When Professor Andres Carrasco, aged 67, died in May this year, the Washington Post immediately ran an article entitled “Argentine Scientist who Challenged Monsanto dies”. Other newspapers in the US and across the world, from The Times of India to Mexico’s La Jornada, and dozens of websites (including Fox News and Salon), published similar stories. Until a few years ago, Carrasco, a molecular biologist at the University of Buenos Aires and past-president of Argentina's science council (CONICET), was well known only among experts in embryonic development, his field of expertise. After 2009, however, he had gained world notoriety due to his study on glyphosate –one of the world's most widely used weed killers, manufactured by Monsanto. Carrasco’s research had shown that very small amounts of glyphosate can cause neurological damage in frog embryos, which suggested a possible reason for human birth defects reported in farming communities. Not surprisingly, his discovery had become a serious public relations problem for Monsanto, increasingly concerned by the mounting amount of scientific evidence pointing in the same direction.
Contrary to the international attention it stirred, the readers of Argentina’s most widely read newspaper –Clarín– were not even informed of Carrasco’s death (to this day Clarín has reported absolutely nothing). La Nacio n, the second most-read Argentinean daily, only published an extremely brief obituary four days after the decease. Half of the text was dedicated to discrediting Carrasco’s findings, a rather strange thing to do in an obituary. Both newspapers belong to companies with direct links to agribusiness and have consistently under-reported all critical information and opinions related to Monsanto’s activities in Argentina. Indeed, Carrasco gained himself several enemies in a country heavily dependent on agriculture, most of it by now dominated by GM crops, soybean in particular.
The first version of GM soybean –the variety that tolerates glyphosate– was approved by the Argentinean state in 1996, during the second term of the neoliberal Carlos Menem. The process of approval was surprisingly quick; the only surveys of toxicity consulted were those provided by Monsanto. Since then, the proportion of Argentine agricultural land occupied by GM soybean grew dramatically, until it reached today’s peak of over 50%. As all that land requires glyphosate fumigations, its toxic effects became more and more evident. After a few years, rural communities started to notice more cases of usually rare malformations and of cancer, neuronal and respiratory diseases. But their voice was not heard: as a large part of the State revenues comes from the tax on agricultural exports (soy in particular), none of the following presidents did much to seriously analyze the situation, while governors and mayors of all political persuasions were not particularly keen on challenging the power of tax-paying local farmers and corporations. The current president, Cristina Kirchner, seems to have become one of the biggest fans of Monsanto, a corporation she has mentioned in her speeches in a friendly manner, as a valuable investor of money and technology. Thus, reports by common people were once and again dismissed by the authorities as mere expressions of paranoia or environmentalist exaggerations. As the main newspapers and TV channels are also part of agricultural interests, the press also tended to ignore them.
Enter Andres Carrasco. As a leading scientist, he had a strong sense of ethical responsibility before society. In his opinion, the scientist’s role is to work for the general welfare; he was a fierce critic of the idea that science should be at the service of companies or of economic growth per se. As he became aware of the worries of rural communities, he decided to focus his research on the possible effects of glyphosate on human health, by conducting tests on frogs. As he discovered the effects to be massive, he decided to release his results to the public. He contacted Darío Aranda, one of the few journalists who were paying attention to rural communities, and in April 2009 his story made it to the front page of Página 12 –Argentina’s main progressive newspaper. As that happened, his relatively quiet life as a scientist changed forever. Almost immediately, the lawyers of CASAFE (an association that gathers together the main agrochemical corporations, including Monsanto) literally stormed his laboratory looking for the documents and proofs of his research. A bold and famously strong-tempered man, Carrasco managed to quick them out. Then there followed anonymous threats and intimidations on the telephone. But the worst part, for him, was the attacks on his integrity and reputation as a scientist. None less than the Minister of Science and Technology, Lino Barañao, publicly declared that Carrasco’s investigation was flawed and deserved no credibility. Furthermore, the Minister sent a private email to the head of the National Committee of Ethics in Science and Technology, suggesting that they should evaluate Carrasco’s behavior on ethical grounds. As the email leaked to the press, the Committee backed down. Carrasco nevertheless defended himself, by arguing that his alleged ethical breach –disclosing scientific information before it was published in a serious academic journal– was actually an ethical act. The importance of his discovery demanded urgent action, which could not wait for the long process of academic publishing. He then announced that his research was under consideration in a well-reputed international journal (and he was not lying, as later on it was published in the US in the peer-reviewed Chemical Research in Toxicology). Argentine state officials were not his most powerful enemies. As Carrasco found out thanks to the Wikileaks affair, the US embassy in Argentina had also lobbied against him. Other forms of harassment followed in the next couple of years. In August 2010 he was almost lynched by a mob of rural businessmen and local political brokers while he was about to give a talk in the province of Chaco. The last insult came in 2013, when a board of CONICET declined his petition to be promoted to the highest category of the public research system (something he had more than enough qualifications for).
And yet, Carrasco also made many good friends during these years. After 2009, social movements, peasants’ organizations, associations of fumigated neighbors, indigenous people evicted from their lands due to the expansion of agribusiness, activists and like-minded scholars, students and journalists became interested in his work. From 2009 onwards he was invited to dozens of universities and scientific conferences to present his findings, both in Argentina and abroad, but also to rural schools and neighbors assemblies throughout the country. He kept on profiting from every opportunity to warn people of the effects of glyphosate, even when his health was declining. From a little known scientist, in few years he became a public figure and, for some, a hero.
Last June, the School of Medicine of the University of Rosario (Argentina’s third biggest city) established the 16th June –Carrasco’s birthday– as the “Día de la Ciencia Digna” (“Day of Dignity in Science”), to celebrate the role of knowledge and of scientists in the service of the community (and not in the service of profit). Other Argentine universities already agreed on the commemoration day. Considering that universities and scientists from all over the world are under pressure to become appendixes to corporations that provide cheap research (and ask few questions), it would be a great opportunity to make the Day of Dignity in Science a global commemoration.