Andrés Carrasco chose another path: to question the model of corporations and governments, and he decided to walk with campesinos, fumigated mothers, and peoples in struggle. There was no assembly where he was not mentioned. There are no papers, no scientific magazine, or academic conventions that allows one to go where he went, thanks to his commitment towards the people: Andrés Carrasco already has a place in the living history of those in struggle.
On one of his visits to our Autonomous Chair in Social Communication, scientist Andrés Carrasco recounted how he decided to reveal his research on the lethal effects of glyphosate: He was alone at the seaside fishing, enjoying the natural beauty of the spot he was in, knowing that what he had proved was essential, and he felt that in the perfect silence surrounding him was an immense scream: “Do something.” To do it, he needed to find “a serious and decent journalist.” And so he called Darío Aranda, who has chosen to publish his final farewell to Carrasco in lavaca. A double honor, one that obliges and requires us once again to continue to be worthy of it and them.
“I’m a researcher with Conicet and I studied the impact of glyphosate in embryos. I’d like you to see this work.”
That was the first thing I heard at the other end of the telephone line.
It was 2009 and the debate over Resolution N°125  was still developing. Página/12  gave wide coverage to the consequences of the agri-food industry, and I had written about the effects of fumigating with agrochemicals.
The call made my wary. I did not know the caller. Why was he calling me?
The scientist continued with his presentation. “My name is Andrés Carrasco, I was the president of Conicet and I’m the head of the Laboratory for Embryology at UBA. I’ll give you my details.”
I had never heard of his name. I had never written about scientists, and Conicet sounded to me like a stamp.
I made calls to the paper and consulted various colleagues. Everyone confirmed that he was a recognized scientist, with a thirty-year career, had made very important discoveries in the 80’s, and worked consistently in the 90’s, when he confronted Menemism.
I wrote the article.
His research made the paper’s headline (April 2009). The news: Glyphosate, the main chemical for the soy industry, was lethal to amphibian embryos. Nothing went back to the way it was. Social organizations, campesinos, families who had been sprayed, and activists took Carrasco’s work as proof of what they had experienced in the territory.
“I didn’t discover anything new. I say the same as the families that have been sprayed, it’s only that I confirmed it in the laboratory,” he used to say. And so he began to be invited to all the encounters. From universities and scientific conventions, to gatherings of socio-environmental assemblies and fumigated schools. He tried to go everywhere, taking away time spent in the laboratory and with his family.
He also gained a lot of enemies. The first to criticize him: the agrochemical companies. Lawyers of Casafe (an organization of large agro corporations) went right to his laboratory at the Medicine School and harassed him. He started receiving anonymous threatening calls. And he was also denounced by the Minister of Science, Lino Barañao, who did it on the TV program of no less than Héctor Huergo, head of “Clarín Rural” (agribusiness section of Argentina’s major newspaper) and lobbyist for the corporations.
Barañao disparaged the research and defended glyphosate (and the agricultural industry). And he did it into any microphone that came near him. He even questioned Carrasco’s work in Aapresid meetings (agro-businessmen), as well as, most importantly, at Conicet.
Carrasco wouldn’t shut up: “They think they can so easily blemish a thirty-year career. They are hypocrites, corporate sycophants, but they are scared. They know they can’t bury everyone’s head in the sand. There is scientific proof and, most importantly, there are hundreds of people and places that are living proof of this health emergency.”
The Clarín and La Nación newspapers launched a campaign against him. They couldn’t let a recognized scientist question agri-business. They even claimed the research did not exist and that it was a government operation to prohibit glyphosate in retaliation for the failure of Resolution 125. Carrasco was enraged. “If there’s anyone who doesn’t want to change the soy industry, it’s the government,” he summed up over coffee in downtown Buenos Aires. But Carrasco worked for the government: He was Secretary of Science at the Ministry of Defense. They asked him to dampen the tone of his criticism of glyphosate and the agricultural industry. He did not. He resigned.
Silence is not healthy
Corporations, public officials, and other scientists accused him for not having published his work on glyphosate in a scientific review instead of a daily newspaper. He laughed and retorted: “There is no reason by which the State or corporate economic interests can justify their silence when it is a matter of public health. It must be made clear that when there is one piece of data that interests only a small sector, it can be kept aside until it’s been examined in minute detail, and then directed only at that small sector. But when there is factual evidence that could impact public health, it is mandatory to broadcast that information widely and urgently.”
Carrasco was hot-blooded. He got angry, he argued to death, but then he would throw out a comment to defuse the situation.
We used to see each other at an old café near Constitución. He was a regular. He used to chat with the waitresses and discuss politics with the owner.
Over coffee, I asked him why he got involved in such a mess. He was already a scientist recognized in his field and had nothing to prove. He had, rather, a lot to lose in the present scientific world. He explained to me how moved he was by what the Mothers of Ituzaingó in Córdoba had suffered (4), and that he could not remain indifferent. He also lamented that Conicet served the corporations’ interests. He condemned the agreements (including rewards) between Monsanto and Barrick Gold with Conicet. He became indignant. “People are suffering and the scientists have become businessmen or partners of multinationals,” he charged.
On May 4, 2009, Minister Barañao sent an email to Otilia Vainstok, coordinator of the National Ethics Committee on Science and Technology (Cecte). In an unprecedented action, Barañao presented Monsanto’s bibliographic references and asked that Carrasco be reviewed. Nothing like that had ever happened before. The largest scientific authority in Argentina was asking for an ethics review of a researcher who had questioned the agricultural industry’s main chemical.
Barañao wanted Carrasco’s head.
Vainstok sent an email that same Monday 4 May, copied to the nine members of the Ethics Committee. It read:
“Dear Colleagues, This afternoon, I received a request for Cecte to consider the words expressed in media articles by Andrés Carrasco regarding his research on the effects of glyphosate on amphibian embryos. Attached is also the bibliographic references brought by Lino Barañao, the interview with Carrasco and the interview with Minister Barañao that appeared in Clarín”.
The email was leaked to the press. Carrasco found out about Barañao and Vainstok’s actions. The scandal would have been enormous. The Ethics Committee withdrew and did not try Carrasco, but the path had been lain.
The Ones Below
He was about to give a talk in the province of Chaco in August 2010, but the rice industry’s corporate honchos and political brokers tried to lynch him. Andrés had gone to a school in a neighbourhood that had been sprayed, and he could not participate. He was taken aback by the violence of the industry’s defenders.
That same August, the US review Chemical Research in Toxicology published Carrasco’s research. What had been a request (and a way to ridicule him) by his detractors, would not calm the critics. The agri-business defenders continued to denounce him. But it was a triumph for the places and people who are fumigated, the Mothers of Ituzaingó, and the assemblies involved in the struggle. And Carrasco started to dialogue with other low profile researchers. He felt particular respect and affection for the young researchers at the University of Río Cuarto and the School of Medical Sciences in Rosario. He used to mention them in his talks and called them the “decent future” of science in Argentina.
We used to cross paths at meetings against extractivism. And periodically we would send each other emails with information about the agricultural sector, some new research, his trips to Europe to report on his research, the Mothers of Ituzaingó trial, the new soy approved by the government, new chemicals. One day I received a message from him. “There is a new poison,” was the email’s subject. He alerted me to ammonium gluphosinate and called it a possible successor to glyphosate: “Gluphosinate has been shown to have lethal effects in animals. It produces convulsions and cellular death in the brains of mice. It has clear teratogenic effects (embryo deformities). All indications of serious compromise in normal development,” he specified. And he recalled that in 2005, the EFSA (European Food Safety Authority) detailed the health and environmental dangers of the chemical. He emphasized that since 2011, the Ministry of Agriculture had approved ten genetically modified corn and soy varieties produced by the Bayer, Monsanto and Syngenta corporations. Five of these seeds were approved for the use of glyphosate and gluphosinate.
For what and for whom do they research?
Another evening I sent him an email describing how other researchers had confirmed the same thing as he did, but in frogs (often called the “canaries in the mine” because they may portend what will happen in humans). The researchers were afraid to speak because of possible retaliation. He immediately called me on the telephone. He was unequivocal: “I don’t want to know who they are. I just want you to ask them why the hell they are doing research, to raise frogs or to take care of the people who are subsidizing their research? Please ask them.” And he hung up.
The researchers never wanted to speak nor widely publicize their work.
Carrasco in Wikileaks
In March 2011, it became known that the United States Embassy had investigated him and had lobbied on behalf of Monsanto. Official documents released by Wikileaks confirmed the fact. “I wasn’t expecting something like that, even though we know that these corporations operate at the highest levels, together with scientists who carry out studies on request, media firms that clean up their image, and politicians that look the other way. They were worried, and still are. They know that they cannot hide the reality, as the cases of cancer and deformities reappear in all the areas that have been subject to massive use of agro-toxins.”
The Other Carrasco
In November 2013 I told him that I had interviewed a woman in Estación Camps (in the province of Entre Ríos) who was fighting against the agrochemical companies. She was a rural worker and housewife, very humble, who had been widowed. Her husband was a field labourer who lived surrounded by soy fields and was sprayed periodically. He started to get sick, his skin started coming off, and he had serious respiratory problems. He died after a long period in agony. The woman had no doubt that it was because of the chemicals that rained down on the house. And the doctors also had no doubts, although they refused to put it in writing. The name of the rural worker who died a victim of the agrochemical companies: Andrés Carrasco.
The widow had heard on the radio about a scientist with the same name as her husband, and about glyphosate. And between sobs, she said that knowing that someone with the same name as her husband had been fighting against the chemical companies that had taken away the father of her children, had given her strength.
I told Andrés her story by telephone. The scientific Carrasco was so moved, he could not speak. And he confessed that he used to regret not having investigated glyphosate earlier.
The ultimate maneuvre
He called me at the end of last year to tell me about the Conicet’s latest maneuvre. He had asked to be promoted to head researcher, and it was refused to him. The matter went far beyond just the promotion. He was angered by lack of respect shown by the scientists obedient to corporations and to power. He had been evaluated by two people who had absolutely no knowledge of his speciality, and another who worked for agribusiness companies. He sent me his letter of complaint to Conicet and relayed in detail the meeting he had with the president of the institution. He was sure it was another gauntlet he had to run for what he started in 2009.
The silence of academics he respected pained him, including long-time friends in the social sciences who had turned their backs on him.
I proposed writing a newspaper article to him and intended to get it published in Página12. He held the paper in high regard, despite that they hadn’t given him space for quite a while. I advised him that I would present his version of the facts and those of Conicet and Barañao. He retorted immediately: “They’re going to throw you out on your butt.”
I proposed it to the paper. They rejected it without the least explanation. When I gave him the bad news, he didn’t flinch. He said it was predictable. “Over the last few years, I’ve had a crash course in what is the media,” he said. I answered that over the last few years I’d learned that Conicet was in no way untarnished and that there was too much meanness in the scientific world.
We laughed together.
And he teased me and reminded me that now we were colleagues. He had a radio show in La Tribu, an independent media outlet, where nobody censored him, and he gave a central place to assemblies and organizations fighting against extractivism. The name of the program was a message to their enemies: “Complicit Silence.”
We said we were going to get together for barbecue and publish the article in friendly media (it was published last March by lavaca in their newspaper MU).
For that article, I tried to speak to the “other side.” Barañao said he had nothing to say, casting aside each question. Roberto Salvarezza, president of Conicet, claimed scheduling problems.
The last interview
He travelled to Mexico for the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal (a non-governmental international ethics tribunal that reviews human rights violations). He went back to Mexico in January. He fell ill and was taken to the emergency room. They operated on him in Buenos Aires and he was admitted for two weeks, very weak. When he was discharged, he called me. “I got away with it”, was the first thing he said. And he asked immediately: “What do you know about the blockade in Malvinas Argentinas (Córdoba, where they blocked the installation of a Monsanto plant)? Monsanto having a hard time?” He was there in September 2013 when they started the blockade. He explained to me that he had to take a few weeks to recover, but that when he was better we would go to Córdoba, Malvinas Argentinas, and also visit the Mothers of Ituzaingó. We left it as a plan for the future.
We spoke about his situation at Conicet. The indifference of his colleagues in the academic world pained him, especially in the social sciences. I asked him why he didn’t go to social organizations. He rejected that idea, arguing that they already had enough to do in their territorial struggles to worry about him. He offered to do an interview. We did it. A few quotes:
- “The best scientists are not always the most honest citizens; they stop doing science, and silence the truth in order to rise to higher positions in a model that has serious consequences for the people.”
- “Conicet is absolutely implicit in legitimizing all the technologies proposed by the corporations.”
- “(On official science) We should ask, science for whom and for what. Science for Monsanto and for genetically modified foods and agrochemicals throughout the country? Science for Barrick Gold and to drill the entire Cordillera mountain range? Science for fracking and Chevron?”
- “Many people were behind me, they think what I did is important for them, they have the right to know that there are state institutions that favor arbitrariness in order to sustain their discourse, so their story doesn’t break down.
He knew that the interview was for friendly media, “not mass media”. He was happy, recovering his strength, he wasn’t going to let Barañao, Salvarezza, the scientific establishment, or the agro-corporations get him down.
On March 27 he went to Los Toldos, to a public hearing on agrochemicals. He was weak, but he didn’t want to miss it. The same thing for the Chair in Food Sovereignty, at the School of Medicine (April 7), where he spoke about genetically modified foods and agrochemicals. He wasn’t well, he was in pain, but he didn’t want to miss it. He saw these spaces as places of the struggle, where he had to explain the effects of agrochemicals. He used to say that he owed that to the industry’s victims.
At the end of April, he sent an email saying he had been admitted again to the hospital. He was hoping for it to be a quick visit. He wanted to return home, recover, and make the scheduled trip to Córdoba, to the encampment against Monsanto.
I witnessed his last six years, a time in which he decided to distance himself from the scientific establishment holed up in laboratories and only concerned with the publications that only they read. He became a heretic of Argentine science. He will not be paid tribute in mass media, officials will not give speeches in his honour, and he will not be paid homage in academic institutions.
Andrés Carrasco chose another path: to question the model of corporations and governments, and he decided to walk with campesinos, fumigated mothers, and peoples in struggle. There was no assembly where he was not mentioned.
There are no papers, no scientific magazine, or academic conventions that allows one to go where he went, thanks to his commitment towards the people: Andrés Carrasco already has a place in the living history of those in struggle.
So we are left to pay him an enormous debt: To tell him thank you.
We will meet again in the struggle.
1- National Scientific and Technical Research Council.
2- Resolution introduced in 2008 by the Government of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner to regulate taxation on oilseed and grain exports, which led to a major conflict between landowners and the Government.
3- Major pro-Government newspaper.
4- Mothers of Ituzaingo: mothers who got together to denounce the constant fumigations of which the whole neighborhood was victim.