Activists behind Zika virus conspiracy theories, Argentine pesticide birth defect scare


This is the second of two articles on misinformation being spread about pesticides in South America. Read Part 1 here.

South America has become ground zero for chemical scares, and the root of these scares is the growing anti-GMO activist movement.

There has been a swirl of misinformation around the Zika epidemic and its likely cause. As scientists are busy honing in on the causes of the disease, a group calling itself the Physicians in the Crop-Sprayed Towns (PCST), was blaming a very effective pesticide, pyriproxyfen — a larvicide added to drinking water to stop the development of mosquito larvae in drinking water tanks. The same group claimed the pesticide, known by its commercial name SumiLarv, was manufactured by Sumitomo Chemical, which they said is a Japanese subsidiary of Monsanto.

The conspiracy report was hokum. While the cause and spread of the virus remains a mystery, it’s definitely not pyriporxyfen, as the the incidences of Zika have actually been higher in areas where the larvacide is not used. The hysterical claims, popularized on activist websites like Mike Adam’s NaturalNews and EcoWatch made a splash in the mainstream press, playing into the public’s distrust of Monsanto. Scientists and global health organizations including the Brazilian Health Ministry, Brazilian Association of Collective Health, quickly denounced this claim, noting that pyriproxyfen has not been linked to birth defects. Also, the true manufacturer of the larvacide is Sumitomo Chemical, a large Japanese firm that is not owned by Monsanto.

The Monsanto-chemical-government chemical conspiracy theory didn’t emerge overnight. It’s part of the strategy of PCST, a group of activists and physicians that have been spreading concerns about chemicals in campaigns across South America. Its biggest “success” to date has been the manufacturing of a belief that agrochemicals, manufactured mostly by Monsanto, are responsible for a reported spike in cancer incidents in the farming belt.

The story traces back to 2011, when the French paper LeMonde reported about a spate of health problems around the town of Cordoba, Argentina, which reports blamed on Monsanto’s popular herbicide, Roundup—glyphosate:

The list of diseases that inhabitants from San Jorge complain of is endless: cancer, leukaemia, foetal malformations, spontaneous abortions, infertility, as well as respiratory, ocular and dermatological problems.

In San Jorge, cancers have increased by 30 percent in 10 years. After a spray, inhabitants report that their lips turn blue, their tongue thickens, chickens die, cats and dogs lose their hair, bees disappear and there are fewer birds.

The article sourced a report from the Ministry of Health in the country’s Cordoba province that claimed cancer rates were double the national average, and highlighted selected cancer data from 2004 to 2009. It turns out that Physicians in the Crop Sprayed Towns, based in Cordoba were issuing these reports and statistics. Many anti-GMO websites and fringe news sites ran with the story, amplifying the scary statistics. The Daily Kos headlined: Monsanto: Poisoning Argentina & The World. Natural Society claimed, “Doctors in Argentina Demand That Glyphosate Be Banned.” Even the mainstream press were swept up in the hysteria. “Are pesticides linked to health problems in Argentina?” asked the BBC.

The answer is “no.” Doctors were not clamoring en masse to ban glyphosate. The findings and warnings never did square with the evidence — although it did follow the propaganda news releases issued by the impressive-sounding Physicians in the Crop Sprayed Towns. The head of the Provincial Cancer Hospital in Cordoba, the provincial minister of agriculture, as well as an agri-chemical specialist at Cordoba University, all emphasized that cancer in the agricultural belt was no higher than anywhere else in the country.

What is Physicians in the Crop Sprayed Towns?

The budding advocacy group held its first meeting in 2010 in Cordoba. Coordinators of this first meeting were Carlos Nota, who serves on the faculty of medical sciences at the University of Cordoba, and Medardo Avila Vazquez, a pediatrician/neonatologist who also is on the medical sciences faculty at the university. They were one of the first groups to disseminate figures indicating higher rates of cancer in agricultural areas:

What alarms physicians the most in crop sprayed towns are two main observations: Firstly, more newborns suffer from birth defects and there are more miscarriages than those usually occurring in their population of patients. Secondly, there is an increased detection of cancers in children and adults and serious illnesses.

But the statistics never supported the claims. PCST got away with their claims in large measure because they presented themselves as an independent organization, when in fact it had ideological and financial ties to foreign anti-GMO and anti-chemical activist groups.

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Another group, Redus, were key to the spreading of alarmist misinformation in both the Zika and farm cancer belt stories. Redus is an Argentine organization of doctors and other opposed to many modern agricultural practices, including pesticide use and genetic engineering. Principal members include Carlos Nota and Medardo Avila Vazquez. The group has issued statements linking pesticides and cancer in Cordoba and the larvacide and microcephaly in Brazil. After their third annual congress last November, the group declared:

The current system of agricultural production in the country pollutes the environment and food of the sick and kills Argentine human populations agricultural areas. From small towns to larger populations at provincial level (as in Chaco and Córdoba) or national level, in which different levels of exposure to glyphosate or agrovenenos generally compared, and is affected reproductive health increases spontaneous abortions and birth defects, endocrine disorders such as hypothyroidism, neurological disorders or cognitive development and cancer rates soar tripling the incidence, prevalence and mortality from oncological diseases directly related to exposure to pesticides.

A number of individual activists are also playing key roles in spreading conspiracy fears. They include Sofia Gatica, who gave birth in the late 1990s to a child who died of kidney failure. She began asking other residents of Ituzaingo, a town in Cordoba, about the use of pesticides in the region and other diseases those residents may have experienced. She ultimately founded Mothers of Ituzaingo, a group that began protesting against glyphosate, endosulfan and other pesticides. Recently, she won the Goldman Environmental Prize, an American award given to grassroots environmental activists.

Another is Victor Hugo Mazzalay, a scientist at CONICET, (roughly, Argentina’s equivalent of the National Science Foundation) who led a survey in Malvinas Argentinas, a Cordoba province town where a Monsanto corn seed plant was proposed. The survey claimed to show that nearly 70 percent of Malvinas Argentinas residents opposed the plant. It was contested by many residents. They claim that agricultural companies have been responsible employers and neighbors, and they resent what they see as an incursion of activists, mostly foreigners. to their town.

Rob Saik, CEO of Agri-Trend, a Canadian-based consulting group that works with farmers to create sustainable farming solutions, went to Argentina to film his documentary, KnowGMO, and interviewed residents and experts to find out what was really go on. He was startled to find how much misinformation had made it into the mainstream press.

Estela Gutierrez lives in Malvinas Argentinas. “With this supposedly environmental activism, we feel invaded,” she said. Activists in town “wear hoods and carry sticks. We know what it is like to rush to pick up the children from school so as not to let the activists impose their ideas to our kids.”

Graciela Diaz has lived in Malvinas Argentinas for 36 years and comes from a long line of farmers. As for the activists in town, “I think Sofia Gatica left them here, they are not from Malvinas. They are here just to protest against Monsanto. I want companies in my town, to let it develop. People want to work. The economic situation is not easy.”

The residents also noted that Gatica, Mazzalay and other environmental activists ran for political office around the same time they and other activists began protesting the proposed Monsanto plant. “They have a political goal. They don’t care about our children’s future or the development of our town,” said Gutierrez.

Diaz told Saik she agreed. “It’s only some 20 families and activists trying to impose fear. They were brought here and allowed to vote.”

Andrew Porterfield is a writer, editor and communications consultant for academic institutions, companies and non-profits in the life sciences. He is based in Camarillo, California. Follow @AMPorterfield on Twitter.

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