promoted by the Institute of Socio-Environmental Health). All the students and teachers spent a week in a village (always in agreement with the local authorities) and, with a detailed survey, drew up a socio-sanitary profile (relating to society and health) of the place. They carried out 40 camps in the period 2010-2019, including the eight in the scientific publication, and gathered clear evidence of the increase in diseases linked to the agricultural model. But those currently in charge of the faculty, headed by Dean Jorge Molina, eliminated this unique experience of study and research.
Agrotoxics and their health impacts
Damián Verzeñassi, who is a doctor as well as a researcher, explains that epidemiological studies cannot specify which agrochemical causes which disease in each patient, but he does point out that populations are exposed to cocktails of agrotoxics that have been individually proven to stimulate the development of endocrine problems and different types of cancer. He says glyphosate is teratogenic (produces malformations) and is associated with the development of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma; atrazine is linked to breast cancer and thyroid alterations; chlorpyrifos is neurotoxic, deregulates the thyroid, and increases the incidence of breast tumours. Glufosinate ammonium (which is intended to be used with Argentina’s new GM wheat) is endocrine disrupting and teratogenic, while 2-4D is teratogenic, increases the risk of miscarriage, is classified by IARC-WHO as possibly carcinogenic in humans, and is associated with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. “There is also scientific work that has shown that if pesticides are combined, which is common practice, the capacity for harm is even greater than individually,” said Verzeñassi.