(IPS) The agriculture industry in Argentina is enjoying the boom in demand for soybeans and other commodities and the subsequent high prices, which are also fattening the state coffers. But the question of the unsafe handling of pesticides and fertilisers has basically been ignored amidst the collective euphoria.
According to the Secretariat of Agriculture, the latest harvest set a new record of nearly 95 million tons of grains, half of which were soybeans.
This year, the harvest should exceed 100 million tons, and the state expects to take in 7.5 billion dollars in tax revenue as a result.
Last year, farmers purchased more than 5,000 tractors, a similar number of sowing machines and 2,000 harvesting machines. But as the area under cultivation has expanded and investment in technology has increased, the use of agrochemicals has grown as well.
Private consultants estimate that 3.6 tons of fertilisers were used in 2007, 20 percent more than in 2006. And the growing demand has drawn major investments in fertiliser production plants run by local and international companies, which indicates that output will continue to rise.
A similar boom is seen in pesticide use, with glyphosate as the leading product, used to control weeds in the country’s vast soybean fields.
Statistics from the Secretariat of the Environment show that the use of pesticides has grown steadily since 1991, and that half of the demand comes from soybean producers.
Argentina is the world’s third-largest producer of soybeans, after the United States and Brazil.
But little attention has been paid to warnings from companies, government agencies and experts on the potential toxic health effects of agrochemicals for people living in rural areas.
Experts warn that the inappropriate handling of such products not only causes acute intoxication, but also health problems that only emerge in the long-term.
"This issue has not yet been put on the agenda of social problems," sociologist María Alejandra Silva, director of the workers health unit at the University of Rosario’s School of Medicine, told IPS. "Concerned civil society sectors have failed to get our voices heard."
Local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) led by the Rural Reflection Group have long been warning about the risks faced by the rural population due to the expansion of monoculture farming of genetically modified soybeans, which require glyphosate, and the aerial spraying of fields, that is frequently carried out without the necessary safety precautions.
Silva, a researcher with the National Council of Scientific and Technical Research (CONICET), said the state, which brings in enormous tax revenues from farm exports, "looks the other way."
And although government bodies have even financed studies on the issue, "there are no policies, nor a political will, to address it," she said.
The expert also said transnational corporations that produce agrochemicals finance research carried out by the agronomy departments of universities in Buenos Aires and other provinces, thus compromising academic independence and objectivity.
The same is true, she said, in the case of coverage by the rural supplements of newspapers, which are financed by foreign companies.
In an article on "the challenges facing Argentina with respect to rural growth that has ignored environmental and health concerns", Silva wrote that in this South American country "little or no attention is paid to the question of the environmental and health sustainability of the rural sector’s current model of growth."
She said the agricultural producers surveyed in the study expressed concern over the soil’s loss of fertility caused by intensive use, but were not worried about the lack of oversight and control in the production, transportation, storage, handling and application of fertilisers and pesticides, or about the disposal of the empty containers.
Studies on the health effects of the inadequate handling of agrochemicals are few and far between, and "cases of intoxication are disguised in the official records," Silva complained.
The symptoms of mild or acute poisoning from agrochemicals include headache, fatigue, weakness, dizziness, restlessness, nervousness, perspiration, nausea, diarrhea, loss of appetite, loss of weight, thirst, moodiness, soreness in joints, skin irritation, eye irritation, and irritation of the nose and throat.
Long-term exposure to pesticides and fertilisers without adequate protection and safety measures can cause cancer, neurological damage, endocrine disruption, reproductive disorders, fetal malformations, immune system disruption and impaired nervous system function.
A study conducted in different regions with the coordination of the Argentine Association of Doctors for the Environment (AAMMA) warns of the inadequate and indiscriminate use of pesticides, a lack of protection for the workers who handle them, and for their families, and the accumulation of contaminated containers on farms, plantations and orchards.
Pesticides and fertilisers can pollute the soil and both surface and underground water sources, and pose risks to living beings, says the report on "the problem of agrochemicals and their containers and their effect on the health of workers, the exposed population and the environment".
The study, carried out with contributions from the Health Ministry, the Secretariat of the Environment and Sustainable Development, and several universities, says the inappropriate handling of these products is "a serious environmental and health problem" in Argentina that is causing damages that "could be irreversible," especially for children.
Although the results of the research differed from province to province, the proportion of rural workers or farmers who took no safety measures or merely used gloves was generally higher than 80 percent. Most were unaware of the risks posed by the agrochemicals they used, and many purchased the products as dispensed in smaller quantities in unlabelled containers lacking instructions for proper usage.
Around 15 percent of the farmers interviewed in the eastern province of Buenos Aires said they knew people who were "resistant" to pesticides and handled them without gloves. This was described by the authors as a popular misconception among farmers who often fail to understand that symptoms sometimes only show up in the long-term.
A large proportion of the respondents also said they know people who had been intoxicated in accidents.
In addition, many of the interviewees were unaware of, or simply did not follow, the regulations for disposing of empty agrochemical containers, which must be washed three times and then perforated so that they cannot be reused.
Most of the containers end up in piles on unused fields around farms or are buried or burnt, with the subsequent polluting effect on the environment. In some low-income rural or semi-urban areas, people even use the empty containers to haul water.
According to the study, the problem is a serious one because the funding is lacking for carrying out local research showing a direct link between the improper handling of pesticides and health effects that can show up decades after contact, or even in future generations in the case of pregnant women exposed to pesticides or fertilisers.
In the meantime, "in light of the real magnitude and urgency of the problem," the researchers recommend campaigns to inform people about the correct handling of such products and the risks they pose, as well as training, both for farmers and workers who use them and health professionals who must properly diagnose the symptoms of exposure to toxic agrochemicals.