Banning glyphosate to control the kidney disease



The Island newspaper of 26th August carried a front page news item that the government had decided to ban glyphosate in four districts, to contain the chronic kidney disease of unknown etiology(CKDU) which is fast spreading in Rajarata and some neighbouring areas. The following day’s The Island further reported that the Minister of Agriculture as saying that the government is considering expanding the ban island wide as the geographical spread of the disease is continuing. Clearly, the government has fired a shot in the dark, and done a volte-face from what it had proclaimed in a media release under the hand of the Director General of Agriculture dated 8th May 2014, that is just three months ago!

This media release states, amongst other things that:

1. although various views have been expressed to date, no definite cause for the disease has been yet found by the health authorities;

2. the Pesticide Technical and Advisory Committee, the national authority designed to make all decisions relating to pesticides, had reviewed available evidence but had found no evidence to ban glyphosate, and that the contention that glyphosate is the cause is only a proposition (hypothesis), and there is no scientific evidence to support it; and

3. if glyphosate is banned crop production would be seriously affected, in fact to the tune of 20 to 40% in the case of paddy and tea.

As far as the writer is aware, there has been no new evidence since this media release in May 2014 to implicate glyphosate in CKDU, and it is a mystery as to why the agriculture authorities have made such a decision which should have serious repercussions on national crop production. It has apparently been done under instructions from the ‘very top’, with officers that matter also changing their position. It is a common occurrence today for officers to meekly cave into political pressure. This is understandable in that their positions and future prospects are dependent on the political will rather than merit! Or is this ban a "chanda gundu" as argued by a writer to The Island’ Opinion column of 30th August 2014.

The national authority mandated for decisions on pesticides, the Pesticide Technical and Advisory Committee, has not recommended banning of glyphosate. CKDU has been also reported from many farming communities elsewhere in the world too. It is equally serious in several Central American countries and India (Andra Pradesh) where glyphosate is widely used, but none of these countries, to the writer’s knowledge, has banned glyphosate. The Balkan Endemic Nephropathy (BEN) which was first reported in 1950s, long before glyphosate was even introduced as a herbicide, is a chronic kidney disease very similar to CKDU here. It has affected certain rural communities in many countries along tributaries of the Danube river. Even here the cause is not known to date.

What is the scientific evidence for banning glyphosate? Is it the mere hypothesis published in an open-access, fee-levying journal by Dr Channa Jayasumana of the Rajarata University( reportedly now the Director of the National Project for Prevention of CKDU) and two co-authors. There are today loads of journals where any rubbish can be published on payment of a fee! In fact in an article titled "Who is afraid of peer review" published in an issue of the highly prestigious journal, Science, last year ( 60 – 5 (1) 2013), by John Bohannon, biologist and science journalist of the University of Harvard, the author has convincingly shown how any muck can be published sometimes even in peer-reviewed journals

A hypothesis is only a proposal or suggestion and remains so unless proven with convincing evidence. This paper argues that glyphosate is made more nephrotoxic (toxic to the kidneys) by combining with metal ions to form complexes in the hard water common in the Rajarata. Basic chemistry tells us that opposite must be the case if such complexes are formed as they should be less soluble and hence less absorbable by living organisms. In other words glyphosate should be less potent in hard water than in soft water. In a highly cited book by N F Gray (2008) titled Drinking Water Quality, it has been shown that pollutants and contaminants are significantly less in hard water than in soft water. Moreover, the hypothesis is not supported by any analytical evidence relating to either levels of glyphosate or the so called complexes in any water bodies in the Rajarata, although it is reported in the paper that some 50 well water samples were analyzed for glyphosate and its complexes. There is also no other published research, as far as the writer is aware, supporting this hypothesis. By contrast, many reputed chemists including several senior Professors of Chemistry from the Peradeniya University and abroad have pointed out that the Jayasumana chemistry is highly flawed! Speculative theories or hypothesis do have a place in science, but they need to be proven with acceptable scientific data.

It is also an inexcusable lapse that the Department of Agriculture, Central Environmental Authority or any other state institution with the capacity to analyze glyphosate has hitherto failed to provide analytical evidence on the levels of this chemical in our waters. The Ministry of Agriculture and the Presidential Task Force on CKDU should have based its decision to ban the chemical on such analytical data.

Glyphosate (often referred to as Roundup, the trade name of the inventing company) is a very effective broad spectrum weed killer and the most widely used pesticide the world over. It is reported to be environmentally benign compared to most other pesticides. Its advantage as against many other weed killers is that it is not absorbed via the roots being bound to soil by forming complexes with metal ions such as calcium, magnesium, aluminum and iron. It is hence not easily leached into wells. Soil microbes break it down to non-toxic compounds and hence it does not usually accumulate for long periods. Its median half life is reported to be less than two months in most situations and in water it varies from a few days to a few months depending on the environment. Glyphosate analytical data in soil and water are available for many countries. Based on such data, US and EU, for example have stipulated 0.7 and ) 0.2 ppm respectively as maximum allowable limits in drinking water. Glyphosate use is far more intense in many developed countries, but none has banned it. Sri Lanka has, on the other hand, jumped to a decision without any acceptable evidence! Glyphosate may, however, be toxic to some organisms at some dosages and in some environments . No pesticide is totally safe. Much depends on their judicious and safe use.

Many crop production systems are heavily dependent on glyphosate for low-cost and effective weed management, especially in situations of labour shortages. The tea industry is dependent on glyphosate for weed management. In rice farming, initial weed killing with glyphosate helps conserve both labour and water, and hence the practice of irrigation water issue for weed killing and initial land preparation is now apparently uncommon. Thus the ban will have serious negative consequences on crop production.

Decisions of this nature should have been taken by a competent panel of independent scientists. It would appear that the Presidential Task Force lacks them .The decisions , as reported in the media, made hitherto by the Task force to combat CKDU, namely, promoting kolakanda among school children in the Rajarata , promoting growing and consumption of traditional rice, and banning of glyphosate reminds me of the Sinhala adage "Kohada yanne, malle pol! None of them would have any impact on solving the CKDU mystery.

The government has shot itself in the foot.

Dr Parakrama Waidyanatha

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