Glyphosate; Farmers’ boon or bane?

26 Mar

President Mahinda Rajapakse, last week decreed a ban on the agrochemcial Glyphosate. The decree however could not be implemented yet due to various issues, insurmountable in the short term – or so farmers say.

Monsanto marketed Glyphosate under the trademark name or Roundup

Monsanto marketed Glyphosate under the trademark name of Roundup


It is a weedicide that has been around for decades now. Its effectiveness is not in question. But its after-effects and side-effects long have been.

A recent study published by Sri Lankan Scientists, Channa Jayasumana, Sarath Gunatilake,  and Priyantha Senanayake  in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health in February, links the epidemic of Chronic Kidney Disease of unknown etiology in Sri Lanka to Glyphosate.


Farmers are required to wear protective gear when spraying weedicide, while most here do not

Glyphosate is American based agriculture and biotechnology firm Monsanto’s wonder drug, which has earned them billions of dollars over the years. Synthesized in 1950 by Henri Martin, it was originally known for its water chelating properties. It used to be utilized by the Stauffer Chemical Company of the USA to act as a descaling agent to clean out calcium and other mineral deposits in pipes and boilers by making them water-soluble.

In the 1970s, a chemist at Monsanto figured out its herbicidal properties. Monsanto bought the patent and introduced the chemical worldwide. It was quickly welcomed by all farming communities it was introduced to, and hailed as a ‘magical total weed killer.’
A farmer in the North who uses the chemical said he would be reluctant to give it up. “It is very effective and kills all type of weeds that attack the plants from root to tip. Other weedicides are selective, they will work only in some areas and not others.” And that is now the main problem. Many farmers have greeted the news that glyphosate is to be banned with alarm. They – and more importantly their crops – have grown used to the ‘wonder weedicide’ now; they wonder what they would do for a replacement. Image The farmers’ backlash has now stalled the process of banning the chemical. The Pesticide Technical and Advisory Committee have recommended that further studies are needed. The pros and cons as well as whether the latest study is justified in its conclusion needs to be established, they say. The problem, as established by the study, is prevalent only in areas with hard water.
“The president asked if the ban can at least be instituted in areas where there is hard water” says Minister of Agriculture, Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena. “But I feel it would not be practical.” Farmers almost addicted to the weedicide would continue to buy the chemical from wherever possible.


Image courtesy: the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health

The main reason the ban has stalled is that there is no other option in the market today to be just as effective. The alternative would be to go back to a labour intensive method of weeding as in bygone days which would not be practical, according to industry farmers.

“This has become a controversial issue now; the tea industry in particular is actively opposing this move,” says Minister Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena. “They say that they do not have enough labour to do the weeding manually, if the weedicide were to be banned. Tea pluckers refuse to do the strenuous weeding. So if we enforce this, their sector would be in jeopardy.”

According to agriculture consultant Dr. P.B Dharmasena however, Glypshosate is more trouble that it is worth. “Monsanto has made several fraudulent claims in the past including that this chemical is easily biodegradable which is not true,” he says. “It has been linked by international studies to nervous disorders, cancer and pregnancy related disorders. In Central American countries like El Savador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, the chemical has also been linked to Kidney diseases like in Sri Lanka.”


Jesus Sosa Mancia, a CKD patient in Bajo Lempa, El Salvador. By Sasha Chavkin/ICIJ

Dr. Dharmasena says that the whole agrochemical industry needed to be heavily reviewed because developed countries were unethically exporting what they knew to be harmful chemicals to developing countries. “Arsenic and cadmium for example are not part of our natural rock constituents. They have been ploughed into our soil through agro-chemicals such as Triple-superphosphate, and are causing a variety of health problems.”

Chronic Kidney Disease of unknown etiology (CKDu) was first reported in Sri Lanka from the North Central Province in the early 1990s and has rapidly spread since then.  It is concentrated only in a few key areas, leading many studies to establish some geographical connection. The favourite hypothesis is hard water but hard water is available in the Northern Province too, which has thus far not reported a prevalence of CKDu. The answer to that, say the authors, is because most agro-chemicals including Glyphosate was banned in the North till war’s end in 2009. They could be used to make Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), something the LTTE excelled at, and so banned there until recently. The five years farmers there have been using it is not enough to report developments in CKDu.

Image courtesy: International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health

Image courtesy: International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health

Glyhosate was first introduced in Sri Lanka after political changes in 1977, focusing on open economic policies. The study’s authors hypothesize that the slow bio-accumulation of the chemical required 12-15 years for CKDu to be reported. Thus far, an estimated 400,000 people have been affected by CKDu in Sri Lanka and 20,000 have died.

Extensive studies have been carried out by WHO as well as other researchers who have reached a consensus similar to the authors of this latest study that CKDu’s etiology is multi-factorial. Some of the main factors hypothesized are:

1 – Chronic exposure to Arsenic, Cadmium and other pesticides.

2 – Consumption of hard water, low water intake and exposure to high temperatures resulting in significant dehydration.

Hardness of water is established by polyvalent metallic ions such as calcium, magnesium, strontium and iron. 96 percent of patients with CKDu had consumed hard or very hard water for at least five years, according to studies. The authors of this latest study also made the following observations:

  •  The number of villagers who complain of the ground water hardness in CKDu endemic area has increased steadily over the last two decades.
  • Certain shallow wells (2–5 m), which have previously been used for drinking purposes are now abandoned due to high level of hardness and bad taste.
  • There are a few natural springs located in the CKDu endemic area where water is not hard. People who consume water from these sources have been determined to be free from the disease.
  • Individuals who drink treated water from large water supply schemes (especially in the two cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa), while living in the same endemic areas, do not have the disease.
  • In the adjoining farming areas of the Northern Province of Sri Lanka, where the ground water hardness level is known to also be hard or very hard, there have not been any significant number of CKDu cases reported. (Glyphosate was banned there till 2009).

Image Monsanto and Glyphosate have come under fire from various countries, especially from their scientists, over the decades. However, the chemical is yet to be banned in most places due to farmers’ heavy dependence on the chemical’s effective weedicidal properties.

It looked for awhile like Sri Lanka might be the first to make a forceful move. Farmers however are resistant to the idea, despite the enforcement being for their own good. It is going to take some time and a multi-pronged co-ordinated approach to address the problem. “We’d love to go back to organic farming in the long term” says one Department of Agriculture official. “But right now, we can’t make that jump.”


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