Banning glyphosate: A political time bomb?


By Chandre Dharmawardana,

Ottawa, Canada

The president has banned the well-known herbicide (glyphosate) pivotal to the productivity and survival of Sri Lanka’s agricultural sector. He has been led to believe that the ban would stop the epidemic of kidney disease in the Rajarata. The resultant sky-rocketing of the price of food items and the disarray in the plantation sector will hit the Sirisena government just in time for the next elections.

A small group of individuals associated with a lady who claims psychic powers, and a number of Kelaniya University Dons seem to have usurped the powers bestowed upon the President’s Pesticide Advisory Committee (PAC). The Kelaniya group has exploited the hysteria and public incomprehension caused by a recent WHO reclassification of glyphosate as a probable carcinogen under heavy exposure, classifying it with many common detergents and disinfectants. The word "probable" has been applied in regard to Glyphosate, while definite carcinogenicity has been attributed to Cloves and Citronella oil at even lower exposure.

No evidence for causing Kidney disease by Glyphosate has been recognized by any recognized scientific organization.

The WHO report led to a flurry of activity all over the world where the governments requested their expert advisers to recommend what should be done. In every country the advisory boards recommended that the WHO reclassification is a technical correction that does not affect accepted practice, and that no changes are necessary. Prof. Jean McLaughlin, one of the authors of the WHO-report adverse to Glyphosate expressly stated concurrence with this in a public TV discussion.

However, in Sri Lanka, the expert committee does not seem to have been consulted. The committee comprises 15 members selected from relevant institutions like the Department of Agriculture, Ministry of Health, Govt. Analyst’s Department, Research Institutes for Tea, Rubber and Coconut, The Standards Institute, Environmental Ministry, Commissioner of Labour and nominees of the Ministry of Agriculture. According to press reports, the Kelaniya group had met with the President and got the ban clinched ( ).

The Kelaniya Group and their JHU friends have been agitating to ban the import of fertilizers and pesticides, claiming that they are toxic, contain Arsenic, and have unleashed an epidemic of Kidney disease in the North-Central Province. This view is not held by other experts or members of the PAC. The previous government was also pressurized by the Kelaniya group, but after hesitation, the Rajapaksa government introduced a limited ban in just the CKDU-affected regions, during the heat of the election campaign in Dec 2014. The PAC as well as those who understand the plantation sector had prevailed on the government that the Tea, Rubber,

Coconut as well as paddy and vegetables production would simply disappear if this herbicide, and the inorganic fertilizers were banned. There is simply no supply of "organic fertilizers" or manual labour for hand weeding that can meet the requirements.

What should be done to stop the kidney disease in the Rajarata? The key to stopping this disease is the provision of clean drinking water to the Residents of the Affected Areas (RAA). Our research has suggested that the accumulation of salts in the drinking-water wells used by the RAA is a very likely cause of kidney disease, where the ionicity of the water acts to cause slow deterioration of the kidney layers. Of course, any discussion of causes assumes that the subjects are otherwise comparable with respect to life styles, diet etc. In fact, residents who drink water from natural springs or municipal water in Anuradhapura, and having similar health problems, diets and life styles do not contract Kidney disease. Hence most other proposed causes, multi-factorial or otherwise, cannot be sustained, and the available analytical data also eliminate almost all of these proposed causes.

Prof. Sunil Jayalath has recently written to the Island newspaper (Island, May 26th, 2015) claiming that delivering water using Reverse Osmosis (RO) plants is the way to go, while criticizing the use of rainwater. He proposes taking water from rivers and irrigation canals to remove the pollutants. The "clean" part of the water is sold as drinking water, while the polluted part is put back into the river. In our view, and based on available analytical-chemistry data, most of the steam water and irrigation canal water are not polluted and suitable for drinking without RO if filtered and boiled. There are perhaps short unsuitable periods of the year when the run-off from agricultural lands increase the level of phosphates, fluorides etc., in the water.

It is the sustained use of water from ground wells which is, in our view responsible for CKDU. The well water in many affected areas is high in electrical conductivity. This arises from dissolved salts.

Prof. Jayalath’s arguments would have been more persuasive if he had given typical data for the levels of pollutants found in the water that his RO units are taking in, and putting out He has so far presented none. Furthermore, Rajarata people have a tradition of using rain water wisely, and such water is eminently drinkable if filtered and boiled, because most of the "uncleanness" in rain water is likely to be bacterial. The main short coming of rain water is its low hardness, and this can be corrected easily and cheaply. Furthermore, rain water can be collected in large plastic or galvanized tanks, or in earthenware or masonry tanks, and these are not expensive!

What has all this and kidney disease got to do with glyphosate? In fact, nothing at all! Is it possible that the Kelaniya Group has hatched an excellent political trap for the ‘Yahapalanaya’by leading Sirisena into a huge "boruwala" (pit-fall)? Poetic justice will be served when the price of rice, coconuts and vegetables rise steeply while the tea and rubber markets grind to a halt.

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