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Blind Men and the ‘Glyphosate Elephant’

Dr. Parakrama Waidyanatha, BSc, MSc (Cey.), PhD (London), DIC: The recent sentimental assertions of representatives of three NGOs, Peoples Planning National forum, Movement of Land and Agriculture Reforms and the Peoples Movement of Plantation Lands Right in relation to the issue of glyphosate is reminiscent of the proverb of the blind man and the elephant, superficially touching on a real subject, to draw many ridiculous, unbalanced and unfounded conclusions with little or no factual substance on the matter of the ban.

All substances are poisons said the founder of the science of pharmacology over 600 years ago. What matters is the quantity and how it is used. It applies not only to agrochemicals but pharmaceuticals too. If you swallow 50 pills of aspirin you may drop dead. Statins, for example, the cholesterol lowering drug now taken by nearly a quarter of the elderly population of the world, and once thought to be absolutely safe, is now known to cause diabetes!

The columnist of this article says that glyphosate was banned ‘owing to findings linking the chemical with the kidney disease’. It must, at the very outset, be stressed that hitherto there has been no acceptable scientific evidence that glyphosate is the cause of the kidney disease or more accurately, the chronic kidney disease of uncertain aetiology (CKDu).

She should do well to know that hitherto, despite substantial research, there is no aetiological agent identified. It is often the case, that many media personnel, just surface scratch issues and pick up only the sensation, leaving behind the true facts of the matter! Their only objective is to draw public attention rather than public education. A popular TV channel, had, for example, an entire programme for several months where CKDu was referred to as the ‘Agricultural Kidney Disease!

There are various alleged etiolating agents such as heavy metals(arsenic, cadmium), hard water, fluoride and  ionicity ( dissolved salts) just to name a few. What is hitherto known, however, with a degree of certainty in that people who drank water from dug wells in the affected areas of the North Central Province and some neighbouring areas contacted the disease but not the people who drank river, reservoir, or spring water. This fact has been elegantly established by a study of two adjoining villages, Sarabumi and Badulupura in Girandurukotte. People in the highlands of Badulapura drink water from dug wells, whereas those in Sarabumi from the river or reservoirs. Villagers from both areas had common paddy tracts in the lowlands, and consumed their own paddy. In fact it is reported that one person in the Sarabumi area who diagnosed with the disease had previously lived for a long period in Badulupura before coming over to Sarabumi. The disease was not there before people were settled in the Mahaweli Scheme. The increasing population and settlements thereafter necessitated digging of wells for drinking water in homesteads. There are supposedly some 172,000 such wells in the Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa Districts alone, and the government’s urgent task should be to give potable water to the people of all affected areas. Is it happening?

The hypothesis, that hard water, metal ions and glyphosate was probably the cause of CKDu was propounded by a few scientists in the Rajarata University. In fact on top of that publication which appeared in a fee-levying, open access journal in 2014, the word “Hypothesis” was written in bold letters!  Several reputed chemists have been very critical of the hypothesis and no other scientific journal had any publication supportive of it. It has been argued that if such metal complexes form in hard water, they should precipitate making the metals unavailable in solution.

There were two comprehensive WHO studies on CKDu in Sri Lanka, one was in 2013 and the other 2016, the latter being an International Expert Consultation of 54 participants, including local experts. None of those studies implicated glyphosate in CKDu. In fact the first study amongst other things reported that 3.5% of the CKDu patients had glyphosate above reference limits. However, for some unknown reason the percent of control patients with urine glyphosate values exceeding the reference level was not reported. On re-analysis of the raw data again in 2016, it was revealed that double (7.0%) the non-CKDu subjects had urine glyphosate levels exceeding reference limits! In fact the percentage of non-CKDu subjects with pesticide residue levels above reference limits was significantly higher than that of the CKDu subjects.

The association of the disease with farming communities naturally tempts one to think of an involvement of agrochemicals in the disease. But the fact is that the great majority of people living in these areas are farmers, and the clue that it is probably associated with drinking water is what must be pursued in the pursuit for identification of the aetiology.

The glyphosate levels reported by a study of the Registrar of Pesticides in 2016 are very low, being less than 1 part per billion in samples of soil, water and vegetables analysed. The maximum allowable limit in drinking water in the European Union is as much as 700 parts per billion! So there is no question of glyphosate pollution of our food, water or soil.

Mr. Ganeshalingam of the People’s Movement for Plantation Land Rights speaking at this press meeting has even claimed that he has information of victims of CKDu in all estates. This is the first time we are hearing of the disease in the hill country! Has he brought this to the attention of the health authorities in the country? So far, the evidence is that the disease is confined only to the Dry Zone.

It is unimaginable that all these representatives of organisations that have made various utterances, have not been mindful of the key issue of the tea plantations, and that is the grave scarcity of labour. It is impossible to use labour for weeding because of the shortage. Moreover, although a learned professor speaks of alternative weeding technologies, can he demonstrate them in tea lands? The only alternative other than chemical weeding is physical weeding with implements such as the mammoty and the ‘sorandiya’ which, prior to the 1960’s, caused serious soil erosion which led even to abandonment of vast tracts tea of land especially from the mid-country. It has been estimated that losses due to crop-weed competition and weed interference in field operations such as plucking and manuring has cost over Rs six billion in 2015 alone.

It is true that rice can be cultivated without glyphosate, but weed control prior to land preparation needs substantial water use for impounding. It is estimated that some 20% of the water has to be used for weed control in rice, and water has a cost.

There is clear evidence that the acreage under field crops has declined after the ban of glyphosate. In particular ploughing and harrowing cannot control the noxious weed Cyperus which must be killed with a contact herbicide, and glyphosate is ideal for this purpose. The corn farmers complain that their pre-plant weed control has shot up from Rs. 3,000 to   Rs. 10,000 after the glyphosate ban, especially because of the need to uproot mana grass by mamoty. Eight labour units are required each costing Rs. 1,250. Many of the dry zone farmers have been hoodwinked by the anti-glyphosate lobby that it causes CKDu. When explained to them that there is no evidence to associate glyphosate with the disease, they were aghast!

It is unfortunate that we live in a country that scientific decisions are made by politicians. We need an organisation of professionals that make evidence-based decisions. India has an excellent one, the National Technology Commission which would have been the organisation making the decision on a matter such as the glyphosate issue were it necessary.

The writer, has 45 years of experience in research and development in the agri and crop development sector, currently, the Chairman of the Review Committee of the Rubber Research Institute, Dr. Waidyanada has held several key positions in the Department of Agriculture, the Coconut Research Board and was Director General of the National Agri-Business Council. Some of the other key positions he has held are - Consultant to World Bank/IICA Project on Rubber Development in Brazil, Consultant to FAO on Rubber Development in Bolivia, Consultant to ADB on Perennial Crop Development in Sri Lanka, among a host of significant other positions.