The mass spraying of glyphosate in Colombia, both on farmland and in the ‘war on drugs’, is a direct attack on small scale farmers, rural communities and FARC rebels, writes W.T. Whitney Jr. But since the chemical was declared a ‘probable carcinogen’ Colombia has restricted aerial applications. The first step in a wider backlash against the toxic herbicide?
Monsanto Corporation’s glyphosate, sold as ‘Roundup’, is the world’s most widely used herbicide.
For the globalized capitalist economy it’s a tool for wealth accumulation and, secondarily, for subjugating rural populations. In Colombia glyphosate is a weapon of war.
For 20 years the US and Colombian governments have used glyphosate in their so-called drug war to eradicate coca crops. Glyphosate now returns to the news. The occasion is ripe for a look at the herbicide’s outsized role in the world economy and its dire effects everywhere.
Acting on President Juan Manuel Santos’ recommendation, Colombia’s National Drug Council on May 14 banned aerial spraying of glyphosate. The ruling has implications for beleaguered rural life in Colombia due to far-reaching effects of the chemical. They are due mainly to the aerial spray method of delivering glyphosate, which is unique to Colombia.
The decision also bears on peace negotiations in Havana between FARC rebels and the Colombian government because the drug war serves as cover for war against the FARC, at least according to the government’s political opposition.
The trigger: WHO decision to class glyphosate ‘probable carcinogen’
The government’s action was in response to a March 20, 2015 statement from the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer. The claim there was that glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic to humans”, that it causes “DNA and chromosomal damage in human cells [and there is] convincing evidence that [it] also can cause cancer in laboratory animals.”
Even so, days before the government’s announcement, US Ambassador in Colombia Kevin Whitaker publicly called for continuation of the fumigation program.
Glyphosate gained worldwide usage and Monsanto – no longer the chemical’s sole manufacturer since its patents expired in 2000 – became its leading purveyor due in each instance to the chemical’s biological function.
It kills all growing plants within reach, with two exceptions: crops grown from seeds genetically altered to resist glyphosate’s noxious effects; and the growing number of weeds that have acquired resistance to it through over-use. Monsanto conveniently sells both the seeds and the herbicide.
Vietnam style defoliation in present-day Colombia
Colombian authorities long ago licensed Monsanto to import and sell genetically modified seeds for human use and for animal feeds. The government’s decision on fumigations does not affect those regulations or the use of glyphosate for crops.
Together with Dow Chemical, Monsanto produced the dioxin- containing defoliant ‘Agent Orange’, based on the herbicide 2,4D, that the US military used in Vietnam. Drug war fumigations in Colombia recall that misadventure.
Adverse effects have included loss of soil fertility, widespread deforestation, destruction of crops farmers grow for food, water contamination, and a plague of human ailments. Anecdotal evidence suggests increased prevalence of cancers and birth defects.
Until now health warnings on glyphosate have fallen on deaf ears, maybe due to Monsanto Corporation’s lobbying power with government regulators. Data taken from the US Environmental Protection Agency suggest Monsanto knew about glyphosate’s potential for human toxicity in 1981.
Animal studies then and since have shown that low-dose glyphosate causes “precancerous conditions” and also kidney damage that continues through generations. Recent studies from Europe, Argentina, and the United States have demonstrated glyphosate’s presence in human milk, urine, and blood.
The Colombian government in 2008 paid Ecuador for harm caused by glyphosate sprayed along their common border and has prohibited fumigations on or near national parks. Lawyers in Los Angeles recent initiated a class action law suit against Monsanto alleging false advertising: Monsanto claimed that the herbicide “targets an enzyme only found in plants and not in humans or animals.”
But now, the victims are the poor
Spraying has contributed to fear and poverty in targeted regions. Consequently, rural populations, Afro-Colombians and indigenous peoples particularly, have had to abandon small landholdings and move into cities, or take up residence in neighboring countries. Estimates of 6.3 million displaced Colombians rank second to figures applying to Syria, the world leader in that category.
Some 80% of displaced Colombians live in poverty, 35.5% in extreme poverty; Colombia’s overall rural poverty rate is 65%. Departing families have left behind 17.5 million acres to be taken over for large-scale agricultural operations, mining projects and cattle ranching.
Indeed, Monsanto Corporation has ‘strode the globe like a colossus’ (in the words of an old saying). Monsanto is first in the world in seed production, accounting for 41% of all seeds and 90% of genetically-modified seeds. It ranks 5th in pesticide production.
Monsanto is now trying to buy Swiss – based Syngenta Corporation, first and third in the world for pesticide and seed sales, respectively. The combined entity would generate $45 billion in annual income and control 54% and 33%, respectively, of world seed and pesticide sales.
No more aerial spraying! No more ceding to US pressures!
Popular mobilizations against Monsanto, ongoing for years, have mounted recently, particularly in India, Hungary, Germany, and Argentina. In Colombia, politically left opposition groups, FARC peace negotiators among them, are backing the government’s decision to end glyphosate fumigations.
They are calling upon the government to bolster farmers’ capabilities for producing and marketing food crops thus enabling them to give up coca growing. They say: no more aerial sprayings, plan for sustainable rural development, protect human health and the environment, and defend national sovereignty – no more “ceding to pressures from the United States … and Monsanto.”
US government backing for Monsanto Corporation extends far beyond instigation of glyphosate areal fumigations in Colombia. The Trans-Pacific Partnership, an Obama administration project at issue now, would open up Asian nations to sales of genetically modified seeds and agricultural chemicals.
But farmers should expect no sympathy from Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, whose connections to Monsanto “go way back the Rose Law Firm where she worked”, according to the Organic Consumers Association. Rose represents Monsanto, Tyson, and Walmart, all “world leaders in genetic engineering, animal production and industrialized food.”
In 2014 Monsanto donated half a million dollars to the Clinton Family Foundation while spending more than $3 million on congressional lobbying. Other donors with interests in corporate agribusiness include Coca-Cola ($5m), AstraZeneca ($150k), Dow Chemical ($1m), Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa ($1m), Walmart / Walton Foundation ($2.25m) and the pro-GMO Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which together with Microsoft donated $26m.
Clinton is a firm supporter of Monsanto and other multinational corporations involved with agriculture, and GMOs, which she praised at the 2014 Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) convention in San Diego. In April she appointed long-time Monsanto lobbyist Jerry Crawford as an advisor to her ‘Ready for Hillary’ Political Action Committee
If Colombia and other countries find they are dealing with Hillary as US President, one thing is clear. Any attempts to curb the use of GMOs, glyphosate and other agrochemicals owned by US corporations will be met with fierce countermeasures from Washington DC.
W.T. Whitney Jr. is a retired pediatrician and political journalist living in Maine.