Debate on Glyphosate

Glyphosate was labeled (but not banned) as a hazardous material recently by a California court. Some have heralded it as a vindication of the totally misguided policy adopted in Sri Lanka led our local top toxin-cleaners like Venerable Ratana who have engineered a ban of glyphosate in Sri Lanka. The continued legal activity against glyphosate is propelled by public fear and fueled by fake news about its toxicity. Such news is "manufactured" and found on internet sites maintained by groups who propose go back to "nature" and living as our forefathers did". This is appealing apple pie and "motherhood stuff" indeed.

Dr. Parakrama Waidyanatha, a well-known Sri Lankan agriculturist had explained the background to the California ban in an article (30-June-2017, Island). The article was balanced and factually accurate. He pointed out that Glyphosate is considered to be LESS hazardous than bacon, red meat, or ham according to the same regulatory agency (The International Institute in Cancer research, IARC) that labeled glyphosate to be a class-II hazard. Red meat, bacon and ham are in the more dangerous class-I category.

The only point where I may differ with Waidyanatha is in stating that glyphosate is so safe that it does NOT need the use of gloves, goggles and other precautionary clothing when it is used in agriculture. Agricultural application of a large excess which may become a health risk is quite hard even in the hands of the most uninitiated agricultural user, unless as a deliberate act. This is clear by the extensive field experiments in Iowa by Dr. Aquavela and his team. In contrast, application of K,N,P fertilizers or composted matter (cow dung etc) in large excess is much more dangerous to the environment due to phosphate runoff and pollution of our aquatic systems. These much more serious issues, the issues of piling garbage in open mounds, danger of particulate air pollution, petroleum and diesel fumes etc., are being ignored while activists are focusing on parts per billion amounts of glyphosate in the environment. This policy is akin to ignoring the broken neck and treating the toothache.

So I was amazed to read the response of Jeremy Austin, an expatriate Canadian of Sri Lankan origin who had responded with vitriol and venom at Waidyanatha. Examining Austin's vituperative response is important to understand how fake news can drive public lobbying fueled by uninformed public fear of the unknown, coupled with the conspiratorial view that big business has bribed the experts.

While claiming that Austin himself is (like Ven. Ratana) no expert in the subject, he says that :"I have had an encounter with glyphosate through work as a landscape gardener, suffering ongoing health consequences of contact with this poison. I think I am able to read and understand the issues involved, and therefore found obliged to respond to Waidyanatha's defense of this poison. It is obvious that Waidyanatha has built up what we loosely call a 'career' since the 1960s, in trialing agro-chemicals for plantation and other crops in Sri Lanka. It is natural that through this process, he has become part of the chemicals’ sales network by providing 'recommendations' on safety, efficacy and other good reasons why Sri Lankan farmers should be using these poisons. We have been exposed to many government officials of Waidyanatha's calibre here in Canada. If there is a vested interest, here is an obvious one:".

So, although Mr. Austin claims to be no expert, he dismisses all expert opinion in one stroke.- they are all crooks!  He claims to know better than all the "government officials of Waidyanatha's caliber here in Canada". His claim against glyphosate is said to be based on his personal experience ("an encounter") as a "landscape gardener", but no details are revealed. If he had an accident with a substance as innocuous as glyphosate, then Mr. Austin should not be trusted even with a can of soap water as he might hurt himself with it. After all, glyphosate is in the same toxicity class as Lifebuoy soap but glyphosate acts only on plants, while Lifebuoy even kills bugs.

Austin has no clear knowledge of the facts of Waidyanatha's career, as Waidyanatha was only an undergraduate in 1960 and did not have anything to do with agrochemicals. In his subsequent career too, he has not been associated with agrochemical sales, but with plantation agriculture. Austin too has been doing landscape gardening, a profession quite parallel to Waidyanatha's but, in his own admission,  as no expert. So, is the little pot calling the big kettle black?

It is the common tactic of individuals like Austin, and pseudo-environmentalists with "no expertize" to label anyone who states the facts about glyphosate or GMO foods as "paid agents of the multinationals". These individuals with "no expertise" are nevertheless convinced of the toxicity of glyphosate because they have read (and believe) the fake news on the internet. Their sources of information are the internet writings of people like Dr. Mercola and Stephanie Seneff.

Mr. Austin claims to love Sri Lanka, his motherland. But he loves Canada even more, and says, " I have done my bit and I am domiciled in Toronto for better or for worse, despite the biting -47C winters I escape somehow". Even the temperature data for Toronto given by Mr. Austin are wrong, since, according to Environment Canada records covering over a century, "the coldest temperature recorded at Toronto was −31.3 °C (−24.3 °F) on January 4, 1981, and the coldest windchill recorded was −44.7 °C on the same day.

Furthermore, although Mr., Austin claims to love Canada we can find no record of his writing to Canadian newspapers demanding the ban of glyphosate that he calls a "toxin". He surely knows as a landscape gardener that glyphosate formulations like Roundup can be  purchased in stores like Canadian Tire and Home Depot in Ontario, and in other provinces. Mr. Austin may also be aware of the TV-Ontario debate hosted by Steven Paikin ( ) where Professor John Mclaughlin, one of the signatories to the IARC report which approved the classification of glyphosate as a Calss-II Hazard is interviewed. Both McLaughlin, and also Professor Joe Schwarcz of MacGill are interviewed, and point out that the hazard classification does NOT by any means imply a health risk to the public due to its agricultural use.

But then, Mr. Austin does not listen to experts, unless they say things that agree with his own non-expert opinion formed after some undisclosed incident.

Chandre Dharmawaradana Ottawa,

[The author is a Sri Lankan expatriate in Canada working as a Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Montreal, and as  Principal Scientist in the Quantum Theory and Nanostructures group at the National Research Council of Canada, Ottawa.]

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