HAVANA TIMES — Cancer has been spreading quickly in Cuba for several decades now. In 2012, it became the chief cause of death in the country, and not precisely because the incidence of other causes went down.
Health authorities chalk the onslaught of cancer up to population aging, but it can easily be shown that more than 20 percent of new cases cannot be attributed to this phenomenon. What, then, can they be attributed to?
Everything seems to indicate that the concentration of a series of carcinogens is growing about us. We’ve already mentioned the diesel fumes given off by cars, asbestos and heavy metals. Today, I want to focus on another poison that has come to settle in our guts: glyphosate.
Glyphosate is a broad-spectrum herbicide used in transgenic crops around the world. In March of this year, the World Health Organization (WHO) and International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) “promoted” the chemical to a group 2A* substance. This category includes substances that can cause malignant lesions in human beings, but for which the evidence is not yet conclusive.
It is known that traces of this chemical and other toxic adjuvants seep into farm products we later consume. Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma is the type of cancer that has been linked most directly to glyphosate.
So, what does this substance have to do with Cuba?
For the past 20 years or so, the State has been importing transgenic food products for public consumption, particularly for children. Denied access to dairy products, the majority of Cubans turn to soy yogurt (which we’ll assume is made with transgenic products until its makeup is revealed).
Another widely consumed product that must be making 99 percent of Cubans sweat glyphosate is soybean oil, one of the few cooking oils that low-income people can purchase.
In other countries, civil society fights for its rights against agro-industrial corporations. In Cuba, we don’t see these types of conflicts because the interests of the State supposedly coincide fully with those of the people.
Let us get back to glyphosate. The largest quantities of this dangerous substance do not enter the country furtively in food products. Tons of the chemical are sprayed over sugarcane plantations during every season.
I came across this in a congratulatory article published by Granma months ago. I include a summary of the piece.
The sweet sugarcane grown in Cuba’s fields has been turning bitter for several years now. Put more scientifically, its sucrose levels have progressively decreased. Some 100,000 tons of sugar were lost during the 2013-14 harvest because of the “bitterness of the cane.”
The blame has been laid on climate change, which cannot say anything in its own defense, but many know that poor practices used to increase production – including excessive use of agro-toxins – have ended up eroding what were once fertile soils (see comments in the article below)
How are sugar authorities in Cuba thinking of addressing this situation? Experts in the field decided to confront the dilemma by applying…you guessed it: more agro-toxins. During the 2014-15 harvest, light planes dusted 1,400 square kilometers of sugarcane plantation (1.2 % of Cuban territory) with a series of chemical products known as “maturers.” Among them is the star of this post, glyphosate.
Let us have a look at the cautious, reflexive and sensible posture that people expect their scientists, public officials and journalists to assume. The bolds are mine.
The text below is taken from Granma:
Journalist Arianna Ceballos: “The use of maturers constitutes, in the opinion of different experts, an efficient practice that can lead to greater industrial yield at the beginning of the harvest period.”
Candido Perez Oramas, sugarcane expert for Grupo Azucarero Azcuba: “To counter these adverse effects, we have planned and set up the conditions needed to make optimal use of maturers during this harvest, in order to have a higher quality yield…”
Oramas: “having producers accept the use of maturers is very important, for there are places where people still have doubts and concerns, based primarily on the difficulties that have presented themselves at other moments.” (The article makes no mention of what these difficulties were).
Oramas identifies “the availability of the required means of application – the planes needed to dust the crops at the intervals required by the harvest – as the source of greatest tensions.”
Official at the Empresa Nacional de Servicios Aereos (the people who supply the light planes): “(…) after the aerial monitoring of mosquito population at tourist areas and cities and the dusting of rice with certain products, the application of maturers is one of the most important tasks conducted by this institution.”
AC journalist: “The use of maturers demands great discipline and technical rigor from everyone involved in the process of applying them and handling cut sugarcane, for the purposes of obtaining the most benefits possible.”
Public official: “this is an advantage for producers, for they are paid more for each ton of sugarcane dusted with the maturer.”
AC journalist: “Estimates by Azcuba officials suggest that the application of maturers to the 140,000 hectares of sugarcane planned for this harvest could increase the country’s profits by 10 million dollars – with the same sugarcane, the same sugar refineries, the same equipment and staff, and an investment of merely 2 million dollars for the complete treatment.”
Not once does the article expound on the risks of using maturers. Everything comes down to the high yields, benefits and dollars expected from altering nature’s cycles.
The large international media, which, according to Communist Party spokespeople, are at the service of big capital, reported the news and delved into the dangers of consuming food products contaminated with glyphosate.
What did our revolutionary press have to say?
As far as I know, only two news pieces were published on the subject:
A photo, published by Cuba’s official newspaper Juventud Rebelde, showing a demonstration against Monsanto. The caption read: “The World Health Organization (WHO) announced that glyphosate, the active ingredient in its Roundup herbicide, the most widely used by Monsanto around the world, has been classified as a probable carcinogen for humans.”
Then there was an article on the risks of drinking hot mate contaminated with glyphosate, published by Granma.
For those who don’t know much about Cuba, we don’t commonly drink mate here. We do, however, consume large quantities of sugar that has been “enriched” with glyphosate. We should also point out that these press notes were published by the online version of the newspaper, which is inaccessible to the majority of Cubans.
Granma knows, having announced the fact enthusiastically months before, that Cuba uses glyphosate during sugarcane harvests. The editors at these and other official press agencies must have reasoned more or less like this:
“The Cuban people, currently suffering a cancer “epidemic,” would profit from knowing that one of the most popular and widely-consumed food products is contaminated with a carcinogenic substance.”
“We have both a human and journalistic duty to inform them of this, particularly bearing in mind we have a monopoly over the media. However, because of X and Y, pressures and commitments, we’re going to keep our mouths shut.”
I’ve been waiting for a pronouncement from health authorities for six months now. Since I know they look after our health with paternalistic zeal and are probably looking into the matter in depth, I want to send them a letter expressing my concerns. I will post a draft of this letter in the comments section to see if you wish to contribute to it and make suggestions.
(*) IARC Category 2A substance: a substance for which there is sufficient but not conclusive evidence of cancer-causing properties.