Glyphosate Ban – The Unintended Consequences


by Dr. Kingsley A. de Alwis

The recently imposed ban on the import, storage, distribution and use of Glyphosate has been characterised by the President and hailed bysections of the media as a great triumph for the poor farmers in the NorthCentral Province (NCP) and adjacent areas. It was claimed that, at long last,the cause of Chronic Kidney Disease of Uncertain Aetiology (CKDu) that is ravaging this region had been identified and dealt with by banning the alleged causative agent, Glyphosate. Thus, farmers of the region who had been at risk for nearly two decades could now rest easy and be free of this deadly scourge.That wicked devil, Monsanto, it was said, has been dealt a severe body blowfrom which it will find it hard to recover!

 I hope, however, that the President is aware of the following facts relating to his decision and the unintendedconsequences flowing from it.

The Facts

There is no scientific evidence,either in Sri Lanka or in the rest of the world, that Glyphosate is the cause of CKDu. An expert group of local scientists, the Centre for Education Research and Training on Kidney Diseases, led by Prof. Tilak Abeysekera and consisting of leading Nephrologists, Pathologists, Geologists, Chemists, Agronomists and Sociologists are currently investigating the causes of CKDu in the NCP. They have concluded that, "There is NO evidence to prove that Glyphosate causes CKDu and banning Glyphosate will not have any effect in reducing/lowering the number of CKDu patients". Prof. Tilak Abeysekara is currently, DIRECTOR OF GLOBALHEALTH for the University of California, Davis, USA.

Glyphosate has been recently re-classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer into Group 2A of carcinogenic substances. The relevant press release said, as a reason for there classification, that "there was limited evidence of carcinogenicity in humans for non-Hodgkin lymphoma". But the type of exposure to or ingestion of Glyphosate that could bring about this condition was not specified. However, as mentioned in the Press-Release issued by the National Academy of Sciences of Sri Lanka, "it is important to note that CKDu patients do not show any signs of cancer".

The President has at his beck and call many established scientific bodies comprising leading scientists of all disciplines that could provide him with advice on any science related matter on which he needs to take policy decisions. These bodies include the National Academy of Sciences of Sri Lanka (NASSL), Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science (SLAAS), National Science Foundation (NSF), National Science andTechnology Commission (NASTEC), Industrial Technology Institute, the plantation research institutes, the Science, Engineering and Medical Faculties of the National Universities, the Research Divisions of the Agriculture Department, etc. It is a pity, therefore,that in this case he appears have been misled into taking the decision to ban Glyphosate by the same coterie of "advisers" who gave the same advice to the previous government based on limited and dubious research data. 

Unintended Consequences

Besides being based on misinformation, thePresident should also consider the unintended consequences of his hastydecision. The more serious of these are discussed below.

1.      Research on CKDu slowed down or stopped.    Since it is now believed by the Governmentthat the root cause of CKDu has been identified and dealt with, institutionalsupport and funding for further research on the aetiology of Chronic KidneyDisease will be considered as being no longer necessary and will therefore notbe forthcoming. Research to determine the real causes of CKDu will slow down or cease altogether. The disease (like the Kahawatte serial killer) willcontinue unhindered on its silent killing spree.

 2.      Farmers’ yields and income reduced.    Yields of rice and other crops on which Glyphosate is used will now have to shift to manual weeding or other less effective herbicides of unknown toxicity and environmental effects. These will also increase the cost of weeding (which is why they were replaced by Glyphosate in the first place). Paddy farmers will be the group that would suffer most as a result of the ban on Glyphosate.

 3.      Irrigation water wasted and production cost of paddy increased. In the absence of cost-effective herbicides, paddy farmers will use standing irrigation water as their weed killer. Although the use of irrigation water in this way may save the farmer some money, irrigation water is already in short supply and the economic return per unit of water will be much reduced, rendering many irrigation projects uneconomical.  Since irrigation water is supplied free of charge to farmers, the financial cost does not enter into the picture.

 4.      Farm incomes reduced. The ban on Glyphosate would adversely affect the incomes of farmers cultivating up landcrops as well, since they would have to revert to traditional manual weeding instead of the minimum tillage systems they had adopted. The biggest losers would be farmers in the Dry Zone and in the very areas that are now affected by CKDu. We may also have to say goodbye to Sri Lanka’s dreams of becoming self-sufficient in rice and other crops. It may be only a matter of time before farmers start protesting against the Glyphosate ban.

5.      The production costs of tea increased and rate of soil erosion accelerated. The effects of the Glyphosate ban would be particularly evident on tea estates, which will now have to rely on manual weeding. We will see the results not only in higher costs of production (our cost of producing a kilogram of tea in Sri Lanka is already higher than those of our competitors, India and Kenya) but also in accelerated soil erosion caused by manual weeding. The shortage of labour on estates would compound the problem for the tea industry.  

 6.      There would be other environmental costs.The environmental consequences do not stop at soil erosion. They include theloss of soil fertility, siltation of reservoirs, increased runoff, lowering of dry-weather flow in streams and lowering of water tables.  Since the President is so keen on preserving the environment, he should seriously think about suspending the ban on Glyphosate until he has consulted scientists in the established science organisations such as the National Academy of Sciences of Sri Lanka on thesubject and taken into account all the consequences that flow from this ban.

The Author is a retired Senior Advisor (Agriculture) of the United Nations Food And Agriculture Organization (FAO), Rome.

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