Andreas Späth

It's time to cry for Argentina

2013-11-11 13:15

Andreas Wilson-Späth

Opponents of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) have long warned that their widespread use in agriculture is equivalent to conducting a gigantic science experiment that uses a largely unsuspecting public as its guinea pigs by exposing them to potentially devastating side-effects.

In Argentina, a country that was an enthusiastic early adopter of the technology peddled by multinational biotech firms like Monsanto, the collateral damage of this experiment is gradually becoming apparent as concerns over impacts on human health mount.

There are many problems with GMOs. One of them is the effect they are having on the amount of pesticides farmers are spraying onto their crops. The biotech industry contents that one of the benefits of GMOs is a reduction in pesticide use - it's been one of their major selling points from the outset. Critics predict the opposite. In Argentina, reality shows that the latter is true - and has severe consequences for people who get in the way.

Worldwide, there are predominantly two types of GMOs in commercial cultivation. The first involves plants that have been engineered to produce their own insecticide, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), supposedly reducing the need for growers to control insect pests through the use of additional insecticide.

Good in theory

The second type of GMO has been genetically modified to be immune to the broad-spectrum herbicide glyphosate, the most well-known example of which is Monsanto's global best-seller Roundup. The idea here is that farmers need only to spray their fields with glyphosate, killing all weeds in the process while leaving the crop plants standing, thus minimising the need for extra herbicide application.

Sounds good in theory. Didn’t quite work out as promised in the real world.

As forecast by GMO critics, a number of weed species have developed resistance to glyphosate in fields planted with GMO crops, leading farmers to ramp up their Roundup use as well as using growing amounts of more toxic herbicides to try to keep these spreading superweeds in check.

A scientific study published last year showed that in the USA, where well over 80% of all maize and soy are now GMO, herbicide use rose by about 11% between 1996 (when so-called Roundup Ready crops first became commercially available) and 2011. According to Charles M. Benbrook, the author of the study, by 2011, farmers using Roundup Ready seeds were applying 24% more herbicide to their fields than non-GMO farmers growing the same crops. The NGO Food & Water Watch has recently published a report about the rise of these superweeds in American farmlands.

While initial surveys suggested a drop in insecticide use due to Bt crops, the spread of superbugs has not lagged far behind the appearance of superweeds. In June, a new paper  identified five out of 13 major insect pests which have become increasingly immune to Bt in the US through "field-evolved resistance".

In the long run, GMOs have increased - not reduced - the amount of pesticides used in commercial agriculture.

What about Argentina then?

The country is the world’s third largest soy producer and virtually all of it, some 19 million hectares, is GMO, as are most of its cotton and maize.

Rural population gradually being poisoned

AP reports that while the use of agrochemicals declined at first, “it bounced back, increasing ninefold from 34 million litres in 1990 to more than 317 million litres today”. As elsewhere, scientists have documented the arrival and spread of glyphosate resistant weeds and they have raised the alarm about the potential health effects, particularly for farm workers and rural residents.

In farming areas dominated by GMO crops, studies have found elevated concentrations of pesticides in drinking water sources and soils. Trace amounts have been discovered in the bloodstream of children, while rates of birth defects, disease and cancer are anomalously high in a number of localities.

There is mounting epidemiological evidence to suggest that the rural population of Argentina is gradually being poisoned by a system of industrial agriculture that purports to lower the use of dangerous agrochemicals, while in fact encouraging it.

But then I guess we shouldn’t be too surprised that Monsanto and other biotech companies aren’t particularly perturbed by the increase in pesticide consumption their GMO crops are causing, or indeed by the health problems they are implicated in. They don’t just sell farmers GMO seeds, after all, but pesticides, too. A Faustian package-deal if ever there was one.

- Andreas is a freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath
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