Residents of the village of Avia Terai, in the Argentine province of Chaco, live surrounded by genetically modified soybean crops. They say that this means regular spraying with pesticides, which they claim has brought them more health problems than such a small rural community would normally expect.
María del Carmen Seveso, a doctor from the city of Saez Peña, about 12 miles from Avia Terai, says she has no doubt that the pesticides cause cancer and other serious illnesses.
Seveso claims that the number of newborns with congenital illnesses at the hospital where she worked jumped from 46 in 1998, around the time that pesticide spraying began in the area, to 186 in 2009.
These conclusions were included within a report published by the National Health Commission that also interviewed over 2,000 people in the area. It found that 31 percent of those interviewed in Avia Terai reported a relative with cancer in the last decade. The figure was three percent in another village called Charadai, far from soybean crops.
Dr. Damien Verzeñassi, of Rosario University, said the initial analysis of data collected related to 120,000 people living within a kilometer of sprayed crops, suggests cancer rates three times the national average. The study, he added, has yet to be published.
Argentina’s authorities, meanwhile, have said they would need more than studies like these to make major policy changes. The country is a major world exporter of soybean oil, and industrial agriculture has an important wider role in the economy.
“I can’t tell you how many documents and studies I’ve read, as well as videos against biotechnology, articles in the media, and in the universities, in Argentina and in Great Britain too,” former Argentine agriculture secretary Lorenzo Basso told a press conference in 2013. “And the truth is that if you read all of this you end up in a kind of mix salad where everyone is confused.”
Farmers in the Chaco region commonly rely on weedkillers that include glyphosate, such as the brand Roundup produced by agribusiness giant Monsanto.
The company has always insisted that glyphosate is safe to use if handled properly. Monsanto has the backing of some parts of the scientific community, as well as regulatory agencies all over the world. These include the Environmental Protection Agency in the US, which has approved and reapproved the use of Roundup.
Controversy over the chemical has nevertheless heated up in recent years, as its use has become more common.
The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer pronounced glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic” in March 2015. The WHO appeared to reverse its position two months later when, together with the Food and Agricultural Organization, it released a report that concluded that glyphosate is “unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans.” The second report, however, only referred to consuming crops that had been sprayed with the chemical.
Glyphosate was back in the news earlier this month when the European Union refused to make a decision on whether to approve a proposal to extend the permit to use the herbicide in the region, while further scientific study is carried out by the European Chemicals Agency. The issue is expected to be put to another vote shortly.