Pesticide Action Network Updates Service (PANUPS)
A Weekly News Update on Pesticides, Health and Alternatives
See PANUPS archive for complete information.
- ‘Superweeds’ jam the pesticide treadmill
- Philippines Dept. of Health: No aerial spraying on banana plantations
- Endocrine disruptors disrupt common wisdom
- GM crops kill lady bugs; science suppressed
The introduction of genetically modified, herbicide-tolerant crops has created a dire situation in the U.S. south – as weeds become more herbicide-resistant, farmers trying to maintain their 10,000-acre-plus “megafarms” are forced to apply increasing amounts of weedkiller. According to Tom Philpott and others, this pesticide treadmill is beginning to break down. Nine strains of amaranth (a.k.a. pigweed) have been labeled as noxious weeds in the U.S. One variety in particular, Palmer amaranth, has become resistant to glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s flagship herbicide Roundup. Amaranth and other so-called “superweeds” have thrown a wrench in the machine of industrial agriculture. Pigweed is sturdy enough to “stop a combine in its tracks” and reduce yields by up to 68%, which is forcing many farmers to abandon chemical weedkillers in favor of mechanical cultivators and hand weeding. The situation is so bad in Macon County, Georgia, that 10,000 acres of farmland were deserted. The qualities that make amaranth a particularly pesky weed are the reasons it has been cultivated as a food source by Indigenous peoples in the Americas since 3400 BC: it is prolific (producing up to 10,000 seeds at a time), drought resistant, reaches maturity quickly, and has an extended period of germination. It is also exceptionally nutritious; containing 30% more protein than other cereal grains and, like quinoa (a pseudocereal), it is a complete protein. The Aztecs used it as a food staple but when the Spanish priests discovered that they were also using it in religious ceremonies, they banned the
sale, consumption, and cultivation of amaranth. The plant has outlasted the Spanish, bested Roundup and is being reintroduced in many places throughout Mesoamerica as an inexpensive, healthy, localized solution to hunger problems.
In response to its current superweed crisis, Monsanto blames farmers for the overuse of glyphosate, and recommends mixing glyphosate with older herbicides like 2-4,D — one of the active ingredients in Agent Orange. They are right about the overuse part — in the ten years after “Roundup Ready” crops were introduced, glyphosate use went from 7.9 million pounds per year to 119 million pounds per year. And as for mixing glyphosate and 2-4D? Monsanto appears to have anticipated the superweed dilemma, as they patented that combination in 2001.
On November 8, The Philippines Department of Health issued a statement urging a halt to aerial pesticide spraying on banana plantations, saying that the banana industry must prove aerial application safe before returning to the practice. According to the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the recommendation is “based on the precautionary principle espoused by the Rio Declaration, of which the Philippines is a signatory.” The statement is based on a 2006 department study that links aerial spraying with diseases of people living in and around the banana plantations. According to the Inquirer, the department recognized that “the fungicides mancozeb and chlorothalonil which are sprayed aerially ’caused acute health effects and chronic effects to workers and communities living near plantations.'” The 2006 study recommendations include: (1) Establishing a health surveillance system to detect health effects of chronic pesticide exposure in communities adjacent to plantations; (2) Requiring industry, with governmental oversight, to monitor pesticide residues in the environment of adjacent communities, remediating where necessary; (3) Creating and strengthening guidelines for protecting communities from pesticide contamination; and (4) Considering a shift to organic farming techniques.
“This is a significant victory,” said Dr. Romeo Quijano of Pesticide Action Network Philippines. “But the campaign continues since the Supreme Court has not yet decided on the issue and the companies continue their aerial spraying.” As PAN North America members know, Dr. Quijano and Ilana Ilang Quijano, his daughter, have been targeted by banana plantation owners with threats and in libel suits for documenting and publicizing the continuing exposure of plantation residents to pesticide poisoning. According to Medha Chandra, PAN North America Campaigner, “It is critical that we develop and implement policies that prevent chemical trespass via pesticide drift. Sensitive sites — such as schools, homes and playgrounds — must be our first priority for protection. Long-term, a transition to agroecological pest management is the best solution to protect health, food and livelihoods of farm and rural communities around the world.”
Endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) are substances in the environment that interfere with hormone (endocrine) systems to cause developmental, reproductive, immunological and neurological disorders including cancer, obesity, diabetes and a host of other illnesses. U.S. regulatory, and traditional toxicological and medical science have been slow to recognize the environmental health hazards posed by EDCs in part because this class of chemicals operates at such low levels and with such complex causal mechanisms that reductive and mathematically linear risk models proceeding from the assumption that “the dose makes the poison” have been ill-suited to comprehend the messy realities of multiple chemical exposures and time-dependent dose response.
Increasingly, toxicologists and now — surprisingly — the American Medical Association, are poised to take up the public health paradigm challenge posed by EDCs. In the latest issue of Environmental Health Perspectives Linda Birnbaum, Director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, presents a summary of recent research that together refutes the commonly held notion that the dose makes the poison. Birnbaum explains how a growing number of studies show that many environmental toxicants can have significant consequences, including dysfunction and disease, at very low-level exposures. Many of these low-dose studies (including with the pesticides hexachlorobenzene and atrazine) demonstrate that “the timing of exposure is critical to the outcome and that exposures during early life stages (fetal, infant, and pubertal) are particularly important. This recognition of critical windows of vulnerability not only demonstrates the developmental basis of disease but also that the timing, as well as the dose, makes the poison.” In addition, the effects of environmental toxins on the human hormone system, for example, are frequently non-linear such that “high doses may not be appropriate to predict the safety of low doses when hormonally active or modulating compounds are studied.” Birnbaum describes this body of research as responsible for disruptive “paradigm shifts in our understanding of the relationship between environmental toxicants and disease.”
A recent article in Nature Biotechnology (PDF) reveals data, formerly suppressed by the biotechnology industry, that demonstrate a transgenic variety of corn is fatal to ladybugs. In 2001, at the request of seed company Pioneer Hi-Bred International, university scientists conducted research on a new variety of transgenic corn containing the binary toxin Cry34Ab1/Cry35Ab1. The scientists found that nearly 100% of ladybugs fed on the corn could not survive past the eighth day of their life cycle. Pioneer prohibited the scientists from publicizing their data and, when applying for regulatory approval for a corn variety containing the same toxin, submitted different data that made no mention of potential harm to ladybugs. Scientists are often barred from publicizing data that is unwelcome to biotechnology companies, particularly when the corporations themselves commissioned the research. Based on claims of business confidentiality and strict contracts with researchers, companies are able to keep unwelcome data under wraps and scientists’ hands tied. Companies routinely deny scientists’ research requests and suppress research by threatening legal action, a practice one scientist describes as “chilling.” In February 2009, 26 corn-pest specialists anonymously submitted a statement to U.S. EPA decrying industry’s prohibitive restrictions on independent research. “The risks of genetically modified crops are coming to light in spite of industry’s attempts to strangle the science,” observes Kathryn Gilje, executive director of Pesticide Action Network North America. Ireland recently banned GM crops in favor of developing agriculture that emphasizes proven agroecological solutions.
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