Glyphosate, half-truths and that "plate of organic food"


We return again to another posting in The Island, (May 21st) by Lal Jayasinghe (LJ), who takesup my article in the same newspaper (May 15th), where I exposed commonly held myths about glyphosate being toxic. LJ who confessed to his dream of a plate of organic food may have been in a reverie. So, he says that an article I quoted had an advertisement for Roundup in it! The article had a file picture to ILLUSTRATE Round Up, and was by NO MEANS an advertisement! So what he says is not even a half truth, but a complete misunderstanding of the facts.

The article had internet links to the massive study of 90,000 US farmers whose health had been followed for nearly a quarter century to see if involuntary ingestion of minute quantities of glyphosate formulations used in agriculture would have a toxic health effect in the long run. These were farmers who did 54,251 pesticide applications during the test period. Such toxicity from long term use is known as "chronic toxicity", as opposed to "acute toxicity" which is what occurs if you drink a cup of herbicide, be it Roundup or Neem Oil (‘Kohomba Thel’). Neem oil is far more acutely poisonous than glyphosate formulations, but promoters of organic food do not mention its toxicity. No one has tested its capacity for chronic toxicity in the long run or short run.

The original article reporting the results on 90000 farmers for a quarter century was not quoted by me for a good reason; one can misunderstand the technical text. In fact, LJ falls into such a trap, or cherry picks a sentence and quotes: "However, we found some evidence of a possible association between glyphosate use and AML". Here AML means Acute Myeloid Leukemia".

Let us see what a Cambridge Professor of Statistical methods who had nothing to do with this US study says in evaluating the results.

"This large and careful study shows no significant relationship between Glyphosate use and ANY cancer. The reported possible association with acute myeloid leukemia (AML) is no more than one would expect BY CHANCE when looking at 22 different cancer types. In fact the association that comes closest to statistical significance is a negative link with testicular cancer – that is, higher Glyphosate use was associated with lower risk – but again this is just the sort of chance result one would expect".

However, LJ looking at all this in his reverie says:

"The study has not proved any such thing. What they have shown is that their study failed to show any statistically significant association with glyphosate use by some selected people, namely Professional Applicators of glyphosate and their spouses, and cancer incidence. This is quite different from proving "Glyphosate formulations have no discernible chronic toxicity".

So how does LJ prove that glyphosate formulations are toxic? He doesn't. The anti-glyphosate lobby usually quote the IARC study which erroneously named glyphosate a class-II cancer hazard (i.e., less hazardous than betel leaves which are in class-I), or talk about the acute toxicity of additives which is irrelevant to chronic toxicity.

Reuters reported in June 2017 how the chairman of a panel reviewing evidence on glyphosate for the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in early 2015 was aware of this 90000-people AHS study. But the IARC did not take account of it as only drafts based on the AHS data on glyphosate and other pesticides were circulating in 2013. So I hope that in future neither LJ nor anyone else attempts to quote the IARC study and its classification of glyphosate as a class-II carcinogen since that conclusion is superseded; any chronic toxicity is excluded by this study.

LJ can say, toxic or not, I don't want any glyphosate residues in my plate! Glyphosate residues may take weeks to break down in cold climates, but yet rarely exceeds parts per billion. In tropical Sri Lanka LJ will find lots of noxious petroleum residues in his plate of organic food, but no detectable glyphosate.

LJ gives a list adding a false qualification that "CD admits" something. Let us take one example from LJ's litany:

"CD admits that paddy industry" (sic) uses very little glyphosate and can do without it by keeping the field flooded to kill weeds". Indeed, but I did not approve of NOT USING glyphosate and using flooding instead. Flooding is environmentally VERY BAD and unsustainable. Water and soil have to be conserved. Using glyphosate, very little water is needed and soil-nutrient wash-off and soil erosion are avoided. Manual tilling and weeding and the consequent soil erosion and damage to the soil ecosystem are avoided. The shift of rice cultivation from the Mahatheetha-Yodhaweva area to Anuradhapura, and then to Pollonnaruwa etc., had as much to do with soil erosion and nutrient depletion as with invaders.

Having previously said that glyphosate kills earth worms, LJ now tells asks "It is true that the paper shows that earth worms thrive better in artificial soils contaminated with cadmium. It does not show anything about "other creatures". Does LJ want hundreds of scientific papers regarding each and every soil organism? Cadmium, lead and other metal contaminants act in a similar manner on living organisms of the animal kingdom, being made up of very similar cells arranged in different ways.

Cadmium contamination is not "artificial", but quite common. Cadmium is a dangerous toxin. UK soils are contaminated with cadmium levels of 0.2 to 3 mg/kg due to the earlier use of coal, and industrial activity. Sri Lankan soils naturally contain the high figure of about 0.4-1.5 mg of cadmium per kg of soil.

The "organic food plate" dreamed by LJ, and his "organic" cup of tea contain cadmium and other metal toxins. Normal tea and normal rice where glyphosate has been used will be safer with less metal toxins if grown similarly. Both normal and organic rice from Sri Lanka are safe as they also contain large amounts of protective zinc and selenium ions that counter the cadmium. Plant uptake of magnesium and other elements are not affected as the roots of plants emit acids which release the magnesium and other elements they need. So, the need of the hour is for people like LJ to pay attention to the expert scientists at the TRI, RRRI, CRI, Kundasale etc., instead of Ven. Ratana, "Dr." Mercola and others of their ilk.

Discussing metal toxins in Sri Lankan soils and fertilizers, LJ says that "For Sri Lanka however, it is only a red herring". Dr. Jayasumana and associates from the Rajarata, and Kelaniya Universities, and Ven. Ratana pushed to ban glyphosate claiming that metal toxins joining with glyphosate residues cause kidney disease. That is precisely what led the eminent but mislead Dr. Jayasinghe and Dr. Herath to think that the outdated extreme precautionary principle (ban and banish) has to be applied. That was why glyphosate was banned. Now LJ says it is all a "RED HERRING!

Market realities and strong scientific representation by some of us have forced the government to lift the ban on glyphosate for the plantation sector. The Maize ("iringu") cultivator as well as nascent horticultural industries all need a nontoxic environment-friendly herbicide cutting down erosion, water use, and in reducing the impact of metal toxicity in soils. So far we have no alternative to glyphosate that comes anywhere close to it in health safety, environmental acceptability and economic affordability. It is also acceptable to importers like Japan and UK.

Chandre Dharmawardana, Canada

[The author was instrumental in setting up the food science and environmental studies courses and post-graduate diplomas at SJP university in the mid 1970s when he was the Professor of Chemistry and President of the then Vidyodaya University.]

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