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BUENOS AIRES, Apr 15 2009 (IPS) - Glyphosate, the herbicide used on soybeans in Argentina, causes malformations in amphibian embryos, say scientists here who revealed the findings of a study that has not yet been published.
"The observed deformations are consistent and systematic," Professor Andrés Carrasco, director of the Laboratory of Molecular Embryology at the University of Buenos Aires medical school and lead researcher on the National Council of Scientific and Technical Research (CONICET), told IPS.
Reduced head size, genetic alterations in the central nervous system, an increase in the death of cells that help form the skull, and deformed cartilage were effects that were repeatedly found in the laboratory experiments, said the biologist.
The news was reported Monday by the Argentine newspaper Página 12.
The scientist explained to IPS that the conclusions were from "a research study that came up with precise data," but that the final report was not yet ready for publication.
Nevertheless, he believed it was necessary to make the results public due to "a question of general interest."
Monsanto’s head of communications in Argentina, Fernanda Pérez Cometto, told IPS that the company has "several studies that show that the herbicide is harmless to humans, animals and the environment."
But the company "will not issue an opinion" until the University of Buenos Aires study is published, she said.
"It is essential to know what kind of methodology was used, which is why we have asked the laboratory for a copy of the study," said Pérez Cometto.
She insisted, however, that Monsanto’s herbicide was tested in 1996 by authorities in Argentina, who reported that it was unlikely to pose an "acute risk."
"Obviously it is a substance that must be used correctly, with the safeguards listed on the label, just like insect repellent or bleach. You can’t drink a glass of herbicide and expect it to have no effect," she added.
Carrasco explained that in the first phase of the experiment, amphibian embryos were submerged in a solution of herbicide diluted in water in a proportion that was 1,500 times weaker than that used today on genetically modified soybeans in Argentina – the country’s main crop. The embryos suffered head deformations.
In the second stage, embryonic cells were injected with glyphosate diluted with water, without the additives that go into the commercial product. The impact was even more negative, showing that the active ingredient accounts for the toxicity, rather than the additives, the biologist said.
"One should be able to suppose, with certainty, that the same thing that happens to amphibian embryos can happen to humans," said Carrasco, whose team of specialists in biology, biochemistry and genetics has been working on the study for 15 months.
"It is clear that glyphosate is not innocuous and that it does not degrade or break down, but accumulates in cells," he said.
A potent mix of glyphosate sprayed from airplanes is one of the tools used by the Colombian government to eradicate illegal coca crops.
But the destructive effects of the spraying on crops, livestock and people in areas across the border in Ecuador have prompted complaints by the Ecuadorean government.
Some 200 million litres a year of glyphosate are used in Argentina. Soybeans cover around 50 percent of all farmland – nearly 17 million hectares – and are the country’s main export product. The herbicide is mainly applied by aerial spraying.
Agronomist Jorge Gilbert with the National Institute of Agricultural Technology (INTA) told IPS that glyphosate, like other chemicals used to combat weeds or pests, "is not good or bad in and of itself, but depends on how it is applied."
INTA, a government agency that provides technical advice to farmers, has never taken a critical position towards genetically engineered soy. To the contrary, many of its professionals believe the introduction of herbicide-resistant seeds represented an advance in rural development.
But environmental and social organisations have been complaining for at least five years that populated areas near fields of genetically modified soybeans have suffered a sharp increase in the number of cases of cancer, birth defects, lupus, kidney disease, and respiratory and skin ailments.
The Grupo de Reflexión Rural (GRR – Rural Reflection Group), a local NGO that launched a "Stop the Spraying!" campaign in 2006 in the provinces where soybeans are most extensively planted, published a report this year based on the accounts of rural doctors, experts and the residents of dozens of farming towns.
GRR lawyer Osvaldo Fornari told IPS that the federal courts were presented with the report and asked to investigate the approval process for herbicides and pesticides. He also said that based on the cases of people whose health has allegedly been affected, the "precautionary principle" should be applied, and the use of Roundup should be preventively banned.
President Cristina Fernández ordered the creation of a committee made up of staff from the Health Ministry, the Secretariats of the Environment and Agriculture, and INTA, to investigate the health and environmental impacts of glyphosate.
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