Latin America, a continent infested by pesticides

Latin America, a continent infested by pesticides

In the last decade, Latin America has led, together with the United States, in the world consumption of pesticides, widely used in transgenic crops such as soybeans or cotton. Brazil and Argentina lead the Latin American statistics. In 12 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, poisoning by chemical products, especially pesticides and lead, cause 15% of registered illnesses, according to the Pan American Health Organization.

With 1,000 million tons per year, Brazil is the state in the world that uses the most pesticides in its agriculture, surpassing even the United States in certain years. According to the Brazilian Association of Collective Health (Abrasco), 70% of the food consumed in This tropical country is contaminated by pesticides. This means that each Brazilian consumes an average of 7.3 liters of pesticides annually.

It is followed by Argentina, another champion in the consumption of glyphosate, with about 300 million liters per year. It is a herbicide capable of inhibiting a plant enzyme essential for the metabolism of plants, which is known to have harmful effects on the health of the population. Uruguay, Paraguay and Mexico also stand out for the massive use of these substances, which for many experts are responsible for causing different diseases.

"There are several investigations in the States of Ceará, Mato Grosso and Paraná, in Brazil, which show an increase in cases of cancer and malformations in fetuses linked to the extensive use of pesticides", Karen Friedrich, researcher at the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz) and professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. “Brazil concentrates 20% of the world market for pesticides. What we have seen in recent years not only in Brazil, but throughout the world is the increase in the use of pesticides in the cultivation of raw materials. One of the causes is the use of herbicide-resistant transgenic seeds ”, he adds.

The world market for pesticides grew 93% in the last 10 years. In Brazil, this increase was 190%, according to data from the National Health Surveillance Agency of this country (Anvisa). Another published study warns about the impact of these on health. "The National Cancer Institute points out that pesticides have a close relationship with the number of cancer cases detected in increasingly precocious ages," says Luiz Cla´udio Meirelles, public health researcher at Fiocruz and executive secretary of the National Forum to Combat Agro-toxins and GMOs. Unlike Brazil, where 70% of the food consumed is contaminated by pesticides, in the European Union this percentage is close to 47%, according to data from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA, for its acronym in English).

“In Brazil we always had large tracts of land and farms, whose cultivation invites the use of pesticides. Its use increased during the military dictatorship. Today we have a model of agriculture promoted by major public policies since the 1970s, which favors production in large areas of land and monocultures, which in turn are an environment conducive to the proliferation of pests, ”explains Friedrich. Hence, the consumption of pesticides has grown exponentially.

This increase is due in large part to the massive planting of transgenic seeds, especially soybeans. Several experts point out the intrinsic relationship between transgenic crops and the growth of pesticide use, precisely because the large multinationals in the sector produce and market pesticide-resistant seeds in order to increase the sale of these products. A study published last year by the journal Science Advances (edited by the American Association for the Advancement of Science) indicates that the use of GMO corn and soybeans in the United States has reduced the use of insecticide products, but has increased the use herbicides, especially glyphosate.

“The fragility of the Latin American states creates an environment conducive to registering toxic molecules that are prohibited in other countries. The lack of information on the risks of these practices also plays a role. The media and agribusiness lobbies only show the advantages of this farming model, ”says Karen Friedrich.

The recent acquisition of Monsanto by Germany's Bayer, blocked at the beginning of October by the European Union, and the merger of the American giants Dow and DuPont contribute to further consolidate the market for GM seeds and pesticides. Both groups control a large part of the Latin American market for seeds and pesticides.

In Brazil, the coming to power of Michel Temer seems to favor agrochemical producers. Since the beginning of her mandate, which replaced Dilma Rousseff's after the impeachment of 2016, she has spared no support for the lobby of agrarian entrepreneurs. In recent months, the Ministry of Agriculture has drawn up a provisional measure that aims to soften the control rules on pesticides in Brazil. This bill, which must obtain the approval of Parliament to enter into force, would open the way for the use of substances considered carcinogenic or responsible for causing fetal malformations and genetic mutations based on laboratory tests to be authorized. " The new bill intends to change the name of pesticides, which would be renamed pesticides, thus masking the danger of these products. He also wants to withdraw from control bodies such as Anvisa the responsibility for assessing these substances on health and the environment, ”says Friedrich. "Of all pesticides allowed in Brazil, 30% are prohibited in the EU, and this law would make our reality even more permissive," recalls Professor Larissa Mies Bombardi, a researcher at the Laboratory of Agrarian Geography at the University of São Paulo (USP ).

Argentina is another country that stands out for the massive use of pesticides, especially glyphosate. Several specialists associate the growing use of pesticides with the increase in transgenic crops. “Argentina began to use pesticides on a massive scale in 1996, when the first glyphosate-resistant transgenic soy developed by Monsanto was approved. In fact, the arrival of soybeans in Brazil occurs through Argentina, through the province of Misiones ”, journalist Patricio Eleisegui, author of the book Poisoned, explains to esglobal. “Since 1996 Argentina has about 40 approved transgenic seeds. Of these, 32 are resistant to some type of pesticide, generally glyphosate. These seeds do not have any modification in relation to their nutritional capacity. They are only modified to resist pesticides ”, he adds.

It is, in other words, a ploy by large corporations to sell more agrochemicals. The result in Argentina is that in the last 20 years the use of pesticides has increased dramatically: almost 50% between 2002 and 2008, according to Eleisegui. Although there is no comprehensive epidemiological study that establishes the effect of these substances on health with certainty, there is increasing evidence that they are causing havoc among the population of rural areas.

“There is no epidemiological study at the national level because both the Government of Cristina Kirchner and that of Mauricio Macri promote transgenics. In San Salvador, in the province of Entre Ríos, 40% of deaths today are due to cancer. There are also studies that prove that there is contamination from the use of glyphosate and other pesticides in the water, in the soil and in the air of the entire city. Similar data have been recorded in other cities, ”Eleisegui reports.

His book, published in 2013, was censored and after a long struggle to regain the rights, it reappeared in bookstores this year. Eleisegui highlights that Macri has kept Lino Barañao as Minister of Science, inheriting him from the antagonistic government of Cristina Kirchner. “The cultivation of soybeans has allowed a historic collection. Argentina has never had as much profit as with transgenic soy. This was the great economic support of the Kirchner project for more than 10 years, ”says this journalist.

“At the same time, there has been a degradation of the environmental and productive system, because Argentina has become a purely soy-producing country, when it had a highly diversified matrix of crops. In health terms, the drama is getting worse. There are many university studies that confirm massive contamination from the use of glyphosate and other pesticides. GMOs have exploded and that is due to economic interests. The worst thing is that the wealth generated is concentrated in very few sectors. Argentine society is not better off because of the profit generated by transgenic soybeans, ”adds Eleisegui.

In the rest of Latin America, the global consumption of pesticides is also worrying. Uruguay uses dangerous herbicides abundantly. In this country, 97% of the fruits and vegetables that were consumed between November 2015 and August 2016 had pesticide residues, according to data from the Food Regulation Unit of the Montevideo Municipal Government. “In fact, almost the entire Uruguayan agricultural sector is developed by Argentine businessmen. When Argentina began to have restrictions on some crops, producers bought land in Uruguay and exported the same model. There are even speeches by former Uruguayan President José Mújica in which he praises Monsanto and admits that it is necessary to take advantage of transgenic soy if it creates wealth. The Government of Tavaré Vázquez is even more in favor of transgenics ”, Eleisegui recalls.

Between 2009 and 2013, Paraguay increased its import of pesticides fivefold. From eight million kilos they went on to import 43 million kilos, according to official data. Faced with this increase, in 2015 the UN came to express its concern, at the same time that it urged this South American country to regulate the use of pesticides.

One of the last measures of Rafael Correa before leaving power in Ecuador was to free the planting of transgenics, banned since 2008. In fact, this country was one of the few countries that prohibited the cultivation of transgenics in its Constitution. In 2012 Correa showed a certain openness to this type of crop, which automatically entails the use of pesticides, by declaring that "genetically modified seeds can quadruple production and lift the most depressed sectors out of poverty." Finally, the former president resorted to a legal gap in article 401 of the Magna Carta and approved the use of transgenics for investigative purposes. This measure has generated the protest of a sector of farmers.

In Bolivia, the import of pesticides multiplied by six in just eight years, according to data from 2015. In this period, the country acquired 228,000 tons of pesticides worth 1,237 million dollars. This trend has been consolidated in 2016, when their consumption grew by almost 50%. "In Bolivia they are reluctant to introduce transgenics, but in the media it is observed that there is more pressure than in other years to enable the use of these modified seeds," says Eleisegui.

Despite not having large areas of cultivated land, Chile uses many pesticides, to the point that last year the alarm was triggered due to the high mortality of bees, responsible for pollination. Recently, a study has revealed that pesticides used in Chile have caused a 39% reduction in sperm production in bees.

Another country that stands out for the use of pesticides is Mexico, which is currently fighting a battle to prevent the introduction of transgenic corn seed. In this country, at least 12 pesticides are used that are banned in the rest of the world due to their harmful effects on health and the environment. Substances such as DDT and Lindane are smuggled into Mexico and pose a serious risk to consumers. In addition, 186 highly dangerous pesticides containing carcinogenic substances are commercially registered in this country, which have been banned in Europe or are not sold in other states because the companies that market them have refused to continue investing in laboratory tests that should make clear its side effects.

Importantly, these substances dangerous for human consumption reach Europe in the form of exported products. Argentina, for example, sells soy flour with traces of glyphosate to Italy, which is later used in the production of pasta. Due to the concern generated by the presence of this pesticide in food products, the television program Le Iene even recorded an entire program on the effects of glyphosate in Argentina.

Last year, Germany returned all shipments of honey from Uruguay because it detected traces of glyphosate. Since then, Germany has drastically reduced the purchase of honey from the Latin American country, which has dropped sharply from 90% to 15%. These are just two examples that reveal that the uncontrolled use of pesticides can also have an impact thousands of kilometers away.

On the contrary, recently Spain has managed to avoid the crisis of eggs contaminated by pesticides that has hit the economy of 17 countries of the Eurogroup. This country, which has more than a thousand farms and 40 million laying hens, has managed to avoid the recall of its products thanks to the exhaustive controls carried out by national and local authorities.

Valeria Saccone

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