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Myth of agrochemicals?

Myth of agrochemicals?

By Eduardo Gudynas

The best known case involves the herbicide glyphosate, which "burns" plants. Its most common application is tied to a genetically modified variety of soy that is resistant to that chemical. Then it is applied in the fields, and it kills all the competing weeds and plants, and only those transgenic soybeans are left standing. It looks like a wonderful instrument.
However, it is a chemical that was indicated as "probably carcinogenic" in 2015 by a specialized committee of the World Health Organization (WHO). Their findings were added to others that warn about the risks with the massive application of this chemical in the fields (1).
Executives at the main manufacturing company for that chemical, Monsanto, knew in advance that the WHO would issue such an assessment, and they were acting to weather the storm (2). This is now known thanks to a lawsuit in the United States that has forced the release of company emails and documents. According to those who closely follow this information, it would be evident that the company aimed to face that opinion and to generate enough public controversy to leave it in suspicion.
A good part of the battle was fought in the press. An example was a report by the Reuters news agency that accused a US scientist who participated in that panel of not having considered data that showed that the chemical would be safe (3). But it quickly emerged that this press report had several problems, including partial references to the scientist's sayings and that the allegedly independent source was actually a consultant for Monsanto itself (4).
According to reports from various fronts that have accessed these internal documents, the corporation's plan would include strategies such as “orchestrating responses to the cry”, that is, promoting high-intensity debates in the media in order to cast doubt on scientific information and the role of evaluation agencies. It also aimed to identify and ask other people and institutions to write articles, blog posts, messages on social media, etc. The company itself, in at least one case, provided basic texts for those people to rewrite and send to the press (5). The more noise, the more you doubt.
It is not my intention here, nor is it possible, to decide who is innocent and who is guilty, and that judicial process is underway in the United States. Instead, my point is that a key dimension around the effects of agrochemicals on health and the environment is in public debate. The manufacturers of these types of substances say that they are wonders and harmless, but as information against it accumulates, much of it from the daily lives of producers and rural communities, they reject them for not being scientific, rigorous or serious.
Whenever a neighbor reports that one of these substances affected their health, someone will immediately appear who claims that they have scientific information that shows that this would not be possible. Every time a rural producer shows that his field was burned, a technician will answer that this chemical is magnificent and that it was an "accident" due to misuse. Anytime a doctor says he suspects cancers have increased, other scientists will blame him for not having statistically valid information.
Noise and confusion have become part of the tools to impose on agrochemicals. Some press media are responsible for this, especially in the agricultural sector. There are magazines that instead of warning about the pros and cons of agrochemicals, seem like a sales catalog.
Furthermore, Uruguay is a “consumer” of the regulatory and evaluation decisions of other countries. The country has limitations to do its own studies, and therefore, if the evaluators in the United States, the European Union, or the United Nations agencies say that it is not bad, our country will surely copy those permits.
However, it is urgent to act with caution. In one of the most recent evaluations of this situation, which has just been published in the journal Science, and which includes one of the leading experts on this subject for the UK government, he points to the contrary. There it is concluded that assuming that pesticides that go through a battery of laboratory tests and field trials are environmentally benign, even when used on an industrial scale, is false (6). A very strong assertion that here, in Uruguay, should lead to reflection.
And for reasons like that, there are now many who consider the use of agrochemicals to promote food for a growing population to be a myth. This is said in the report on the rights to food presented by the UN Human Rights Council. Translated this to Uruguay, the government discourse that we have to accept the impacts of agrochemicals due to our task of feeding the rest of the planet remains without support. It is that both we, and the rest of the world's population, could eat very well without chemicals.

September 25, 2017

Notes and additional information 1. The study of the WTO review committee (in English): here (pdf) 2. The Monsanto company rejects this qualification of glyphosate; your position here. Another scientific study indicates that it is unlikely to be carcinogenic: A review of the carcinogenic potential of glyphosate by four independent expert panels and comparison to the IARC assessment, G.M. Williams et al., Critical Review Toxicology, 2016, here3. Reuters note: Cancer agency left in the dark over glyphosate evidence, June 14, 2017, here4. The assessment on Reuters' note in Monsanto Spin Doctors Target Cancer Scientist In Flawed Reuters Story, Huffington Post, June 18, 2017, here5. A summary of the whole situation in How Monsanto Manufactured Outrage At Chemical Cancer Classification It Expected, Huffington Post, 19 September 2017, here6. Toward pesticide vigilance, by A.M. Milner and I.L. Boyd, Science 357: 1232-1234, here I recommend reading in detail the excellent publication Transgenic crops in Uruguay, Contributions for an understanding of a complex topic, downloadable here7. Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Human Rights Council, January 24, 2017, here


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