By Genna Reed
The world lost more than just a prolific scientist when Dr. Andrés Carrasco passed away recently. Carrasco was a molecular biologist at the University of Buenos Aires and former president of Argentina’s CONICET (National Scientific and Technical Research Council). He spent years fighting the pesticide industry and publishing research examining the risks of glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s popular herbicide Roundup. His work inspired a growing movement in Argentina comprised of farmworkers and community members who are urging their government to conduct more research on the risks of glyphosate and other pesticides, and to enforce limits on spraying.
Argentina is the third largest adopter of genetically engineered crops (namely soybeans, corn and cotton), after the United States and Brazil, growing 60 million acres across its landscape. In fact, GMO soybean fields have replaced once dominant cattle ranches in much of the country. A recent Associated Press investigation revealed that in order to produce several harvests in a single year, Argentinian farmers are using up to two times the amount of Roundup per acre as U.S. farmers.
Between 1996 (before GMO soybeans were approved in Argentina) and 2008, soybean production increased fivefold, and glyphosate use increased fourteenfold from 13.9 to 200 million liters. Now it seems that there might be a relationship between the rise in pesticide use and the rise in cancer rates in towns adjacent to soybean fields. The BBC recently produced a great segment exploring the links between pesticides and health impacts on Argentinian families, especially children. The province of Chaco’s Minister of Public Health has called for an independent health study to look at the links between agrochemicals and adverse health impacts in the community, such as birth defects.
Like many other scientists who publish results with unfavorable conclusions regarding GMO crops or associated chemicals, Dr. Carrasco was bombarded with criticism regarding the methodology of his work. His controversial 2010 study exposed frog and chicken embryos to dilutions of glyphosate and found that the treated embryos were “highly abnormal,” shedding light on possible interactions between glyphosate and developmental defects.
“If it’s possible to reproduce this in a laboratory, surely what is happening in the field is much worse,” said Carrasco. “And if it’s much worse, and we suspect that it is, what we have to do is put this under a magnifying glass.”
The precautionary approach with which Dr. Carrasco carried on his work was refreshing in a field dominated by industry-funded studies that fuel approvals of more GMO crops and even more chemical use. His courage to challenge powerful agribusinesses and to work to protect struggling families too sick to fight for themselves will never be forgotten.