Growing like a weed
A herbicide called glyphosate is causing worldwide mayhem and governments are buckling under corporate pressure
There's a little bit of glyphosate in everyone's body. Glyphosate's weed-killing properties were accidentally discovered 20 years after the chemical was first synthesised. Today, it is omnipresent across the world. The WHO says it causes cancer and studies link it to many diseases. Countries have been struggling to ban or restrict its use due to pressure from the industry and farmer groups. But a new movement to ban this chemical as well as to find alternatives is gaining ground. VIBHA VARSHNEY tracks the toxic trail
WHETHER IT is India, Canada, France, the US or any part of the world, the use of glyphosate is all-pervading. In the US, over 4,000 lawsuits have been filed against Monsanto, the company which manufactured this herbicide. The first case, being heard in a court in San Francisco at present, is of DeWayne Johnson, a 46-year-old groundskeeper. He says the company failed to warn him of the dangers of using glyphosate, and as a result, he is suffering from a terminal cancer.
But despite the well known health effects of using glyphosate, not all farmers are willing to give up the chemical. “I cannot farm without glyphosate,” says 40-year-old Vasudeo Rathod of Yavatmal district in Maharashtra, a major cotton and soybean growing area. He prefers to use this herbicide over manual weeding, which, he says, is very expensive. Costs can go up by as much as three times.
This fastest growing herbicide was acquired by German pharma Bayer from Monsanto on June 7 this year. The chemical helps farmers to clear weeds growing in their fields. It is also used to clear railway tracks, parks and waterbodies of wild growth of plants. In many countries, glyphosate is used as a pre-harvest desiccant. It is sprayed on a standing crop to ease harvesting.
Little wonder then that glyphosate sales have been rising. As much as 8.6 billion kg of glyphosate have been used globally since it was introduced in 1974, says a paper published in Environmental Sciences Europe in February, 2016. Globally, total use rose from about 51 million kg in 1995 to about 750 million kg in 2014, a nearly 15-fold jump. This increase is linked to introduction of herbicide tolerent genetically modified crops. It is not surprising why farmers love this herbicide. For instance, weeds can reduce tea yields by up to 70 per cent.
Glyphosate kills plants by blocking an enzyme which helps in the synthesis of amino acids and essential nutrients. Though the use of this herbicide is restricted to tea plantations and for non-crops in India, farmers, like Rathod, use glyphosate liberally, and illegally. In fact, it is used in all kinds of crops— farmers cover the crop plant with plastic baskets to protect them
and spray the chemical on the weeds around it. For genetically-modified herbicide tolerant crops—like BG-III cotton being grown illegally in parts of India—the usage is more as farmers spray it more liberally across fields to clear the weeds. Dewanand Pawar, convenor of the Shetkari Nyayhakka Andolan Samiti, a Yavatmal-based non-profit that works on farmer’s rights, says, “Farmers cannot afford to think about the long-term adverse health effects of the chemical. They are looking for ways to survive today.”
In India, about 0.866 million kg of glyphosate was sold in 2014-15, according to the Directorate of Plant Protection, Quarantine and Storage. The usage would be higher now as herbicide tolerant genetically modified crops have made inroads across India illegally. Ajay Yerawar, owner of Ajay Krishi Kendra in Yavatmal, says that he personally sold nearly 300 litres last year.
There are dozens of formulations in India that contain this chemical. However, Roundup® is the most popular product. According to Monsanto’s annual report, sales in 2016-17 increased by about 9 per cent from 2015-16. According to the 2016 report of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry, herbicides are the fastest growing agrochemical segment in India with a market share of 16 per cent. When Down To Earth asked for information on the current sales of the chemical in the country, Monsanto’s India office said that they could not share the information and the Central Insecticide Board and Registration Committee (cib&rc) too did not respond to mails or phone calls.
“Measures to restrict the use of glyphosate will not work because its entry into cotton fields has piggybacked on BG-III seeds. BG-III and glyphosate go in tandem for farmers,” says D Narasimha Reddy, director of Pesticide Action Network India
(pan), a coalition against pesticides. It is not that farmers are unaware of the ill-effects of agrochemicals. Just last year, as many as 23 people died in Yavatmal due to inhaling pesticides while spraying on their cotton plants that had grown unnaturally tall. An assessment by pan, suggests that this could be due to the cultivation of genetically modified cotton seeds. It seems that Roundup Ready Flex® seeds were being illegally cultivated in the region. The tall plants growing close to each other, trapped the pesticide which the labourers inhaled. The authorities stopped the sales of five pesticides. Though glyphosate was not one of these pesticides, the agriculture department restricted the sale of this chemical in the hope that it would keep farmers away from herbicide tolerent genetically modified cotton. There is no doubt that glyphosate is toxic. Shekhar Ghodeswar, assistant professor at the Vasantrao Naik Government
Medical College, Yavatmal, says: “We get a number of glyphosate poisoning cases.”
Adverse impacts of glyphosate include acute poisoning, kidney and liver damage, changes in gut microflora, cancer, endocrine disruption, neurological damage and immune system dysfunction. Worse, glyphosate formulations have been found to be more harmful that glyphosate. For example, polyethoxylated tallow amine
(poea) used by Monsanto as an adjuvant to increase the efficacy of glyphosate has been found to be 3,450 times more toxic to human embryonic kidney cells than the herbicide itself. The formulations also had toxins like arsenic, chromium, cobalt, lead and nickel, according to a study published in
Toxicology Reports in December, 2017. The adjuvants are not regulated.
“Glyphosate should be banned immediately because there is a huge fraud in the declaration of the active ingredient. Heavy metals, especially arsenic, are associated with glyphosate as formulants, but they have not been declared as active principles. Thus, they are the hidden, undisclosed poisons,” says Gilles-Eric Séralini, a molecular biologist at the University of Caen Normandy, France, who has worked extensively on genetically modified crops and their health effects.
The tangled web of glyphosate has ignited a global debate over its use. Though the chemical was synthesised in 1950—when a scientist was looking to develop a new drug—it was only in 1970 that its herbicidal action was identified. Monsanto introduced the product in the markets in 1974. At that time the US Environmental Protection Agency (usepa), established in 1970, was still setting up procedures for standards. Monsanto could easily exploit the gaps in the procedures. The 290-odd studies, reports, memos and letters that usepa used to register glyphosate were generated or submitted by Monsanto. These reports were neither published nor peer reviewed. Many of these documents are still not available for review by the public or scientists as the company claims these are trade secrets.
PHOTOGRAPHS: VIBHA VARSHNEY / CSE Vasudeo Rathod of Jarang village in Yavatmal district in Maharashtra, who grows cotton on his 16-hectare farm, says he cannot farm without glyphosate because the cost of manual labour is too high