By Oliver A. Ileperuma –
President Maithripala Sirsena has banned the use of glyphosate, a widely used herbicide purportedly on some reports that it causes the Rajarata kidney disease. It is not clear as to what these scientific reports are but this is widely believed to be the work of a group of researchers from the Rajarata University who have been changing their tune over the years from bio-terrorism, arsenic and finally glyphosate. None of the established research groups in the country have accepted this hypothesis because it cannot explain the geographic occurrence of this disease. Glyphosate is used in many agricultural areas of the country and it defies simple logic to understand why this disease is prevalent only in certain specific areas of Rajarata and non-existent in areas where it is heavily used. Nearly 10 years ago I put forward the hypothesis that it is excessive fluoride in these areas that is responsible for this disease but this has not been seriously considered perhaps because I do not have the political clout to push this idea.
The ban proclaimed by the President is I am sure due to political pressure exerted by interested individuals without taking into account the risks and the benefits of using this weed killer widely used in a number of countries without any adverse effects. Several years ago it was claimed that arsenic is responsible for this disease and when I refuted their claims based on scientific information, they openly labeled us as agents of the multinational companies importing pesticides. They even went to the extent of grinding chillies at the Seenigama Devalaya to curse a number of scientists who have opposed their pseudoscience and challenging their analytical data. Ven. Athuraliye Ratana thero was at the forefront of this campaign and I am sure that the Yahapalana government too has fallen prey to his antics. These groups who claim that divine attention of God Natha has shown them the way to solve this mystery disease, are at work again misleading the Government to take irresponsible decisions. There is absolutely no credible evidence to link glyphosate to kidney disease.
This decision will be disastrous and eventually will lead to Sri Lanka having to import rice. I am not at all promoting the use of glyphosate and I would rather like to have all pesticides banned in Sri Lanka returning to traditional varieties of rice and using only compost fertilizer. In Sri Lanka labour shortages and their expense plays a vital role in sustaining agriculture. Glyphosate can be useful to poor farmers to overcome the heavy cost of labour and to send their children to school rather than hoe their fields. It also helps farmers to adopt soil conservation practices and prevent soil erosion. Our tea plantations are also plagued by labour shortages and applying glyphosate has been helpful to the tea industry. Therefore, there is little doubt that a total ban on glyphosate will adversely affect our economy.
Ban the glyphosate lobby got a boost when the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) affiliated to the World Health organization (WHO) very recently claimed that glyphosate “probably” causes cancer. It is interesting to note that the same agency has reported that another possible carcinogen, acrylamide, found in coffee beans, potato chips and soya is a class 2(a) carcinogen. This agency classifies known carcinogens in group 1 and probable carcinogens in group 2a. Glyphosate is in group 2a along with beer, wood smoke, outdoor air pollution, hair dressing and even night shifts at the working place! Others like mobile phones, Wi-fi equipment too come under this category. People are not going to stop using mobile phones just because an isolated scientific study has shown their use linked to cancer. Similarly hairdressers who are exposed to carcinogenic dyes may probably develop cancer and what is important here is the awareness and taking suitable precautions.
According to the father of Pharmacology, Paracelsus, anything can be a poison and it is the amount that matters. What is required is the prudent use of pesticides and the state involvement in controlling the abuse of pesticides. It is again a matter of risk and benefits. Just about everything in life has risks and what is important is to weigh these risks sensibly against the benefits.
Thirty years ago the Environmental Protection Agency of the United States determined that glyphosate might cause cancer. Six years later, in 1991, they reversed this decision after re-evaluating their animal experiments. One piece of evidence that the WHO study cites is the same mouse study that the EPA found flawed.
In Sri Lanka we have a powerful lobby of pseudoscientists who seek cheap popularity by claiming to work against the multinational corporations for their own vested political interests. I refer to the group comprised of some so called scientists from the Kelaniya and Rajarata Universities who earlier were championing the role of arsenic in kidney disease, presumably owing to the divine intervention of God Natha. Now they have conveniently dropped arsenic and carry the “ban the glyphosate” slogan. History tells us about the damage of such pseudo-scientists do to the scientific community and society at large. One classic case is the work of the Russian agronomist Lysenko who had the blessings of Joseph Stalin and later Nikita Khrushchev. He rejected Mendelevian Genetics and took plant breeding in Russia back by about 30 years. It was only in the latter half of 1960’s that Russian scientists spoke against the pseudoscience created by him popularly called Lysenkoism. In 1964, physicist Andrei Sakharov spoke out against Lysenko in the General Assembly of the Academy of Sciences: “He is responsible for the shameful backwardness of Soviet biology and of genetics in particular, for the dissemination of pseudo-scientific views, for adventurism, for the degradation of learning, and for the defamation, firing, arrest, even death, of many genuine scientists.”
A few months later, a devastating critique of Lysenko was made public and as a result, Lysenko was immediately disgraced in the Soviet Union but the damage done to Science in Russia is phenomenal.
Another case study is the banning of DDT in the USA, again a political decision by Richard Nixon who sought to get the help of the Green movement which was gathering momentum in the United States. This movement arose after the epic release of the book The Silent Spring by Rachael Carson. Banning DDT was a populist move which Nixon wanted to harness to win the presidential election for a second term. While excessive consumption of DDT in food is harmful what would have been more practical is to impose strict control on its use. In Sri Lanka, we used DDT to eradicate Malaria while most of the African nations wilted under pressure from the US to ban it from their countries. As a result malaria is still prevalent in these African countries. Luckily Sri Lanka escaped from this ban and we are lucky to have a malaria free country today.
These two instances illustrate that political decisions are not always the desirable when it comes to banning pesticides and their effect on the society. In Sri Lanka, a political decision has been taken to ban glyphosate without giving serious consideration to its ramifications. There is absolutely no scientific basis for this ban and the link between glyphosate and kidney disease has not been firmly established. Also, this pesticide is linked to cancer and not kidney disease and there is no special prevalence of cancers in the endemic areas of the kidney disease compared to other regions of Sri Lanka. In imposing this ban, opinions of other independent research groups have not been sought.
At Peradeniya there is a group of scientists comprised of doctors, geologists and chemists including the doctor who discovered this disease who have worked on this problem since its inception in 2002. A large number of research publications have arisen from this work while The Rajarata group commenced this work only in more recent times and most of their work is published in open access journals which publish anything for the payment of a fee. The government should have had a proper consultation with all stakeholders, particularly scientists who have toiled hard for more than a decade before making important decisions which will affect the future of agriculture in the country and the risk of importing rice again to the country.