By Ezequiel Adamovsky
1 October 2014
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Professor Andres Carrasco gained himself several enemies in a country heavily dependent on agriculture, most of it by now dominated by GM crops, soybean in particular.
When Professor Andres Carrasco, aged 67, died in May this year, the Washington Post immediately ran an article entitled “Argentine Scientist who Challenged Monsanto dies”. Other newspapers in the US and across the world, from The Times of India to Mexico’s La Jornada, and dozens of websites (including Fox News and Salon), published similar stories. Until a few years ago, Carrasco, a molecular biologist at the University of Buenos Aires and past-president of Argentina's science council (CONICET), was well known only among experts in embryonic development, his field of expertise. After 2009, however, he had gained world notoriety due to his study on glyphosate -– one of the world's most widely used weed killers, manufactured by Monsanto. Carrasco’s research had shown that very small amounts of glyphosate can cause neurological damage in frog embryos, which suggested a possible reason for human birth defects reported in farming communities. Not surprisingly, his discovery had become a serious public relations problem for Monsanto, increasingly concerned by the mounting amount of scientific evidence pointing in the same direction.
Contrary to the international attention it stirred, the readers of Argentina’s most widely read newspaper -– Clarín -– were not even informed of Carrasco’s death (to this day Clarín has reported absolutely nothing). La Nacion, the second most-read Argentinean daily, only published an extremely brief obituary four days after the decease. Half of the text was dedicated to discrediting Carrasco’s findings, a rather strange thing to do in an obituary. Both newspapers belong to companies with direct links to agribusiness and have consistently under-reported all critical information and opinions related to Monsanto’s activities in Argentina. Indeed, Carrasco gained himself several enemies in a country heavily dependent on agriculture, most of it by now dominated by GM crops, soybean in particular.
The first version of GM soybean -– the variety that tolerates glyphosate -– was approved by the Argentinean state in 1996, during the second term of the neoliberal Carlos Menem. The process of approval was surprisingly quick; the only surveys of toxicity consulted were those provided by Monsanto. Since then, the proportion of Argentine agricultural land occupied by GM soybean grew dramatically, until it reached today’s peak of over 50%. As all that land requires glyphosate fumigations, its toxic effects became more and more evident. After a few years, rural communities started to notice more cases of usually rare malformations and of cancer, neuronal and respiratory diseases. But their voice was not heard: as a large part of the State revenues comes from the tax on agricultural exports (soy in particular), none of the following presidents did much to seriously analyze the situation, while governors and mayors of all political persuasions were not particularly keen on challenging the power of tax-paying local farmers and corporations. The current president, Cristina Kirchner, seems to have become one of the biggest fans of Monsanto, a corporation she has mentioned in her speeches in a friendly manner, as a valuable investor of money and technology. Thus, reports by common people were once and again dismissed by the authorities as mere expressions of paranoia or environmentalist exaggerations. As the main newspapers and TV channels are also part of agricultural interests, the press also tended to ignore them.
In the small aircraft hangar hall a wiry man stood waiting for our pilot -- it was his flight pupil. Julio Molnar introduced him as a doctor from the region. I'm not allowed to reveal his name, because what he had to tell us could cost him his job: "I'm seeing more and more villagers who are victims of the crop dusting. The most dangerous toxin, from a medical perspective, is Glyphosat, the main ingredient of Roundup. The hospitals around here are experiencing many stillbirths and babies born with severe deformities."
Official health department data confirmed a fourfold increase in birth defects in the Chaco soy zone. The number of cancer deaths had also risen significantly. Monsanto continued to claim that Roundup was no more dangerous than conventional herbicides, but no one had verified this assertion -- except Monsanto itself.
That changed, however, in 2010, when the US scientific journal 'Chemical Research in Toxicology' published the results of a groundbreaking study by Argentine molecular biologist Prof. Andres Carrasco. At his Institute of Cell Biology and Neurosciences the professor had conducted laboratory tests with Glyphosat on amphibians. Carrasco was so shocked by his own results that he decided to leave the safe confines of his scientific ivory tower and to make his discoveries available for use as ammunition against Monsanto. I met the feisty man, who was not afraid of a heated debate, at an anti-GMO conference in the Belgian city of Gent. He told me about the comprehensive study he had carried out on amphibians, which are very close to humans in their genomic structure. He had injected the test animals with a very low dose of Glyphosat. The result was spontaneous miscarriages and birth defects. The scientist was alarmed: "There is most definitely a correlation between the Roundup deployments in the countryside and the rising number of birth defects. I was very concerned, and wrote as much to our president. I know Mrs. Kirchner personally because we were at university together. She didn't even answer. The government is closing its eyes to this ticking time bomb and is conducting no systematic epidemiological surveys whatsoever. They're afraid it would mean the end of the entire soy model."
Carrasco found himself in the crosshairs of Monsanto and the US embassy in Buenos Aires. According to documents published by Wikileaks, they conducted undercover investigations against him, and sections of the Argentine government along with the national mainstream press began an orchestrated campaign to undermine Carrasco's reputation as a serious scientist. Monsanto proponents were up in arms because Carrasco shed doubt on Argentina's position as a ''green superpower"; in a conversation with me the former WWF President Dr. Hector Laurence even berated him as a "charlatan", motivated by ideological issues. Prof. Carrasco laughed when I told him that, but it was obvious that the attacks were really getting to him; it took an enormous amount of energy to defend himself against them. He said that a series of university colleagues had also stabbed him in the back. On the other hand -- his eyes lit up at this -- "reality" was stronger than lies. "The health crisis in the soy zones is such that even the GMO fanatics can no longer deny it."
Prof. Andres Carrasco's scientific theses have given encouragement and a voice to the growing movement of fumigated people all over Latin America. Carrasco also mentored the organization of rural Argentine doctors against fumigation. The worldwide protest movement against GMOs was deeply shocked to hear of the death of the courageous and dedicated scientist. Professor Andres Carrasco died on May 10th, 2014.
Prof. Andres Carrasco (RIP 2014)
-- Panda Leaks: The Dark Side of the WWF, by Wilfried Huismann
Enter Andres Carrasco. As a leading scientist, he had a strong sense of ethical responsibility before society. In his opinion, the scientist’s role is to work for the general welfare; he was a fierce critic of the idea that science should be at the service of companies or of economic growth per se. As he became aware of the worries of rural communities, he decided to focus his research on the possible effects of glyphosate on human health, by conducting tests on frogs. As he discovered the effects to be massive, he decided to release his results to the public. He contacted Darío Aranda, one of the few journalists who were paying attention to rural communities, and in April 2009 his story made it to the front page of Página 12 –- Argentina’s main progressive newspaper. As that happened, his relatively quiet life as a scientist changed forever. Almost immediately, the lawyers of CASAFE (an association that gathers together the main agrochemical corporations, including Monsanto) literally stormed his laboratory looking for the documents and proofs of his research. A bold and famously strong-tempered man, Carrasco managed to quick them out. Then there followed anonymous threats and intimidations on the telephone. But the worst part, for him, was the attacks on his integrity and reputation as a scientist. None less than the Minister of Science and Technology, Lino Barañao, publicly declared that Carrasco’s investigation was flawed and deserved no credibility. Furthermore, the Minister sent a private email to the head of the National Committee of Ethics in Science and Technology, suggesting that they should evaluate Carrasco’s behavior on ethical grounds. As the email leaked to the press, the Committee backed down. Carrasco nevertheless defended himself, by arguing that his alleged ethical breach –disclosing scientific information before it was published in a serious academic journal– was actually an ethical act. The importance of his discovery demanded urgent action, which could not wait for the long process of academic publishing. He then announced that his research was under consideration in a well-reputed international journal (and he was not lying, as later on it was published in the US in the peer-reviewed Chemical Research in Toxicology). Argentine state officials were not his most powerful enemies. As Carrasco found out thanks to the Wikileaks affair, the US embassy in Argentina had also lobbied against him. Other forms of harassment followed in the next couple of years. In August 2010 he was almost lynched by a mob of rural businessmen and local political brokers while he was about to give a talk in the province of Chaco. The last insult came in 2013, when a board of CONICET declined his petition to be promoted to the highest category of the public research system (something he had more than enough qualifications for).
And yet, Carrasco also made many good friends during these years. After 2009, social movements, peasants’ organizations, associations of fumigated neighbors, indigenous people evicted from their lands due to the expansion of agribusiness, activists and like-minded scholars, students and journalists became interested in his work. From 2009 onwards he was invited to dozens of universities and scientific conferences to present his findings, both in Argentina and abroad, but also to rural schools and neighbors assemblies throughout the country. He kept on profiting from every opportunity to warn people of the effects of glyphosate, even when his health was declining. From a little known scientist, in few years he became a public figure and, for some, a hero.
Last June, the School of Medicine of the University of Rosario (Argentina’s third biggest city) established the 16th June –- Carrasco’s birthday -– as the “Día de la Ciencia Digna” (“Day of Dignity in Science”), to celebrate the role of knowledge and of scientists in the service of the community (and not in the service of profit). Other Argentine universities already agreed on the commemoration day. Considering that universities and scientists from all over the world are under pressure to become appendixes to corporations that provide cheap research (and ask few questions), it would be a great opportunity to make the Day of Dignity in Science a global commemoration.
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