Drugs

When Cocaine and Monsanto's Pesticide Collide, the War on Drugs Becomes a Genetically-Modified War on Science

Monsanto and the U.S. government are dealing with unanticipated hazards of the pesticide Roundup in the South American drug war.

At the intersection of cocaine and Roundup in rural South America, Monsanto and the U.S. government are struggling to keep up appearances. That's becoming more and more difficult as the unanticipated hazards of genetic modification become clearer.

Back in April, Argentinean embryologist Andrés Carrasco gave an interview with a Buenos Aires newspaper describing his recent findings suggesting the chemical glyphosate, a chemical herbicide widely used in agriculture as well as in U.S. anti-narcotic efforts, could cause defects in fetuses in much smaller doses than those to which peasants and farmers in his country were already being exposed. Loud calls for a ban on the substance were issued by Argentinean environmental lawyers, and the country's Ministry of Defense banned the planting of glyphosate-resistant soya crops in its fields.

Then came the backlash. An article in an Argentinean paper recently reported that Carrasco was assaulted in a way he described as "violent" by four men associated with agricultural interests:

Two of the men were said to be members of an agrochemical industry body but refused to give their names. The other two claimed to be a lawyer and notary. They apparently interrogated Dr. Carrasco and demanded to see details of the experiments. They left a card Basílico, Andrada & Santurio, attorneys on behalf of Felipe Alejandro Noël.

It's still unclear who these people are. But the interest in keeping such information quiet or discrediting Carrasco and his findings are strongest with Monsanto, the agricultural company who first patented a glyphosate product (sold as Roundup) and also created genetically-modified crops specifically to resist the herbicide.

GRAIN, an international non-profit supporting small-scale farmers and biodiversity in community agriculture, originally reported the story, evidently before the reports of threats against Carrasco were known. GRAIN has also done extensive reporting on Monsanto's genetically-modified soya crops in Argentina (which, according to the group, have increased five-fold since their introduction there, and have taken over more than half of Argentina's farmland) as well as on the use of glyphosate (which has increased fourteen-fold since its introduction, contrary to Monsanto's promises that its crop would decrease pesticide use). The so-called "Roundup Ready" crops have interbred with other plants, creating "superweeds" which in turn necessitate the use of other poisonous herbicides such as atrazine.

The dangers of glyphosate are hotly debated. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency does regulate the allowable amount in drinking water, but the data it has on the dangers of the chemical are all nearly two decades old, and many studies were sponsored by Monsanto. But rural agricultural workers across South America have been protesting the spraying for well over a decade, pointing to increases in local cancer rates and birth defects as proof.

The Transnational Institute (TNI), a nonpartisan international group of scholars, has drawn attention to the inconsistencies and basic errors in studies refuting the dangers of glyphosate. This should come as no surprise, since Monsanto has been involved in several known cases of scientific fraud regarding the same chemical, wherein the EPA found multiple instances in which labs were paid to falsify preferred results for the company. Monsanto has also been charged in multiple jurisdictions for disseminating misleading information about its Roundup products.

Yet, glyphosate is still the top-selling herbicide around the world. And it's not just used to kill weeds, either. The U.S. military sprays glyphosate from airplanes onto drug crops as part of its worldwide anti-narcotic strategy. The best known example of such an effort was named Plan Colombia by the Clinton Administration and persists today.

But punishment is meted out unequally. Because glyphosate is an herbicide and is not specifically targeted to work against drug crops (as is easily deduced by the fact that it's used against coca and poppy plants as well as against household weeds in the U.S.), the spray kills legitimate crops, too.

That is, unless you're growing Monsanto's specially-formulated "Roundup Ready" crops. The you can spray nearly unlimited amounts of the stuff, which is what it seems farmers (as well as the U.S. military) are doing.

It seems that the whole operation may have backfired though, at least from the perspective of the governments that are promoting such a strategy. The effort has lead to coca growers cutting down national forests -- where such spraying is often against the law -- to produce their illicit crops. But Mother Nature may be rebelling against drug policy as well. coca plants appear to be either evolving on their own (or with the help of coca farmers' active selection)  -- or they are possibly crossing with Roundup Ready crops already on the ground -- to produce a glyphosate-resistant crop known as Boliviana negra.

One TNI study looked at the political and commercial motives for continuing to spray the chemical on drug crops in South America regardless of findings that the effort is counterproductive at best:

It is true that the United States is behind fumigation, backed by the economic interests of companies such as Monsanto and DynCorp, who share in this lucrative business -– which is one of the reasons it meets with opposition. But it is also true that the disastrous consequences of the current anti-drug policy, of which fumigation is but one component, are a reality that surpasses ideologies, and the nations that suffer its consequences firsthand must find a solution instead of becoming polarised...

Colombia would not fumigate if it weren’t for pressure from the US. It would be implementing other forms of eradication or offering alternative development programmes that provide income to the population.

The group suggested that South American countries band together to refuse U.S. anti-narcotic spraying on environmental and human safety grounds, as has been done in Afghanistan.

In 2004, Joshua Davis had the Boliviana negra plant tested to determine its provenance for Wired Magazine. He concludes that the glyphosate-resistant coca plant he found in Colombia was most likely developed in the fields by farmers grafting on chance genetic mutations.

But the resulting article is perhaps most interesting for the taciturn response on all sides of the issue. Davis suggests that South American authorities don't want to talk about the situation because the revelation might cost countries that receive a large amount of U.S. aid to combat drug traffickers. The U.S. government doesn't want coca farmers who don't already know to find out about the new strain, because it can still eradicate old strains with glyphosate. And drug growers who do have the new strain certainly don't want the status quo to end, because currently the U.S. government is doing their weeding for free.

But on the larger cost-benefit analysis, the biggest winner is Monsanto. The more Roundup Ready crops there are out there, the more Roundup farmers need to get rid of the weeds, as is evidenced by the GRAIN research in Argentina. The real foe of Monsanto is not drug cartels or government entities. It's scientists.

When you put together the studies referenced above, which show that spraying glyphosate is harmful to humans and the environment and that it does not hamper the production of coca or weeds, the answer to almost everyone's problems is eliminating Monsanto.

So while there's no solid proof that the men threatening Andrés Carrasco belong to the same corporation that falsified lab results on the harm caused by glyphosate or the group that told lies about Roundup, there's no doubt in my mind that they belong in the same sick club.