In 1996, the Argentinian government authorized the use of genetically modified organisms (GMO) based on studies done by chemical giant, Monsanto. Little to no independent research was done to verify the company’s own results and claims, and the Misiones Province of Argentina, where poverty-stricken farmers grow tobacco, became one of the first regions to begin handling Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup on their GMO tobacco. Today, every year, more than 300 million liters (80 million gallons) of glyphosate are used on Argentinian soil.
The local farmers consider Roundup to be an ‘agrochemical,’ the label they give to the various toxic substances they’ve worked with in the past, and continue to work with, many of which have now been banned. As their use of Monsanto’s Roundup increased, so too did ill-health in their community, and most notably, birth defects in their children.
Ricardo Rivero, the Chief of Electricity in the city of Misiones, identified a trend amongst the growing number of families who could no longer pay their electric bill. They were tobacco farmers, all with very sick children. One of these children is five-year-old Lucas Texeira.
Lucas’ tobacco farmer father Arnoldo Texeira received Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup without appropriate warning labels. For 15 years, he sprayed the chemical products without any protection, and his wife Rosana sprayed Roundup around the home while six months pregnant with their son, Lucas. Now five, Lucas has suffered from Ichtyosis Lamellar since birth, due to a genetic mutation. His skin lacks pores, so he cannot perspire and cool down, and every inch of his skin itches and burns. According to Arnoldo, nobody will directly blame the agrochemicals; they merely say it was “probably the fault of the agrochemicals.”
Another boy named Lucas Krauss from the same region, suffers from congenital microcephaly, originally misdiagnosed as having been caused by a lack of oxygen during birth. He additionally suffers from epilepsy, delayed motor and mental development, multiple muscular atrophy, and numerous related pathologies. If his father stops growing tobacco, for which Roundup is required, he will lose his social security and no longer be able to afford his son’s care.
In 2010, lawyers and doctors, including some from the United States, met with families in the Misiones province to form a class action lawsuit against Monsanto and Philip Morris. Included in this group is the case of 17-year-old William Nuñez. William is unable to consume his daily fluids and nutrients orally, so is fed via a gastrostomy peg into his stomach. This is a cost many families, even in Western countries, struggle to afford due to the constant replacement tubes for hygienic feeding, and types of formulas that can be required to provide optimal nutrients to the recipient. William cannot speak, nor walk.
William’s parents signed an agreement to join the class action lawsuit, but progress has been slow. The family signed four years ago and have received few updates since.
Further south in San Vincente, Argentina, tobacco is the primary source of income, and the only sector that provides social security for its workers. Tobacco farmer Emilio Kusik, created an independent labor union, as many farmers felt the existing two tobacco unions were more inclined to defend the tobacco companies over small growers and manufacturers of tobacco.
“They treat us like slaves.” – Tobacco Farmer
Emilio describes what he views as a slave system, passed from father to son. The farmers will grow all year to receive one single payout at the discretion of the tobacco buyers. To get their tobacco certified by tobacco giant Philip Morris, the farmers must purchase and use the composts, chemical fertilizers, GMO seeds, herbicides, and insecticides like Confidor, the bee-killer recently banned in France.
Even using these chemical products and producing the tobacco to the standard expected by the buyers, for 947 kilograms (over 2000 pounds) of tobacco, which requires a year’s work to harvest, one farmer receives 11,575 pesos (roughly $590 USD). The Argentinian government steps in and supplements the income of the tobacco farmers with 1,50 pesos per kilo. If the government doesn’t offer such a subsidy, the tobacco industry will simply go elsewhere to secure even cheaper labor.
“It’s obvious, people are contaminated.” – Raul Gomez
The filmmakers then visit 50-year-old Ramon Gomez and his family, who has found and collected the labels of every chemical product he’s been sold and required to use on his tobacco. Today, most are banned for being too toxic. For Gomez and his community, it is not a matter of ‘if’ they will get sick, but ‘when’ they will get sick.
Professor Hugo Gomez Demaio, head of Neurosurgery at the Pediatric Hospital of Posadas, is one of the many Argentinian doctors on the receiving end of these sicknesses, along with his colleague, Professor Mario Barrera, Neurosurgeon and Professor in the Medical School of Nordeste.
“If we don’t intervene, these children are doomed.” – Professor Mario Barrera
These two doctors, alongside the mothers of two young children facing a risk of death from severe tumors, explain how exposure to these agrochemicals even via washing the clothing of their husbands and brothers who spray the chemicals, can lead to the birth defects and illnesses in their children. Worse still, the water used to wash the toxic clothing goes straight back into the river from which they drink.
Professor Barrera explains that rather than direct exposure of the child to the agrochemicals, the parent may be carrying a genetic alteration caused by their own exposure. Abnormal genes get deposited into fatty masses, then into the reproductive system, allowing them to move down to the next generation. It’s a modification of genetic inheritance, primarily caused by agrochemicals passing from mother to child and causing chromosome damage in the first 28 days of pregnancy.
"It's a modification of genetic inheritance." – Professor Demaio
With so many doctors in Argentina sharing their concerns, there has now been an establishment of joint research and inquiry into this idea of inheritance of modified genes. Their results, published in 2009, found miscarriages, congenital defects among newborn babies six times higher than normal, cancers in small children five times higher, and naturally, opposition to their findings by chemical giant, Monsanto.
Monsanto issued a response via their Argentinian site, declaring an earlier done animal study as more accurate regarding human safety, than a newer study done on humans: “Toxicologic studies on animals have shown that glyphosate is not causing cancer, deterioration of immune system, birth defects, no reproduction problems.”
With Monsanto and the Argentinian government against him, Professor Demaio has taken his science to the community himself, organizing at a grassroots level to educate youth and the wider community, partnering with Antonia Husulak, a social science researcher.
Dr. Demaio’s biggest concern, is that “agrochemicals are like a big iceberg, what we see is the upper part.” The most severe defects and deaths are the most noticed, but the milder adverse effects, which cause minimal damage but as mass numbers, could take generations to discover.
According to Steven Phillips of Phillips and Paolicelli law firm, Monsanto did not adequately warn these farmers of the danger of their products, in the conditions under which Monsanto knew the farmers would be using them. The firm believe Monsanto had an obligation to warn the farmers that use without adequate protective equipment (which the farmers cannot afford), would put them, their pregnant wives and sisters, and children, at greater risk. By knowingly selling their product in such hazardous conditions, Monsanto made large sums of money, while having prior knowledge of the damage they were causing to these poor communities.
Phillips and Paolicelli don’t intend on leaving cigarette giant, Philip Morris, out of the equation. The firm alleges that Philip Morris insisted that the farmers use glyphosate and other products to grow tobacco, which forced the farmers into a dangerous act that contaminated their children, which was sufficient grounds to bring the cigarette giant to court. Philip Morris is attempting to have the suit handled in Argentina, rather than in the United States, where Phillips and Paolicelli offices are based.
The tobacco farmers are no longer alone in their David vs Goliath battle.
In Cordabo, the second largest city of Argentina, and a home to the transgenic soybean, glyphosate is sprayed over the fields by plane, while the town itself is covered in anti-Monsanto graffiti. Local mothers, like activist Sofia Gatica, are beginning to make progress having already helped jail one farmer for spraying glyphosate within a no-spraying zone.
Gatica has been subjected to death threats and other attacks during her anti-Monsanto fight, which has lasted over 15 years. Gatica began tracking cases of leukemia, malformations, and other illnesses her neighbors were suffering at astronomical rates and mapping them out in relation to the locations of glyphosate exposure nearest the soybean fields.
Her motivation? Gatica lost her daughter to a kidney defect, and her son became unable to walk after a fumigation event. While in the hospital with her son, Gatica discovered ten cases of children being treated for Leukemia, all living in her same small district of Ituzaingo.
Gatica has also pushed for safer drinking water. Water without excessive amounts of pesticides present. When she demanded this of the city, she was sent a letter. To receive toxic-free drinking water, the community must sign a waiver indemnifying the government from lawsuits for previous exposure. Gatica chose neither, and moved to a new town, as far from glyphosate as she could afford to go.
Despite the land eventually being declared an ‘eco-district’ and classified as a health emergency zone, the Argentinian government made little effort to inform citizens of the risks, and did not prevent unsuspecting poor citizens from moving into the area to take advantage of the available land and housing as spraying continues.
“Wherever we go, we’ll be sick.” – Local resident, Marcela
Local resident, Marcela, explained “We have already been contaminated, it doesn’t matter where we are, we are contaminated. Wherever we go, we’ll be sick.” Fellow resident Norma shared her daughter’s story of Leukemia, diagnosed when the little girl was only 3 years old, another victim of the environmental toxicity of Ituzaingo. The mothers of Ituzaingo hope that with a trial, they can receive justice for what Monsanto and the Argentinian Government have done to their families.
In San Vincente, Argentina, one of the few care centers accepting disabled children for support services is full of those suffering cognitive deficiencies, learning difficulties, and physical disabilities plaguing the district. Lucas Krauss is one of those children. He visits weekly where he receives therapies to assist in improving his physical abilities and communication skills. His instructor travels across multiple locations, and regularly meets parents with the same stories of struggle and feelings of guilt over their child’s agrochemical induced illnesses.
According to the World Health Organization, three million people in the world are poisoned by pesticides every year. Agrochemicals are worth 40 billion dollars a year to the corporations that produce them.
Philip Morris and Monsanto did not respond to requests for comment.
Lucas Krauss and his parents. Lucas Krauss suffers from congenital microcephaly, and other related pathologies.
*Update since the conclusion of filming*
Of the families in the film still involved in civil litigation, they are being represented by five firms: Philips & Poalicelli, Waters & Kraus, The Thornton Law Firm, Capilla & Mustapich, and Bifferato. Their litigation against Monsanto is currently proceeding in Delaware, while their litigation against Philip Morris is proceeding in Argentina.
On June 8, 2018, Monsanto, as a brand, will cease to exist. The German chemicals and pharmaceutical giant Bayer acquired the company (which also manufactured Agent Orange) in a sealed $63-billion merger, despite significant concerns over it’s potential to monopolize the industry, creating an agrichemical behemoth. According to multiple reports, Bayer will drop the Monsanto name as of Friday, June 8, 2018 and relocate the company to Germany.
Bayer CropScience (a division of Bayer AG) manufactures Confidor ™ which is used by the tobacco farmers in the film. Confidor is basically Imidacloprid which is a systemic chloronicotinyl pesticide, belonging to the class of neonicotinoid insecticides. In February 2018, the European Food Safety Authority published a new report indicating that neonicotinoids pose a serious danger to both honey bees and wild bees. In April 2018, the member states of the European Union decided to ban the three main neonicotinoids (clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam) for all outdoor uses. (Source: Wikipedia). A recent study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, indicates neonicotinoids may also have an impact on human health by disrupting hormonal systems and the production of estrogen.
Efforts to protest the damage caused by these agrichemical entities will continue transforming from Millions against Monsanto to Billions Against Bayer.