The Campaign Against Glyphosate

| by Prof. Chandre Dharmawardana

( May 24, 2014, Ontario, Sri Lanka Guardian) Permit me to comment on the feature by Darshana Ashoka Kumara, entitled "Lies, Cover-Ups and Complicity Kill - Governments and Corporations; Glyphosate ban lifted in Sri Lanka" dated 16th May 2014, that appeared in the Sri Lanka Guardian.

It should be noted that Mr. Channa Jayasumana (ChJ) , Professor Nalin de Silva and others from the Kelaniya University had campaigned extensively claiming that arsenic found in fertilizers has contaminated the soil and the water table in the North Central Province (NCP) of Sri Lanka, and that Arsenic has caused Kidney disease. In answer to the question why these fertilizers cause Kidney disease in the NCP and not, say in other areas where fertilizer is used heavily, the Kelaniya group claimed that the hardness of the NCP water is also simultaneously necessary for the arsenic to be effectively toxic.

However, the extensive study sponsored by the WHO showed that there were NO incriminating amounts of arsenic in the water samples collected from the NCP, or in soil samples!!! Thus the Kelaniya group has now gradually lowered the strident volume of their previous claim of Arsenic+hardwater as the cause of kidney disease.

Arsenic is a toxin if found in amounts significantly exceeding, say, 5 parts per billion; the WHO chemical analysis found even less than that, after analyzing 234 samples plus another 32 samples of NCP water (for details, see where the WHO report, as well as others studies can be accessed).

Given that the Arsenic hypothesis is found to not to hold, ChJ, now at the Rajarata University has proposed that Glyphosate, a well-known and widely used weedicide (sold under the name "Roundup", etc.) is the cause of Kidney disease. He claims that there is glyphosate in the NCP water table, and this, combined with the hard water of the NCP, somehow causes kidney disease in the NCP, but not in other places where this weedicide is used.

First of all, Glyphosate, unlike arsenic, is virtually non-toxic, being less toxic than Life-Buoy soap to living organisms. This can be easily tested by doing a simple home experiment. Take three fish bowls, and put the same amount of water - say one liter each - into all three. Into the first bowl add one spoon of powdered Life-Buoy soap and dissolve it thoroughly. Into the second bowl put one spoon of full-strength glyphosate. The third bowl is a "control" with nothing added. Then, add the same number of tadpoles into each bowl (or you can use a culture of amoeba, but then a microscope becomes necessary). Leave it for a day, and examine the three bowls at the end of the day.

It will be seen that the glyphosate has had virtually no effect on the tadpoles whereas the soap has had a serious debilitating effect. So, even a home experiment is enough to ascertain that Glyphosate is a very safe weedicide compared to even soap water.

In fact, you need 70,0000 parts per billion of glyphosate to be toxic, compared to just 5 parts per billion for arsenic to be toxic.

Furthermore, Glyphosate can also be further tested using hard water (i.e, water containing some dissolved limestone) in the home experiment; then it is found that most of the glyphosate collects to the bottom as an insoluble slurry and so it is not absorbed by living organisms. It has even less of a oxic effect in hard water. So, contrary to hard water making matters worse, it has a protective action. That the hardness of water is protective is well known to scientists, and this is why all municipal water is mandatorily required to be brought up to a certain level of hardness.

If the NCP water had not been hard, the farmers would have been in worse circumstances.

Of course, this simple home experiment can be re-designed to be more rigorous and done in the laboratory, using micro-organisms and varying the amounts of added toxins, hardness, pH etc. Even better, field trials using farmers actually applying Roundup can be carried out, and their urine can be analysed and detailed tests can be carried out, as has been done in many experiments available in peer-reviewed journals published by learned societies (which are independent of agro-chemical companies). For instance, see Acquavella, J. F.; Alexander, B. H.; Mandel, J. S.; Gustin, C.; Baker, B.; Chapman, P.; Bleeke, M. "Glyphosate biomonitoring for farmers and their families: results from the Farm Family Exposure Study". Environ. Health Perspect. (2004), vol. 112 (3), pp 321-326.

So, when even elementary experiments can be carried out to ascertain the fallacy of ChJ's claims, we can ask "are there any experiments or counter-examples to support his claims? ". Unfortunately he has none. He has merely raised polemic, referring to the danger of pesticides in general, or to the work of pioneering environmentalists like Rachel Carson. Here he ignores that Carson and other have NOT talked of modern Glyphosate-like weedicides, but pesticides (harmful to animal cells rather than plant cells). Furthermore, no agricultural scientist had advocated using weedicides or pesticides indiscriminately, even when free-market forces have encouraged it purely because of the profit motive.

Glyphosate acts via a mechanism unique to plants, and so it does not harm animal cells. In fact, it is clear, without the need for chemical analysis, that the NCP water is NOT polluted by glyphosate. Because, if the NCP water contained residues of glyphosate, it should kill all the green algae and water hyacinth ("Japan Jabara") found in NCP water bodes like the Padaviya tank. Far from it, these water bodies are full of algae!!!

The campaign against Glyphosate is possibly a part of the rival trade wars that occur between different agro-chemical companies. The rivals of Monsanto (the glyphosate manufacturer) would like a market share for their products. So it is useful to them to attack and denounce the use of "Roundup", even though they cannot provide sound scientific evidence in support of their claim. Similarly, Monsanto would like to discredit the products of their rivals.

It should be noted that not only Glyphosate or soap, but even sugar and salt, if consumed in large quantities, become toxic substances. Vitamins are good only at the right doses, and become poisons if taken in doses exceeding the recommended amounts. So, if sugar, salt and soap can be toxic, weedicides or pesticides used in the incorrect way, in excess, can indeed be toxic. That is not what Mr. Jayasumana and his colleagues are saying. They are claiming that the recommended use, or ANY use of glyphosate should be stopped. They propose the to ban Glyphosate. However, sensible counsel has prevailed and the government has rejected their call for banning Glyphosate. If the tea estates are to be weeded manually, we will need several times the Indian labour force used by the British as the plantation sector has grown several times. That is, we would need close to several million more "estate labour" to weed the tea plantations.

Thus manual weeding is not a possible solution.

The available solution is to use this least toxic weedicide according to the methods stipulated by agricultural scientist, and not according to the dicta of the free-market where (as is the case now) farmers can buy pesticides, weedicides and fertilizers at will, in any amounts in the market place, and even get a government subsidy for it. It is this stupid free-market economics that is the basic cause of kidney disease (and many other ills) that ails the country.

In any case, it is clear that without an effective, cheap nontoxic weedicide like Glyphosate, the Sri Lankan agricultural economy will grind to a halt in a few months.

[The author was a past Professor of Chemistry at Sri Jayawardenapura University, and currently an Adjunct Professor of Physics at the Univesite de Montreal, Canada].