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BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - An environmental group's push to temporarily ban a widely used herbicide in Argentina, citing a scientist's preliminary study, has sparked concern in the country's huge soy industry and generated disagreement within the government.
An environmental group filed suit in April before the Supreme Court, seeking a ban on glyphosate, a weed killer used with genetically modified soybeans that has helped fuel Argentina's soy boom by dramatically boosting yields.
The lawsuit cited potential health dangers of the herbicide signaled in an unpublished study by Andres Carrasco, embryology professor at the University of Buenos Aires and researcher at the National Scientific and Technical Research Counsel.
Carrasco also holds a post at the Defense Ministry, which recently banned planting of genetically modified glyphosate-resistant soy on lands it rents to farmers.
According to the U.S. National Pesticide Information Center's, sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, glyphosate has low toxicity levels.
Argentina's large and powerful farming industry, which has been locked in a year-long tax battle with the government, sounded alarm bells, saying the defense ministry ban was the latest sign of the government's anti-soy campaign.
"It's more politics than anything else," said Ulises Forte, vice president of the Argentine Agrarian Federation, a major farm industry group.
With the farm industry up in arms, Science and Technology Minister Lino Baranao moved to distance the government from the study. He told local media the study was not commissioned by the government and had not been reviewed by scientific peers.
The environmental group says its suit is not political.
"The only thing we are looking for is to defend people's health and the environment, which we understand is polluted. especially in the way that agrochemicals (are applied) in this country, very close to towns," said Mariano Aguilar, of the Environmentalist Lawyers Association of Argentina.
Argentina is the third biggest world exporter of uncrushed soybeans and has the largest soy crushing industry in the world, making it the top exporter of soymeal and soyoil. Soy exports were worth $16.5 billion last year.
More than 17 million acres, half of Argentina's agricultural land, is planted with soy, much of it genetically engineered to be resistant to glyphosate so the herbicide can be sprayed on the crop without harming the soy plants.
Argentina consumes an estimated 53 million gallons (200 million liters) a year of glyphosate, including the Roundup brand, produced by Missouri-based agricultural company Monsanto Co and Power Plus and other products of Argentina's Atanor, owned by Iowa-based Albaugh chemicals company.
Monsanto declined to comment for this story but a business group it belongs to, Argentina's Livestock Health and Fertilizer Chamber, refuted Carrasco's study.
"Glyphosate has been used in more than 100 countries and for more than 30 years. When (agrochemicals) are used properly they do not produce harmful effects," said Guillermo Cal, executive director of the chamber.
Carrasco defends his study, which he says confirms results seen in some other studies that show glyphosate can harm development of amphibian embryos, which are often used in research to evaluate the effects of toxins.
"The most notable thing are alterations in cranial bones and cartilage," he told Reuters.
The Supreme Court does not have a deadline for taking action on the suit.
A glyphosate ban would hit not only farming income as soy yields come down, but also the government budget, which is heavily dependent on grains taxes.
Ricardo Weiss of the Agronomist Engineers College, in Cordoba province, said that the only replacement for glyphosate is to use three other herbicides.
"Instead of using one product, you have to apply three times. Instead of spending once, you spend three times, and it pollutes more," he said.
The questions over glyphosate come at a time of rising complaints in rural areas that farmers are careless in their application of agro-chemicals, including spraying too near residential areas.
A few months ago a court order banned crop fumigation near the Ituzaingo Anexo suburb of Cordoba, a central Argentine city, after multiple health complaints.
Additional reporting by Juan Bustamante; Editing by Lisa Shumaker