by Mike Ludwig
09 November 2010
Rodriguez / t r u t h o u t
Adapted: IRRI Images, Libertinus)
A delegation of politicians and
community activists gathered on
August 7 in La Leonesa, a small farm
town in Argentina, to hear Dr. Andres Carrasco speak about a study
linking a popular herbicide to birth defects in Argentina's
But the presentation never happened. A mob of about 100 people
attacked the delegation before they could reach the local school
where the talk was to be held.
Dr. Carrasco and a colleague locked themselves in a car as the mob
yelled threats and beat on the vehicle for two hours. One delegate
was hit in the spine and has since suffered lower-body paralysis.
Another person was treated for blows to the head. A former
provincial human rights official was hit in the face and knocked
Witnesses said the angry crowd had ties to local officials and
agribusiness bosses, and police made little effort to stop the
violence, according to human rights group
Carrasco is a lead embryologist at the University of Buenos Aires
Medical School and the Argentinean national research council.
study, first released in 2009 and published in the United States
this past summer, shows that glyphosate-based herbicides like
Roundup formula caused deformations in chicken
embryos that resembled the kind of birth defects being reported in
areas like La Leonesa, where big agribusinesses depend on glyphosate
to treat genetically engineered crops.
The deformations resulted from much lower doses of herbicide than
those commonly found on crops, according to the study.
Biotech chemical giant
Monsanto patented glyphosate under the trade
name Roundup in the 1970's. The billion-dollar product is a main
source of Monsanto's revenue and one of the most widely used
herbicides in the world.
One Monsanto blogger recently wrote that
decades of success has made the
Roundup brand name and glyphosate,
"interchangeable similar to the case of facial tissue and the brand
Carrasco's report was largely ignored in the mainstream American
media, but gained international attention among those opposed to
genetically modified (GM) crops like Monstano's Roundup Ready crops,
which are genetically engineered to tolerate the glyphosate-based
The report is not the first to show that
glyphosate herbicides like
Roundup are more dangerous than government regulators and Monsanto
have claimed, and Carrasco is not the first scientist to face
intimidation after challenging the biotech industry, although he is
the first to be threatened with violence.
Nevertheless, his report made an impact: journalists covered the
petitioned Argentina's high court to ban glyphosate and the government of the Argentinean province of Chaco
began studying an eerie increase in birth defects and child cancer
near the soy and rice fields sprayed with thousands of gallons of
According to a spring 2010 report released by the
an increase in birth defects and child cancer cases coincided with
years of agricultural expansion and increased herbicide use in the
province. The number of child cancer cases in La Leonesa, the small
town where Carrasco and the other concerned citizens were attacked,
has tripled from 2000 to 2009 and the number of birth defects in the
province nearly quadrupled during that time, according to the
The report acknowledges that some local agribusinesses were
unlawfully spraying herbicides too close to residential populations,
but the Chaco study soon caught the attention of researchers across
In September, an international coalition of scientists released a
report citing the attack in La Leonesa and human tragedy in Chaco as
proof that Roundup and genetically engineered soy crops are
dangerous and unsustainable.
The report provides a conclusive
rebuttal to the industry's claims that spraying mutant crops with
chemicals is the best way to feed the world.
It's just another
chapter in an information war that has raged for more than a decade,
pitting independent scientists and embattled whistleblowers against
the world's biggest biotech and petrochemical corporations.
Monsanto has gained much of its international notoriety - or infamy,
depending on whom you talk to - through its Roundup Ready line of
crops that are genetically modified (GM) to be immune to the
To use the herbicide to combat weeds, farmers must buy
patented Monsanto GM seeds with the genetic herbicide tolerant
trait. Roundup herbicide is then sprayed to kill unwanted weeds, but
the patented GM crops are spared.
The Roundup Ready crop system was first made available in 1996.
Since 2000, the percentage of Roundup Ready corn grown in the United
States has exploded from 7 to 70 percent and now 93 percent of the
soybeans grown in the US are GM, according to the US Department of
Roundup accounts for about 40 percent of Monsanto's annual revenues
and is sprayed on about 12 million acres of American farmland
year. In April, Monsanto
announced the completion of a $200 million
expansion of its glyphosate production facility in Louisiana.
Monsanto's Roundup Ready patent runs out in 2014, and the Justice
Department began an antitrust
investigation of Monsanto this year as
its petrochemical competitors like
DuPont clamor for a piece of the
Monsanto has proven its tenacity in such disputes in the
past; it forged new legal territory in the past decade,
farmers who saved Roundup Ready seeds or simply grew crops infected
with GM traits after the patented Monsanto gene drifted and
multiplied in their fields.
Monsanto's domination of domestic agriculture has had a startling
side effect in the fields: the rise of new glyphosate resistant
weeds commonly called "superweeds."
Like the GM corn and soy, these
weeds have bred themselves to tolerate Roundup and are invading
farms across the country.
Monsanto shocked investors and environmentalists in October by
announcing a new program that offers
millions of dollars in rebates
to farmers who combine Roundup with more herbicides manufactured by
the company's competitors to combat the glyphosate-resistant weeds
threatening GM crops across the country.
The mere presence of superweeds and the fact that Monsanto is now
paying farmers to spray additional chemicals that are more toxic
than Roundup, is evidence of a complete regulatory breakdown,
according to watchdog group Center for Food Safety (CFS).
In his September 30 testimony to Congress on superweeds, CFS senior
policy analyst William Freese said that the USDA regulates GM crops
and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates herbicides,
but there is no regulation of the combined system.
"And it is the system - the invariable use of glyphosate made
possible and fostered by glyphosate-resistant seeds, for instance -
that is responsible for the growing epidemic of glyphosate-resistant
(GR) weeds," Freese said in his testimony.
"This is clearly
demonstrated by the near complete absence of GR weeds for the first
20 plus years of glyphosate's use and the explosion of weed
resistance in the decade since the widespread adoption of Roundup
Ready crop systems."
Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, has long been
considered less toxic than other herbicides. The
EPA considers glyphosate a non-carcinogen for humans and a chemical of relatively
Monsanto took the EPA's initial evaluation and ran with it, and in
1996, the state of New York filed a lawsuit against Monsanto over an
advertising campaign that claimed Roundup to be
as safe as table
In recent years, teams of independent scientists like Carrasco's
have come forward with studies showing that Roundup and glyphosate
is more toxic than the regulators will admit. For years, Roundup
critics charged that the "inert" ingredients like surfactants and
solvents in Roundup and other glyphosate herbicides make the
products more toxic to people and the environment.
Carrasco's report, on the other hand, showed that glyphosate itself
caused malformations in embryos similar to those found in humans who
live in agricultural areas dominated by genetically engineered
crops. The report establishes that the toxic "inert" ingredients
made it easier for the glyphosate to invade cells and cause damage.
But Carrasco is not the first scientist to identify this
relationship between glyphosate and Roundup's "inert" ingredients.
Jeffrey Smith, GM critic and author of the books "Seeds of Deception" and "Genetic Roulette," told Truthout that many
scientists have been verbally threatened and denied tenure for
publishing studies critical of Roundup and GM crops.
"The attack [on Carrasco] is the latest in a series of attempts to
silence those who have discovered problems with Roundup," Smith
Smith rattled off a list of scientists from Russia, Britain, the US,
and beyond who have faced some kind of intimidation after going
public with research on problems with GM foods and chemical
products, including researcher
Arpad Pusztai, who was famously
relieved from his long-time position at a prominent Scottish
research center in 1998 shortly after making public comments on
potential problems with GM.
Smith is currently working with an international effort to support
Gilles-Eric Seralini, a scientist at the University of Caen in
In 2009, Seralini and his team
released a study showing that four
different Roundup formulations diluted below suggested agricultural
levels killed human placenta, umbilical chord and embryo cells.
"This clearly confirms that the [inert ingredients] in Roundup
formulations are not inert," Seralini's team wrote.
proprietary mixtures available on the market could cause cell damage
and even death around residual levels to be expected, especially in
food and feed derived from [Roundup-treated] crops."
Carrasco cited Seralini's work in his groundbreaking study on
glyphosate and birth defects.
Monsanto responded by calling Seralini's research "political" and
argued that the conditions of the study did not reflect real life
conditions. One Monsanto blogger even compared a key "inert"
ingredient identified by Seralini's study to
Seralini and his team took on Monsanto again last year with a
counter-analysis of lab data provided by Monsanto on the effects of
three GM corn strains on lab rats. Seralini obtained the data after
a German court ordered Monsanto to hand it over for review.
Seralini's team discovered that the original study poorly
constructed and the results reported by Monsanto were misleading.
Seralini had basically refuted Monsanto's ability to formally prove
its GM products to be safe and that didn't sit well with his peers
who supported the industry.
Pro-GM scientists in France, including Seralini's former colleague
Marc Fellous of the French Association of Plant Biotechnology (AFBV),
have since made public statements questioning Seralini's credibility
and calling him a "merchant of fear," according to Seralini's
supporters in the
European scientific community.
Smith said that the intimidation of scientists conducting
independent research, whether coming from the industry or its
researchers, sends a dangerous message to other scientists.
"There is an attitude that, if you dare do research in the field,
then you are threatening your work and credibility," Smith said.
As for Carrasco, the attack in La Leonesa did not keep him from
speaking out. In September, just one month after being confronted by
an angry mob, Carrasco was a featured speaker at the
Carrasco did not respond to a request for an interview.
Carrasco has his work cut out for him. On October 13, just days
before initiating the plan to pay American farmers to use more
herbicides, Monsanto announced that two more GM crops were approved
in Argentina, according to a
press release. Like the US, large Latin
American countries like Argentina and Brazil are key growth markets
This is the challenge facing Carrasco, Seralini, and others who use
science to hold the biotech industry accountable for its push for
control over the future of agriculture.
Their stories show that
taking on powerful financial interests of massive global
corporations can be a difficult - and even dangerous - task: a war
of information between those in search of profit and those in search