A well-known herbicide finds re-approval by the European Union, while “Toxin-free” Sri Lanka continues to throttle its farmers.
Posted on July 5th, 2016
Chandre Dharmawardana, Canada.
Last year the Yahapalanaya leaders, flush with electoral victory banned Glyphosate, the well-trusted but controversial herbicide, heralding their “toxin-free nation” policy announced with much fanfare. The government hopes to replace modern agriculture with “traditional agriculture”, based on “traditional seeds” and “traditional farming methods” that do not use modern technology, chemical fertilizers, insecticides or herbicides. Even large plantations of tea, rubber, coconut, and paddy have to be manually maintained against weeds and pests. The farmer must by himself produce the needed “organic fertilizer”, and not use “chemical” fertilizers, as dictated by the anti-agrochemical lobby in Colombo, inspired by the fashionable fringe groups in California. This is a pie-in-the-sky vision indeed!
Glyphosate is the the most widely used herbicide in the world; it has been used in agriculture for over three decades with no casualties or directly attributable illnesses caused by it to agricultural workers. In fact, according to world-bank data, the usage of agrochemicals is higher in the more developed countries with virtually no chronic disease, and lower in the less-developed countries with high levels of chronic diseases. For instance, New Zealand or Malaysia use some ten times more agrochemicals per hectare than Sri Lanka does. There seems to be a clear anti-correlation between the use of agro- chemicals and the presence of chronic diseases, as I pointed out in greater detail in a previous article published in the Lankaweb ( http://www.lankaweb.com/news/items/2016/03/17/moving-from-conventional-farming-to-organic-farming-jumping-from-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire/), the Island (March 16, 2016) and elsewhere.
The government leaders of the “Toxin free” movement include Ven. Ratana as well as Champika Ranawaka of Politpto notoriety (see Dr. Pethiyagoda’s articles in the Island and Lankaweb, 19 June, 2016). Those who wanted a ban on glyphosate claimed (without evidence) that glyphosate is the cause of CKDu, the mysterious chronic kidney diseases of unknown origin that has begun to plague the North-Central Province (NCP) of Sri Lanka since about 1990, even before the use of glyphosate in Sri Lanka. The herbicide has not been chemically detected in the soil or water of the NCP. The very presence of green algae in the NCP water proves the absence of herbicide residues which would kill the algae. The ban was propelled by a hysteria of public fear fanned by the technical reclassification of glyphosate by the World Health Organization (WHO). Glyphosate, taken in unusually large doses over a long period of time may cause cancer. Here we are not talking of acute toxicity but of chronic toxicity. The daily dosage of glyphosate needed for chronic toxicity is quite large, and comparable to those of kerosene or carbolic soap .
Politically vociferous “eco-activists” have targeted glyphosate for decades, because a glyphosate ban is a necessary step in their Luddite-like opposition to ALL genetically modified (GMO) crops. The European parliament, in its recent review of pesticides gave the anti-glyphosate lobby a day-long hearing where several scientists presented their studies on the toxicity levels of glyphosate, as well as the toxicity arising from substances added (adjuvants) to the herbicide to facilitate its use. However, weighing all the facts and taking account of the disagreements, the European commission decided to re-approve the use of glyphosate until its next periodic review (see the German news item dated 28-June 2016: http://www.tagesschau.de/wirtschaft/glyphosat-179.html).
The dose for causing chronic toxicity was set by the WHO as a daily ingestion of at least eight table spoons (i.e., about 40 mg) of full-strength glyphosate taken regularly, for a farmer weighing 70 kilos. This implies that even if workers did not wear gloves or goggles, they are unlikely to be affected, unless they directly drank it! The ingestion by normal farm workers is so small that their urine is found to contain perhaps a few billionth of a gram of the substance, and not milligram quantities. Furthermore, this chronic toxicity was not related to kidney disease, but to cancer, a disease that can be provoked far more easily by a whole host of other common substances, e.g., diesel and petroleum fumes, DDT-contaminated tea, cloves, citronella oil, re-used cooking oil, organic solvents, lead paint, electronic waste, and discarded Ni-Cd batteries, all of which are widely present in the Sri Lankan environment.
According to a study by the chemistry department in Colombo led by Prof. Mahanama, even the gasoline (petrol) sold in the country is found to be highly adulterated. They say:
“Diesel adulteration was found to be in the range of 0 to 35 % while petrol adulteration was found to be in the range of 0 to 48 % in Colombo and its suburbs. (Kulathunga et al, J..Natn..Sci.. Foundation Sri Lanka 2013 41 (4): 287-292. )”.
Adulterated fuels produce partially oxidized toxic products that get distributed in every nook and corner of the country via motor vehicles. And yet, ignoring all these high levels of contamination, the eco-activists of Colombo who fashionably follow Californian concerns, misguidedly focus on the alleged parts per billion presence of agrochemicals and pesticides like glyphosate as THE most important health threat!
The WHO banned DDT in the mid 1970s and Sri Lanka followed it, while India ignored the ban and uses DDT in her plantations as an insecticide. India is also a big user of glyphosate and other agrochemicals. Sri Lanka imports many food stuffs from India. Indian tea (contaminated with DDT) is imported to supplement and blend with tea grown in the so-called “toxin-free” land.
It should be noted that the WHO re-approved the domestic use of DDT in 2006 while maintaining its ban for agricultural use. However, Sri Lankans are not allowed the domestic use of DDT even against the Dengue mosquito, or the use of glyphosate that had hitherto been used widely (and safely) in our own agricultural sector. Every news report indicates that dengue is reaching epidemic proportions. It is being countered by ineffective spraying programs which use questionable insecticides. The rational, inexpensive and effective solution is to use a few drops of DDT in a ten gallon spray for spraying INSIDE homes, just one every six months. No spraying the outside (i.e., garden and compound) environment is needed or allowed as even mosquitoes are a part of the biosphere and should not be destroyed.
A recognized toxin that causes kidney disease is the metal cadmium, (Cd) found in the environment in trace amounts. Excavation and geological activity can raise the level of Cd in the soil. However, since Cd is not toxic to plants, many plants absorb it, and simply concentrate Cd in leaves, seeds and vegetative parts. Organic fertilizers made by composting common plants, often including Neem ( Kohomba) for its insecticidal properties, can contain elevated amounts of cadmium. Neem is a Cd accumulator. Grass also accumulates metal toxins, and hence cow-dung contains elevated amounts of Cd and other toxic metals. Rice, being a grass, is well known to concentrate Cd. There is a legitimate concern that CKDU may be caused by soil Cd from organic fertilizers, or from the use of poor-quality tri-phosphate fertilizers. Arsenic is another toxin that causes kidney disease. It too is found naturally and also may be in the soil via the use of chemical or organic fertilizers. The Eppawela triphosphate contains high amount (about 25 parts per million) of Arsenic. Thus the study of kidney disease sponsored by the WHO and the Sri Lanka National Science foundation (NSF)examined the possible presence of heavy-metal toxins. It also studied pesticide and insecticide residues, and concluded in 2104 that that metal toxins including Arsenic, or pesticide residues CANNOT be the cause of CKDU. However, it left open the possibility that Cd is the cause because the urine of CKDu victims were high in Cd. Nevertheless, control groups that did not have CKDu also had high levels of Cd, making the results somewhat puzzling. The puzzle is partly resolved when we recognize that Cd absorption, and its toxicity depend on the chemical form of Cd (i.e., bio-availability) as well the co-presence of mitigating substances like zinc (Zn). High levels of zinc suppress the toxicity of Cd. Furthermore, several studies have shown that the much-maligned glyphosate is found to suppress the toxicity of Cd by binding to it and making it unavailable to plants. A recent study of the Mahaweli river by Diyabalanage and co-workers showed that “cadmium that is often attributed to the etiology of unknown chronic kidney diseases in certain parts of the dry zone is much lower than previously reported levels”. The presence of phosphate is, in our view, the cause of this removal of cadmium from the bio-active environment since cadmium phosphate is highly insoluble in water.
Dr. Sarath Amarasiri, a distinguished past Director General of Agriculture, Sri Lanka, has penned an article in the Sunday Observer pointing out the looming (July 3rd, 2016) threat of continuing to use chemical fertilizers containing high amounts of Cadmium. Indeed, better quality fertilizers, with lower amounts of metal toxins cost only a bit more and are probably worth the additional expense. However, it should be noted that Cd, if used in the presence of phosphate in soils which are NOT acidic, pose no threat as cadmium phosphate is one of the most insoluble substances that one may come across. The WHO specifications also note that Cd is NOT a danger unless the soil is acidic. That danger exists in our tea plantations, where acidic soils are found. This is why the addition of the required amount of dolomite to the soil is a standard practice in managing tea plantations. The danger arises mostly in the hands of non-technical farmers who do not monitor the soil acidity, do not use enough phosphate and zinc to suppress the effect of cadmium, and use organic-based fertilizers which are also often equally contaminated with cadmium.
However, given the use of mineral-phosphate fertilizers (indeed, even in excess) by most farmers in Sri Lanka, the danger of cadmium toxicity rearing its head is correspondingly reduced due to the presence of phosphate in the soil. However, the problem of Cd toxicity needs to be managed. This is seriously and systematically managed in many countries which use very large amounts of fertilizers (e.g., New Zealand). Japan, another country which uses large amounts of fertilizers has began to study the possibility of using crops (e.g., rice varieties) which have been genetically modified to not to absorb cadmium. Then the cadmium remains in the soil, and does not enter into the food chain. It should be again noted that neither Japan, nor New Zealand has any chronic diseases associated with Cd, to any significant extent, even though they are very heavy users of agrochemicals.
How does traditional agriculture fare in producing our food?
Sri Lankan agricultural scientists have made actual field studies giving a clearer picture of the present situation. For instance, Dr. K.M.C Bandara from the Rice research Institute in Batalagoda and colleagues from the Peradeniya University (G.R.M.D. Gunawardane and L.H.P. Gunaratne) published an “Evaluation of relative performances of organic rice cultivation based on experimental evidence” (Proceedings of the Peradeniya University Research Sessions, Sri Lanka, Vol. 14, 3rd December 2009, p403), where they used a traditional variety known as Sudu Heenati as a comparison against the popular hybrid seed BG360, with compost-fertilizer and mineral-fertilizer approaches used in the comparison. They conclude that:
“Both traditional and improved varieties had better performances with inorganic
fertilizer compared to that with organic practices. The highest yield was
recorded by conventionally grown improved variety which was 6.93 t/ha whereas
the lowest yield was given by organically grown improved variety which was 3.39
t/ha. Conventionally grown traditional variety recorded a higher yield than
organically grown traditional variety (5.30 t/ha vs. 4.45 t/ha).
“The breakdown of the total cost of cultivation revealed that the highest cost
component was the labour, irrespective of the variety or fertilizer applied.
The organic practices were more labour intensive than modern practices due to
organic inputs, transportation costs, and use of buffaloes in land preparation.
The analysis further revealed that conventionally grown improved variety
outperforms all with respect to the yield, revenue and the profit thus
rejecting the claims of organic rice promoters. Analysis of benefit-cost ratios
and break-even prices corroborate the same. Organically grown improved
varieties did not perform well due to inadequate supply of nutrients as these
improved varieties are unable to grow well under organic fertilizers which
release nutrients slowly.”
If we can avoid doing agriculture and live off the forests, as was done by the hunter gatherers of yore, our impact on the environment would be minimal. But today the world is inflicted with a huge monoculture of billions people. Feeding this monoculture with the minimum use of agrochemicals, water or clearing of land is the ideal goal. But the solution does not lie in traditional methods that have failed, but in using science and technology in even more clever and innovative ways.
Scientists must advise the government to lift the politically-motivated sham ban on glyphosate introduced an year ago, throttling the agriculture sector which can no longer compete with its international-export rivals. Indeed, the new policy of providing money (instead of fertilizers) to the farmer, and the tactic of making the farmer find for himself the (non-existent) organic fertilizer for engaging in “traditional agriculture” will lead to the rapid extinction of farming in this country. A “Divaina” article (http://www.divaina.com/2016/06/30/feature01.html) by Seneviruvan has even raised the possibility that the government is pursuing the deliberate extinction of the farmer. Then farm land could be acquired for “megapolis projects” favoured by the global investor. Disaster capitalism eyes Sri Lanka to buy assets at fire-sale prices, with the rupee in free fall, with foreign-exchange controls removed, so that capital can be moved out of the county at a mere mouse-click of a computer.
Chandre Dharmawardana, Canada.