Glyphosate ban must be lifted

Dr Parakrama Waidyanatha:

Now that Europe has reaffirmed the safety of Glyphosate and re-approved it for five more years, Sri Lanka should immediately lift its ill-conceived ban gazetted of October 2015, if it is to save its agriculture. Sadly, it is only the tea industry that had been agitating for lifting of the ban. Farmers in the dry zone have been misinformed that glyphosate is a cause for the chronic kidney disease (CKDu), making them to keep mum and silently suffer the economic consequences.

The Minister of Plantation Industries had made a valiant attempt towards lifting the ban, but his cries have fallen on the Government’s deaf ears. It is only the lush weeds and the cows that devour them that should oppose the lifting of the ban! But sadly, some local ignorant politicians too are!

Perhaps unwittingly, the government over the last two years, had seriously undermined the local agricultural progress by also ushering in the failed, so called ‘toxin free agriculture policy,’ apart from banning glyphosate. A reputed Buddhist priest cum politician had been the chief instigator of the glyphosate ban apart from being also the chief architect behind the production of an ineffective organic fertilizer concoction, the ‘Pivithuru Pohora’ with which he had taken many a farmer for a ride. We have on several previous occasions, pointed out how the farmers in the Mahaweli System B who used it during the last Maha season were compelled to apply urea, to save their crop because of following the Pivithuru Pohora application, their paddy crop turned yellow, a clear sign of nitrogen deficiency.

Urea was applied surreptitiously in order to be able to sell their produce as organic paddy. Farmers are no fools! It now appears that even the Pivithuru Pohora factory at Jayanthipura in the Mahaweli System B is dysfunctional! Could all this be a grand design by an unseen hand to destroy our agriculture and promote food imports? Be that as it may, let us see whether there is any justification in continuing with the glyphosate ban.

Glyphosate is the most widely used pesticide (weed killer) in the world and its total annual global use exceeds the cumulative use of all other pesticides. This was also the situation in Sri Lanka, until its ban. No official or specific authority in Sri Lanka has recommended the banning of glyphosate and no one has come forward to officially explain why such a ban was imposed. It is ‘surmised’ that the initial partial ban (2013) by the then government, was due to a false fear that glyphosate causes the chronic kidney disease of uncertain aetiology (CKDu). The initial partial ban in the CKDu–affected areas in the Dry Zone, was extended to the whole island in 2015. These bans had been implemented without open discussion or consulting the Pesticide Technical Advisory Committee, the official authority mandated to deal with pesticide matters which comprises scientists from the Department of Agriculture and other research organizations. Can a government be so naïve?

No other country has actually banned glyphosate, although false news to the contrary may be found in the internet posted by highly biased hypocrites seeking destruction of conventional agriculture, little realizing that the world could not be fed without it. The European Union had recently extended glyphosate use for 5 more years, while UK plans to extend it by 10 years.

This ban is seriously affecting crop production in Sri Lanka, as weed-management costs have sky – rocketed. The ban has also greatly exacerbated the effect of the recent drought, while large tracts of abandoned paddy fields especially in the wet zone is, in part, a consequence of the glyphosate ban (see picture). The Chairman of the Planters Association of Sri Lanka has reported recently that the tea industry had lost over 2 billion rupees in 2015 due to the ban.

Illicit glyphosate

Accordingly, an MP confessed on TV that he uses black market glyphosate in his tea estate! Smuggled glyphosate, from India (see picture ) which is sold across the country. A sachet of 100grams of glyphosate powder is sold at Rs 750, while this quantity is recommended to be mixed in 16 litres of water, implying the cost of the chemical alone for a hectare is Rs 7,500 as against about Rs 1,750 before the ban!

That the same sachet in India is sold at 42 Indian rupees, is indicative of the massive profit made by the illicit trade.

In rice, pre-plant weed control was almost exclusively done with glyphosate in the past, but is now done by impounding water which, in irrigated paddy cultivation, necessitates 20% more water, a highly valuable commodity, especially in the dry zone.

As another example, the maize farmers in the dry zone complain that weeding costs have increased from about Rs 5,000 per hectare to over Rs 10,000, with the unavailability of weed killers. In fact on our field visits to several maize growing areas, the farmers were aghast when told that glyphosate had no role in the causation of CKDu.

This message is now spreading and more and more farmers who had shunned glyphosate on the mistaken premise that it was the cause of CKDu, are now re-seeking it, buying illicit glyphosate 4 -5 times the original cost, as it is yet cheaper for weed control that alternative methods.

It is the water not agrochemicals that cause CKDu

Evidence is growing that it is the source of drinking water and not any agrochemical that is leading to the kidney disease. It is now known with a high degree of certainty that those who drink dug well water contaminate the disease, but not those who drink surface water(from reservoirs, rivers) or rain water. This had been dramatically demonstrated in a simple trial at Ginnoruwa (Girandurukotte) with two adjacent villages Badulupura on high ground and Sarabhumi in the river basin with a small reservoir and river tributary. People in Badulupura exclusively drank water from dug wells, whereas those from Sarabhumi, mostly from the reservoir, river or wells with water diffusing from those two sources. The Badulupura people contacted the disease, but not those of Sarabhumi! There is evidence of high fluoride and hardness in well water far more than that of river or reservoir water and fluoride is known to be nephrotoxic. It is also suspected that fluoride together with magnesium from the hard water may play a role. So, the simple answer to CKDu is to provide safe, potable water to the affected areas.

Most farmers are now using smuggled black-market glyphosate at far higher costs than it was before, as manual labour is costlier and scarce. Upland arable crops, especially in the dry zone, are affected by several highly competitive weeds such as Cyperus rotundus (‘kalanduru’) and Panicum repens(‘atavara’). They could not be controlled by ploughing and harrowing, because of underground propagules which regenerate with the new crop and require a highly translocating weed killer such as glyphosate to kill them before crop planting/seeding. The same is true with other crops.

Following more technical but very important points tell the story:

• The GOSL – WHO Report on CKDu (2013), did not implicate glyphosate in the causation of CKDU or recommend its banning. In fact, subsequent re-analysis of the urine glyphosate data collected in the WHO study, revealed that whereas only 3.5 % of the CKDu patients had glyphosate above reference limits, the figure was double (7%) for the control subjects ( from the Hambantota area)!

• The initial ban (2013) on glyphosate was apparently prompted by an unsubstantiated, highly unscientific hypothesis that glyphosate reacts with hard water and arsenic (from phosphate fertilizers) to form a new toxic compound causing CKDu. Many reputed scientists have totally rejected this hypothesis and no research (even by the authors of the hypothesis) supporting it exists. Neither arsenic, nor glyphosate is found in significant amounts in the water of endemic areas.

• If glyphosate and hard water when present together cause CKDu , it is surprising that many other “hard-water areas” with similar farming practices and agrochemical (phosphate fertilizers and glyphosate) use do not have CKDu.

• The October – 2015 total ban in Sri Lanka may have been a sequel to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) decision to transfer glyphosate from the non-carcinogenic Class 3 to Class 2 A of the carcinogenic classification of substances. Many food items such as processed meats, alcoholic liquor, motor- and diesel exhaust and many other substances that we encounter daily, fall into Group 1 of the classification of carcinogens. However, CKDu and cancer are totally different health conditions.

The IARC classification is for identifying hazards and not health risks. Several international organizations such as the Joint Meeting of the WHO-FAO on Pesticide Residues (JMPR) in 2016, clarified that there is no evidence to implicate glyphosate as cancer causing and gave admissible daily maximum amounts (ADMA) for chronic toxicity that were so high that any risk from its normal use could be ruled out. This had also been echoed by other organizations such as the EU Commission on Chemicals, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of US and European Food

Safety Authority, the British Royal Society and some twenty Nobel Laureates

• There is however, evidence of glyphosate entering the food chain substantially in countries where genetically modified crops (GMOs) are cultivated. Residues are found ( though well below health-risk amounts) in the urine of some 47% of the Europeans. Such a situation doesn’t apply to Sri Lanka where the weed killer is sprayed directly only on weeds; the risk of glyphoate entering the food chain is hence very low.

• Analysis of glyphosate residue in water and food in Sri Lanka by the Office of the Registrar of Pesticide, reveals that the levels are a few parts per billion and well below the safety reference limit cited by the EU and US. Even Dr. Jayasumana et al. who claim a role for glyphosate in CKDu, reported only 0.7 to 3.5 parts of per billion of glyphosate in water, i.e., three orders of magnitude below the allowed maximum thresholds in water which are 700 (Environmental Protection Agency, US) and 200 (Europian Union) parts per billion.

• While the hazard classification is for cancer at very high doses, there is no evidence that glyphosate when used at standard rates recommended for weed control is toxic to the human kidney or any other organ.

• The Department of Agriculture approved the use of glyphosate only in 1994 for food crops.

However, the very effective total weed killer paraquat (gramoxone), being much cheaper than glyphosate, continued to be used in pre-plant weed control until 2007, when it was banned.

Glyphosate use increased only after 2003, when the Monsanto patent expired. CKDu in the Rajarata

was reported as early as 1990, long before glyphosate began to be used to any extent in arable farming.

• CKDu is prevalent in many other countries such as India (Andra Pradesh), Egypt, Mesoamerican countries such as Nicaragua, El Salvadore, Costa Rica etc., but none of their scientists had implicated that glyphosate was the causation of CKDu.

• The WHO Expert Consultation held in Colombo with 54 local and foreign experts in April 2016, concluded that there was no evidence to implicate glyphosate in the aetiology of CKDu.

• All pesticides could be toxic to humans if admissible daily-intake limits are exceeded. These daily-intake limits for glyphosate are so high that it can be used without protective clothing, goggles etc. What is important is to ensure its use in the approved manner. This necessitates more stringent regulations in pesticide handling and extensive extension worker-farmer education regarding pesticides.

• Even as early as the 16th century, Bombastus Paracelsus, the father of the science of pharmacology and Professor of Pharamacology, of Physics and of Chemistry, University of Basel, Switzerland, postulated that “All substances are poisons ; there is none which is not a poison.

It is the dosage that differentiates poison and remedy.” In other words, substances become toxic only if intake limits are exceeded. For example, In small amounts (as recommended), vitamins are very beneficial, but they become toxic if the dosages are exceeded. In conclusion, even at this very late stage, if the government yet has any qualms about this weed killer, it should do well to appoint a team of experts in the field to examine and report whether there is any evidence to implicate glyphosate in the aetiology of CKDu; and the impact of the glyphosate ban on the agriculture of the country and whether alternative cost competitive technologies are available to replace glyphosate.

In fact, if such are available, the desperate farmers who are now investing far more than they did to control weeds before the glyphosate ban was implemented, would have grabbed them.

It is sad that, in this matter, the government has not only totally overlooked the views of the majority of the main stream scientists, but also what happens elsewhere in the world. Ripercussions of this unwise decision would soon be felt, both economically and politically. (Daily News)

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