New Documentary ‘Genetically Modified Children’ Links Monsanto, Philip Morris to Birth Defects in Argentina
A new documentary interviews families of Argentinian tobacco farmers and asks the question, “Can Monsanto chemicals permanently alter your child’s genes?”
While on vacation in the northern Misiones province of Argentina French journalist, documentary filmmaker and longtime Argentinian resident Juliette Igier noticed an oddly high number of children in the local communities with serious health problems. Most strikingly, the health issues she noticed weren’t colds and cases of flu but issues that looked like genetic birth defects or diseases and disorders of the nervous system.
Out of concern, Igier asked locals why so many children appeared so sick. She was told it was because the locals were tobacco farmers and for decades were forced to use highly toxic pesticides on their farms.
What Igier had stumbled into was a community of multi-generational tobacco farmers whose children were now being born with the consequences of their decades-long exposure to pesticides. Igier and fellow director Stephanie LeBrun had to tell their story. Together they directed, and Babel Press produced, “Genetically Modified Children.”
The hour-long documentary sought to shine a light on the plight of the farmers, hold Monsanto and Philip Morris accountable and answer the question, “Can Monsanto chemicals permanently alter your child’s genes?”
The women over time gained the trust of locals in the community and allowed them to tell their story. They also spoke with Argentinian doctors who specialized in neurosurgery and pediatrics and who confirmed to them that yes pesticides can create genetic alterations which are passed down along to the children.
A Trend Among Tobacco Farmers – Sick Children
One child featured in the documentary is five-year-old Lucas Texeira, whose father is a tobacco farmer in Misiones. Lucas has lamellar ichthyosis, which means his skin doesn’t have pores. Lucas can’t perspire and cool down and his skin itches and burns all over.
Another child the documentary features has congenital microcephaly as well as other health problems including seizures, muscular atrophy and delayed mental and physical development. A third child featured cannot speak nor walk and has to be fed through a tube into his stomach. All three are children of tobacco farmers.
One of the first to identify a trend in the Misiones region was Ricardo Rivero, the Chief of Electricity in the city of Misiones. He realized the growing number of families who could no longer pay their electric bill were tobacco farmers, all with very sick children.
Argentina Okays GMO’s
According to the documentary, in 1996 Argentina authorized the use of genetically modified chemicals based on studies provided by Monsanto and little to zero independent research was done to verify Monsanto’s findings. The poor tobacco growing region of Misiones was one of the first to begin to use Monsanto’s weed killer, Roundup.
Monsanto provided the weed killer without proper warning of its toxicity, according to the documentary. For fifteen plus years farmers like Lucas Texeira’s father sprayed Roundup without any knowledge of its toxicity and without wearing protection. His wife also sprayed it around the home while pregnant.
Monsanto, which was recently bought out by Bayer, is currently facing its first-ever lawsuit over Roundup and its active ingredient, glyphosate, in a California court where one groundskeeper alleges it caused his cancer. Hundreds of other lawsuits making similar claims have also been filed against Monsanto.
Tobacco Growing in Argentina Likened to Slavery
As for Misiones, farmers began using Roundup and other chemicals required by tobacco giant Philip Morris in order to get their product certified. If the crops weren’t certified Philip Morris wouldn’t buy the tobacco. Most of the farmers are poor, and farming has been a way of life for generations. Even now with sick children and the belief that pesticides caused their children’s health problems, farmers have to keep farming or else they risk losing the ability to pay for their sick children’s healthcare.
Further south in San Vicente, which lies just outside Buenos Aires, tobacco farmer Emilio Kusik described to the filmmakers a system which he likened to slavery, passed through generations. He told the filmmakers to get their tobacco certified by Philip Morris the farmers must purchase and use the composts, chemical fertilizers, GMO seeds, herbicides, and insecticides like Confidor, the bee-killer recently banned in France.
Another farmer, Ramon Gomez, built sheds to store his old empty pesticide containers because nobody ever came to pick up them despite saying they would. He has a collection of every chemical product he was required to buy and use on his farm, today most of those products are now banned.
Professor Hugo Gomez Demaio, head of Neurosurgery at the Pediatric Hospital of Posadas, and Professor Mario Barrera, Neurosurgeon and Professor in the Medical School of Nordeste, spoke with the filmmakers about how the pesticides cause health defects.
The doctors explained its not the direct exposure to the chemicals that necessarily causes problems but genetic modifications caused by the chemicals to the DNA of the parents. The altered genes are then passed on through the reproductive system into the child who is then either born with a health defect or can also pass on the altered gene to the next generation.
The issue became such a concern to Argentinian doctors that a joint research and inquiry was issued into the idea of the inheritance of altered genes and agrochemical usage. The study was released in 2009 and found miscarriages, congenital defects among newborn babies six times higher than normal, cancers in small children five times higher, and naturally, opposition to their findings by chemical giant, Monsanto.
Professor Demaio has started a grassroots campaign to educate school children about the harmful effects of agrochemicals. He told the filmmakers that “agrochemicals are like a big iceberg, what we see is the upper part.” He is concerned about their milder adverse effects which could build up over generations and take just as long to discover.
Suing Monsanto and Philip Morris
There is a lawsuit in the works being put forward by the American law firm Phillips and Paolicelli which is going after Monsanto and Philip Morris. The firm alleges Monsanto did not sufficiently warn farmers of the toxicity of its products nor warn them of the potential health consequences for their family or children. It also blames Philip Morris for forcing farmers to use glyphosate and other harmful products to grow tobacco which put them and their children’s health at risk.
There is even more to the story in the documentary which is worth the short hour-long viewing time. The DVD can be bought on the film’s website or Amazon and can be streamed on Vimeo or Amazon as well. To learn more about the documentary and other ways to watch it, check out the website for Genetically Modified Children. You can also listen to our full interview with director Juliette Igier below.