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Monsanto calls glyphosate 'safe' after AP report

Wednesday - 10/23/2013, 5:08pm  ET

Associated Press

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) -- Monsanto Co. is calling for more controls on agrochemicals, including its Roundup line of glyphosate-based weed-killers, in response to an Associated Press report about concerns that illegal pesticide applications are harming human health in Argentina.

"If pesticides are being misused in Argentina, then it is in everyone's best interests - the public, the government, farmers, industry, and Monsanto - that the misuse be stopped," the St. Louis, Missouri-based company said after the AP report was published Monday.

The company criticized the AP report as lacking in specifics about health impacts, though the story cited hospital birth records, court records, peer-reviewed studies, continuing epidemiological surveys, pesticide industry and government data, and a comprehensive audit of agrochemical use in 2008-11 prepared by Argentina's bipartisan Auditor General's Office.

Argentine doctors interviewed by the AP said their caseloads -- not laboratory experiments -- show an apparent correlation between the arrival of intensive industrial agriculture and rising rates of cancer and birth defects in rural communities, and they're calling for broader, longer-term studies to rule out agrochemical exposure as a cause of these and other illnesses.

Asked for Monsanto's position on this, company spokesman Thomas Helscher told the AP in an email Tuesday that "the absence of reliable data makes it very difficult to establish trends in disease incidence and even more difficult to establish causal relationships. To our knowledge there are no established causal relationships."

Earlier, Monsanto criticized the AP report as "overbroad in indicting all 'pesticides' when we know that glyphosate is safe."

"The U.S. EPA and other agencies not only say there is no evidence of carcinogenicity but go further to give it the highest rating, "E," which means there is affirmative evidence that glyphosate does not cause cancer in humans."

This claim of safety is part of the problem, Monsanto's critics say. While glyphosate is less toxic in terms of acute exposure than many other herbicides, insecticides and fungicides, it is routinely blended with other chemicals when applied to crops. The spray that drifts from fields and seeps into groundwater adds to an overall chemical burden, a mix of many individual ingredients.

In 1996, Monsanto paid a $50,000 fine and agreed to "cease and desist" promoting glyphosate as "safe" after New York's attorney general sued it for false advertising.

Monsanto acknowledged then that EPA approval "is not an assurance or finding of safety" because U.S. regulations are based on a cost-benefit analysis, which balances the potential of "any unreasonable risk to man or the environment" against the "the economic, social, and environmental costs and benefits of the use of any pesticide."

Argentine federal law follows a different standard. It says that when "faced with the possibility of serious and irreversible harm," the users of a chemical must make sure they protect human health and the environment, even when there's "a lack of information or scientific certainty," and "no matter the costs and consequences."

Asked which standard Monsanto should follow in Argentina, the company spokesman said it follows all applicable regulations all over the world.

"It is not for Monsanto to decide or give opinion about the legal principles that rule the regulations of the country. Monsanto is respectful of the Argentine legal and regulatory framework, and will comply with the principles Argentine authorities decide," Helscher wrote Friday in response to questions from the AP.

Agriculture Secretary Lorenzo Basso did not respond to requests for comment sent to his office, his secretary and his biotechnology deputy.

Dr. Damian Verzenassi runs a continuing epidemiological study at the National University of Rosario Medical School that has found a 90 percent increase in cancer rates since 1997.

"They said this new system of production would diminish agrochemical use in the country. They called the arrival of GMOs a second green revolution," he said Tuesday.

Helscher acknowledged to the AP that agrochemical use has not decreased and in fact has grown beyond what would be required by the dramatic expansion of farming in Argentina alone.

The country's "agricultural production has tripled in the last 20 years, going from around 35 to just about 100 million tons that are currently produced. In the same period, the agrochemical application per produced ton grew at a dramatically lower pace of 2.85 to 3.2 liters according to the figures of the agrochemical industry," Helscher wrote.

The AP report cited data from CASAFE, Argentina's pesticide industry chamber, showing a ninefold increase in the overall amount of formulated agrochemicals sold annually, from 9 million gallons (34 million liters) in 1990 to more than 84 million gallons (317 million liters) in 2012.

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