Daily Dispatches
Former farmworker Fabian Tomasi, 47, is dying of polyneuropathy.
Associated Press/Photo by Natacha Pisarenko
Former farmworker Fabian Tomasi, 47, is dying of polyneuropathy.

Pesticides plague Argentina’s rural farming communities

Environment

As Argentina’s agricultural industry grows, farmers are using more and more pesticides to produce larger harvests. But the massive agrochemical use is often unregulated and close to populated areas, causing health problems in Argentina’s rural communities.

Once known for its grass-fed beef, Argentina is now the world’s third-largest soybean producer. This transformation was spurred by pesticide-resistant seeds from American biotechnological firms such as Monsanto Co. Today, Argentina’s entire soy crop and nearly all its corn and cotton are genetically modified. While the seeds were intended to lower pesticide use, overall use has increased ninefold since 1990 as production increased and pests became resistant to the chemicals. 

The main ingredient of Monsanto’s popular Roundup, glyphosate, has been extensively tested and found safe, but in Argentina it is often used in higher than recommended concentrations and mixed with more toxic poisons. Some health experts are convinced that the agrochemicals are responsible for an increase in cancer, birth detects, and miscarriages. 

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Maria del Carmen Seveso, a doctor who ran intensive care wards for 33 years in Chaco province, became alarmed at regional birth reports that show a quadrupling of congenital defects in the decade after genetically modified crops were approved in Argentina. She and her colleagues surveyed 2,051 people in six towns and found significantly higher incidence of disease and defects in villages surrounded by industrial agriculture than those surrounded by cattle ranches. For example, in Avia Terai, 31 percent of those surveyed reported a family member with cancer in the last 10 years compared with 3 percent in the ranching village of Charadai. 

Safety protocols recommended by the chemical manufacturers are routinely ignored and government regulations are uneven and unenforced. Spraying is banned within 1.9 miles of populated areas in some provinces and as few as 55 yards in others. About one-third of the provinces set no limits at all. President Cristina Fernandez ordered a 2009 commission to study the impact of agrochemical spraying on human health. After initially calling for “systematic controls over concentrations of herbicides and their compounds” the commission has not met since 2010. 

Sometimes the spray drifts into schools and homes and settles over water sources. Other times farmworkers mix poisons with no protective gear. And some villages store water in pesticide containers that should have been destroyed.

Many rural residents are caught in impossible situations, unable to halt dangerous practices, even if they are against the law. Buenos Aires forbids loading or hosing off spraying equipment in populated areas, but in the town of Rawson, it’s done directly across the street from homes and a school, with the runoff flowing into an open ditch. When Felix San Roman complained about clouds of chemicals drifting into his yard, local sprayers beat him up. He filed a complaint in 2011 but is still waiting for justice. 

“This is a small town where nobody confronts anyone, and the authorities look the other way,” San Roman said. “All I want is for them to follow the existing law, which says you can’t do this within 1,500 meters (of homes). Nobody follows this. How can you control it?”

 The Associated Press contributed to this report.

David Sonju
David Sonju

David recently earned a Ph.D. in theology from the University of St. Andrews. He lives near Binghamton, N.Y., with his wife Joy and their two young children.

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