Toxic warfare on the farm

When you smell the insecticide in the air, it is already getting into your lungs. When you eat the foods that has the insecticides on it, it is getting into your stomach and destroying your cells. The same goes for food plants that absorb the insecticides through their root system.” — Just one pained response of an affected rural in America where every third citizen is a cancer candidate — to reportage of what agro-chemicals were doing to farmers, their families and communities everywhere.
When in 2010, Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif rejected Monsanto’s proposal for Pakistan, one credited him with singular environmental wisdom. It transpired later he turned them down because Monsanto demanded a royalty fee for every acre that Bt seed was sown on – akin to sub-letting someone else’s land ! — Also for the right to prosecute farmers who planted copied seeds or saved seeds; and because Bt cottonseed had no solution for the Cotton Leaf Curl Virus, the main pest destroying 2-3 million bales every season.
On Monsanto’s part it was all take and no give, and Sharif would have none of it. Unfortunately, he’s had a change of heart since.
Agricultural shenanigans not being Mr. Shahbaz Sharif’s forte, he needs to be informed by neutral sources, not government and other GM supporters parroting the same sales pitch. Obviously no one told him that Bt cotton produces up to 4,000 times more toxic Bt than soil microorganisms, rendering the entire plant poisonous and all-round hazardous.
In early 2011, Dr. Don Huber, professor emeritus at Purdue University and internationally-recognized plant pathologist, wrote frantically to US Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, to warn him of a new mystery AIDS-like disease. His team discovered a common but infectious microscopic pathogen that was specifically prevalent in GM crops.
Glyphosate, the primary chemical in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, weakens the plant’s immunity, making it susceptible to the pathogen. This blocks the plant’s ability to absorb certain vitamins and minerals, and finally kills it. Nor is the damage limited to plants but also affect humans and animals that eat the chemically-grown foods. Vast areas of GM farmland have already died, and many animals consuming GM feed became infertile or suffered abortions.
Mr. Shahbaz must consider that Bt and the chemicals it partners with, cause infertility in both men and women. Over 50 pesticides are classified as hormone disruptors. There are increased miscarriage and infertility rates and drastic fall in male testosterone levels. Women becoming pregnant during peak pesticide-use season, face highest risk of birth defects in newborns — Spina bifida, cleft lip, clubfoot, and Down syndrome. Over 260 studies link pesticides to various cancers, including leukemia and brain, breast, prostate, bone, lung, liver, bladder, thyroid, and colon cancers.
Today, women have even more to worry about. In late 2012, Canadian scientists conducted a study on women for five basic toxins in the environment and food system. They found one or more toxins in each and every woman tested. Pregnant women were passing it on to their children. Symptoms include cramping, burning, nausea, shock, vomiting, and sore throat. Among the toxins were Glyphostate and Cry1Ab, the Bt toxin, both Monsanto hallmarks.
Greenpeace states Cry1Ab could further compound existing problems of antibiotic resistant infections. Yet these chemicals are classified in USA as Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS). Governance doesn’t work there either; political and financial persuasions do.
In 2012 too, the ‘Institute of Science in Society’ reported that glyphosate in Monsanto’s Roundup was causing both DNA and cellular damage to mouth and throat cells. Alarmingly, it took only a tiny amount of Roundup — 200 times below the routine farm-spray strength to do the damage. As crops and workers get drenched, chromosomal abnormalities develop and ultimately kill cells.
Earlier this year, the ‘International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health’ reiterated these facts, linking Monsanto’s Roundup to a fatal chronic kidney disease striking down poor farmers everywhere. It develops mutated insects and kills human kidney cells, even in low doses. Worryingly, chemically-driven Bt crops currently cover about 40% of globally cultivated GMO crops.
Just this month we finally discover why even scientists get fooled. It has to do with how regulatory agencies test agro-chemicals. How do they evaluate? Turns out no chemical compound is ever checked in its entirety, as actually sold to and used by farmworkers. Instead, tests are carried out on a single chemical ‘active’ ingredient, assumed to have pest or weed-killing action. Manufacturers conveniently exclude mentioning the additives – known as adjuvants – that boost pest- or weed killing abilities.
Any biologist or chemist knows that various substances in combination work very differently from the individual components, each on its own. In other words, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. So the Biomedical Research International (BRI) decided to look at the chemicals not tested – the supposedly ‘inert’ adjuvants, usually suppressed as confidential by manufacturers.
The findings of the BRI research were horrific. BRI tested the toxicity of 9 major agro-chemical formulations used globally on lab rats but on three human cell lines. In 8 of the 9 formulations, the combined effects of interactions between multiple chemicals were hundreds or thousands of times more toxic than the single chemical declared safe by regulators! It exposed a serious defect in the ‘single-chemical’ testing process.
It means both regulators and corporations are giving a very inaccurate and misleading picture to farmers and consumers. Products used not only on farms but on lawns and home-gardens as well are falsely advertised as safe. A single chemical may not do much harm, but in combination with others becomes up to 10,000 times more toxic.
In 2010, Bt Cotton seeds by local seed companies and government institutions were approved, despite unsatisfactorily low toxin and poor quality. This year more low-quality varieties were introduced. Three consecutive seasons of failures did nothing to discourage the inexplicable determination to bulldoze in Bt crops.
The reason why became clear when some scientists and bureaucrats suddenly took the plea that in view of consistent failures, there was no choice but to return to Monsanto for all Bt cottonseeds.
Both sides knew the government institutions and local companies lacked the requisite technical know-how and capacity to produce and test trial runs. Failure was a foregone conclusion, but well worth the wasted time for
Monsanto if it brought the government running back to them, translating into a near monopoly of Pakistan’s cotton economy.
Last week, Governor Punjab Chaudry M Sarwar publicly declared that Bt Cotton would double our cotton production from 13 to 26 million bales! Would Monsanto give a written guarantee to that effect? No, because they need their usual escape route of blaming farmers for wrong practices when things fail.
Decision-makers need to be careful about information fed to them — local seed companies and Pakistani scientists have already displayed a conflict of interest by submitting biosafety data copied from Monsanto. And Bt cotton trials that never had oversight or testing and unsurprisingly failed, are now advertised for sale anyway.
Whether they admit it or not, the government is not merely toying with agriculture and the economy, but with our very lives.

 The writer is a former journalist and currently director of The Green Economic Initiative at Shirkat Gah, a rights and advocacy group.

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