Despite activists’ claims about glyphosate dangers, there’s no cancer spike in Argentina

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This is the first of two articles on misinformation being spread about pesticides in South America. Read Part 2 here.

The headlines have been alarming: “Cancer deaths double in Argentina’s GMO agribusiness areas,” was typical. The Ecologist in 2014, targeted Monsanto’s Roundup (glyphosate), stating that “it’s all the result of the widespread use of GMO crops engineered for herbicide resistance” and that “industrial, GMO driven cropping is turning into a public health hell.” The claims were backed up by local officials, the magazine claimed.

A report by the Ministry of Health in Córdoba, Argentina reveals that deaths from cancerous tumours are double the national average in areas where genetically engineered crops are grown and agro-chemicals are used. This comprehensive report documented five years of information on cancer cases in the province.

GM Watch ran a similar post, titled “Cancer deaths double where GM crops and agrochemicals used.” This article ran the same report from the Ministry of Health in Cordoba province that claimed cancer rates in that province were double the national average. That report highlighted cancer data from 2004 to 2009.

It later turned out that none of those claims are true. In recent interviews and formal reports, the head of the Provincial Cancer Hospital in Córdoba, the provincial minister of agriculture, and an agri-chemical specialist at Córdoba University, all emphasized that while cancer is a concern for the province the rate is no higher than anywhere else in the country. In fact, the one area where cancer rates are trending higher did not engage in any agriculture.

Rob Saik, CEO of the Canadian-based agricultural sustainability company Agri-Trend, recently visited Argentina to interview specialists and residents as part of the research for a film called “KnowGMO the Movie” that he and his son are producing on agriculture and activism.

The true story is 180 degrees different from what you pick up on the internet” Saik said in an interview. “There are health issues there, but there is no correlation between GMOs, chemicals and cancer rates in Cordoba.” Saik interviewed local experts in two areas of Argentina targeted by activists: Ituzaingo and Monte Maiz.

Expert testimony on real cancer rates

Martin Alonso is a doctor and director of the provincial cancer hospital in Cordoba. Alonso said he first learned about concerns about cancer rates when a survey showed an increase. The provincial government carried out field research and instead of finding the higher cancer rates supposedly discovered by local health officials as claimed by GM Watch, it found that “the cases of cancer found by neighbors could not be confirmed.” In Monte Maiz, part of Cordoba province, he told Saik:

The situation was exactly the same. The evaluations we have carried out did not show different cancer incidences from those found in other populations with similar exposition in Cordoba Province.

Alonso wrote to the president of the committee on human health for the Cordoba legislature to clarify what that rates of cancer were in Cordoba from 2004 to 2011.He was told that there was no overall increase and rates were not different from the rest of Argentina.

According to the World Health Organization…epidemiologic data how the beginning of this trend (of increasing death from cancer) in the less developed world, in particular countries in transition and middle-income, for example in South America and Asia. The Provincial Tumor Registry of Cordoba concluded that the distribution of cancer cases observed in the province of Cordoba is consistent with the epidemiological profile of the country. It is our duty to bring peace to the population…with reference to news stories, and bring rationality to a debate that seeks settlement based on simplistic and incorrect interpretations of the data.

Alicia Cavallo is a chemistry professor at Cordoba University who specializes in agri-chemicals and agricultural management. She observed that pesticides used before the advent of GM crops had higher toxicity levels than glyphosate and other chemicals associated with GMs, and were “not target specific and environmentally safe.”

She noted to Saik that the “Ituzaingo controversy started 15 years ago and the primary causes were different from Monte Maiz. They only considered farming production, not its relation to GMOs. This controversial situation…didn’t take into consideration other contamination factors related to this neighborhood.” It turns out that the neighborhood was built on an old landfill that had heavy metal residues like lead, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) released from electrical transformers, and other contaminants in the soil. Glyphosate on the other hand is neither carcinogenic or teratogenic.

In Monte Maiz, “some students developed a study without the scientific rigor established by the Pan-American Health Organization”. Students simply asked neighbors if they thought cancer rates were high, and if they thought some other people in their neighborhood had cancer. Not exactly a double-blind trial, or even an evaluation of a tumor registry.

Juan Cruz Molina, the agriculture secretary for Cordoba province, pointed out that agriculture in the province constitutes about 40 percent of the surface land area there. And cropland has increased from 3 million to 7 million hectares since 1995. “Due to GMOs, cropland has certain increased,” Molina said. “When properly used, the risks reduce significantly. We all want to practice lower-impact agriculture.” He added that when he and colleagues contacted health organizations, they found no direct relation between pesticides, phytosanitary products, or other agricultural chemicals and cancer. But, “there are certain interest groups that communicate part of the truth. They raise the banner of the environment but they do not communicate the truth.”

All three blame activists who had moved into the areas for the rise of this misinformation. “They associate it with political ideas. They associate GMOs with the lack of food sovereignty, imperialism and other issues,” Cavallo said.

What’s the issue?

It appears that activists had fabricated data identifying cancer rates that didn’t exist. Monsanto had planned on constructing a seed breeding and production plant in Córdoba province until outside activists began arriving in the area to stage protests, influence local neighbors and involve themselves with politics–all to to sow seeds of doubt about GMOs.

Read part 2 here.

Andrew Porterfield is a writer, editor and communications consultant for academic institutions, companies and non-profits in the life sciences. He is based in Camarillo, California. Follow @AMPorterfield on Twitter.