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By MICHAEL WARREN and NATACHA PISARENKO
The Associated Press
 

Argentine farmworker Fabian Tomasi wasn’t trained to use protective gear as he pumped pesticides into crop dusters. Now at 47, he’s a living skeleton.

Schoolteacher Andrea Druetta lives in a town where it’s illegal to spray agrochemicals within 550 yards of homes, and yet soy is planted just 33 yards from her back door. Recently, her boys were showered in chemicals while swimming in their backyard pool.

Sofia Gatica’s search for answers after losing her newborn to kidney failure led to Argentina’s first criminal convictions for illegal spraying last year. But 80 percent of her neighbors’ children surveyed carry pesticides in their blood.

American biotechnology has turned Argentina into the world’s third-largest soy producer, but the chemicals powering the boom aren’t confined to soy and cotton and corn fields. The Associated Press documented dozens of cases where these poisons are used in ways specifically banned by existing law.

Now doctors are warning that uncontrolled pesticide use could be the cause of growing health problems among the 12 million people who live in the nation’s vast farm belt.

In Santa Fe province, the heart of Argentina’s soy industry, cancer rates are two times to four times higher than the national average. In Chaco, the nation’s poorest province, children became four times more likely to be born with devastating birth defects in the decade since biotechnology dramatically expanded industrial agriculture.

“The change in how agriculture is produced has brought, frankly, a change in the profile of diseases,” said Dr. Medardo Avila Vazquez, a pediatrician who co-founded Doctors of Fumigated Towns. “We’ve gone from a pretty healthy population to one with a high rate of cancer, birth defects, and illnesses seldom seen before.”

Once known for its grass-fed beef, Argentina has undergone a remarkable transformation since 1996, when the St. Louis-based Monsanto Co. marketed a promising new model of higher crop yields and fewer pesticides through its patented seeds and chemicals.

Today, all of Argentina’s soy and nearly all its corn, wheat and cotton are genetically modified. Soy farming tripled to 47 million acres, and just like in the United States, cattle are now fattened in feedlots on corn and soy.

But as weeds and insects became resistant, farmers increased the chemical burden ninefold, from 9 million gallons in 1990 to more than 84 million gallons today. Overall, Argentine farmers apply an estimated 4.3 pounds of agrochemical concentrate per acre, more than twice what U.S. farmers use, according to an AP analysis of government and pesticide industry data.

In response to soaring complaints, President Cristina Fernandez ordered a commission in 2009 to study the impact of agrochemical spraying on human health. Its initial report called for “systematic controls over concentrations of herbicides and their compounds . . . such as exhaustive laboratory and field studies involving formulations containing glyphosate as well as its interactions with other agrochemicals as they are actually used in our country.”

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