Grow­ing like a weed

Down to Earth - - CONTENTS -

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.

Reg­u­la­tory coma

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

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