2 March, 2024


Banning Glyphosate – Shooting The Sentinel To Save The Weeds?

By Chandre Dharmawardana

Prof. Chandre Dharmawardana

Prof. Chandre Dharmawardana

A news item states that the Task-force on Kidney Disease of unknown origin (CKDU) has got the government to ban Glyphosate, a harmless herbicide, in agricultural provinces like Polonnaruwa, Anuradhapura and Badulla.   “Doing something” about CKDU  has become a  political  necessity.

But  glyphosate is the sentinel that stands guard against weeds clogging up our plantations. Minister Abeywardena says that according to agricultural experts  “the country’s economy would collapse if glyphosate was banned”, but “the loss of a life could not be measured in terms of money”. What proof  lives will be saved? Unfortunately, not one human life  will be saved,  although the lives of many weeds will be saved.

It is a grievous  case of a strong divergence between the public perception and scientists’ perception of things. The type of unreasonable  public fear resulting from incomprehension is quite common.

Many readily accept that CKDU, and all sorts of other ills  are due to  industries or modern agriculture. Of course, generally speaking this is good sense, especially in societies where the rules  regarding public safety etc., are not properly enforced. The collusion between politicians and big business wishing to cut corners and make a profit is well known.  The same is suspected of the global food business which sells unhealthy highly-sugared pop-drinks and salted, processed , preservative-laced foods. These are, however, much safer than the traditional “Kalu-dodol, vatalappan or Kiri-paeni” etc. for sugar, and “Lunu-miris, Jaadi or karawala” or “kola-kaenda” for salt. In fact, the  “environment”  has become far safer than ever before. Hence people live longer, and the population is increasing at a dizzing rate. Their common ailments (diabetes, hypertension, and consequences there of) are related to their  life-styles  or due to aging (cancer,  dementia etc.) rather than to “the environment”.

A king-pin of traditional agriculture was human labour, be it in the form of slaves, surfs, or “indented” labour. Modern tea estates (and other corp plantations) use vastly less labour per bushel of produce than in the 1960s. In addition, we have far more plantation acres than ever before. This great  elimination of human suffering and servitude has been possible by the introduction of safe herbicides, fertilizers and modern know-how from agricultural science and plant physiology. This is why a couple of farms in Saskatchewan, operating only in the summer, can produce all the  “parippu” (dahl, lentils) that Sri Lanka needs! Sri Lanka is not there yet, and imports its dahl from wintry Canada.

Thus the discovery of the virtually non-toxic Glyphosate by John E Franz in 1970 was an epoch-making event in agriculture. Glyphoste acts only on plants and not animals. This made it possible to eliminate a huge burden in manual weeding, soil erosion due to constant uprooting, as well as the time up-take in planting. Glyphosate was commercialized (under the name “Roundup”) by the agri-giant Monsanto for many decades till its patent ran out, and since then other companies have re-marketed  it under other names, and even began trade wars against ‘Roundup’.

In Sri Lanka, just recently,  in desperate gestures to pin the blame on CKDU on a politically attractive targets like agri-business, it was first claimed that the water, as well as our tea, rice and vegetables coming from the Rajarata are contaminated with Arsenic, or Cadmium and other toxins. The boycott – Lanka Diaspora lobby caught onto this with glee. When the extensive WHO-study, as well as other studies (Chandrajith et al, Japanese-Sri Lankan studies, Australian-Sri Lankan Studies)  showed that such toxins were not present in critical amounts, a desperate attack on Glyphosate was undertaken, even when there is clear evidence that Glyphosate is NOT perceptibly present in our water or soils.

CKDU was first detected in the Balkan regions in the 1950s, long before the discovery of Glyphosate. In Sri Lanka, CKDU may have begun in the 1980s, decades before the use of Glyphosate.

So why ban it when it cannot be the culprit? Why not go for its causes?

What is the cause of CKDU? Many plantations and farmers use five to ten times the needed amount of fertilizer (containing potassium, nitrogen and phosphorus), hoping to get booster  harvests. But the excess fertilizer gets washed by the heavy rains in the hills. It  is brought to the Rajarata by irrigation schemes like the Mahaweli and contaminates the water. This writer believes that CKDU arises from the contamination of drinking water (a detailed discussion is given in a recent research article in “Environmental Geochemistry and Health”)

If we are to save lives, fertilizer should be sold to farmers in controlled quantities, just as pharmaceuticals are sold to patients using a prescription. Then nature, and heavy monsoons that wash away the offending stuff, will soon bring matters to normal.

Banning glyphosate, or  banning modern inorganic fertilizers outright, will indeed lead to extensive starvation, loss of lives as well as the rapid collapse of our agricultural sector.

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Latest comments

  • 2

    Politicians and their henchmen make money by selling excess fertilizer, subsidized with vast amounts of state funds. Now the minster and his henchman Jayasumana have opened up avenues for black-marketeers to sell glyphosate in the banned provinces at double the price. Great.

  • 2

    The problems in Rajarata area is tragic. It is believed over 0.5 Mio are met with Kidney problems. But the govt seems to be paying deaf eye on the issue why ?

  • 0

    Prof. Dharmawardena, after long time I hear some sensible arguments.I have been hearing about NATHA DEVIYO in place of reasonable arguments.Our pseudo Prof of NATHA DEVIYA fame should surrender his certificates to the Colombo University and any other party who gave him a PhD.

    Secondly Dharmawardena is a name that used to appear regularly in the press pseudo publications on alternate energy. HEAVENS FORBID NOT YOU. Thank GOD

  • 0

    People should grow their own food, no other alternative is there! How to trust industries, when they thrive on chemicals whether it be fertilizer or pesticide/weedicide? People if they don’t have time to grow food (no land nor know how) they should go out and see how organic farms survive, should they pay a little more or the prices really cheaper? Lobbying for chemicals or inorganic matters either for fertilizers or for weedicides, both are wrong! People starve to death by unaffordable prices and also the life style to go with crowd lest they be sidelined as eccentric! There should be more agriculture graduates with land to tackle not cynic lawyers professors populist law makers!

  • 0

    Grow your own food or encourage organic farming people starve because of high price of food than food poisoning of toxic food!

  • 0

    There are so many articles about effects of Round up on Human Health. the following article is from SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN. It talks about how toxic inert ingredients of of ROUND UP are.


    The new findings intensify a debate about so-called “inerts” — the solvents, preservatives, surfactants and other substances that manufacturers add to pesticides. Nearly 4,000 inert ingredients are approved for use by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

    Glyphosate, Roundup’s active ingredient, is the most widely used herbicide in the United States. About 100 million pounds are applied to U.S. farms and lawns every year, according to the EPA.

    Until now, most health studies have focused on the safety of glyphosate, rather than the mixture of ingredients found in Roundup. But in the new study, scientists found that Roundup’s inert ingredients amplified the toxic effect on human cells—even at concentrations much more diluted than those used on farms and lawns.

    One specific inert ingredient, polyethoxylated tallowamine, or POEA, was more deadly to human embryonic, placental and umbilical cord cells than the herbicide itself – a finding the researchers call “astonishing.”

    “This clearly confirms that the [inert ingredients] in Roundup formulations are not inert,” wrote the study authors from France’s University of Caen. “Moreover, the proprietary mixtures available on the market could cause cell damage and even death [at the] residual levels” found on Roundup-treated crops, such as soybeans, alfalfa and corn, or lawns and gardens.

    The research team suspects that Roundup might cause pregnancy problems by interfering with hormone production, possibly leading to abnormal fetal development, low birth weights or miscarriages.

    Monsanto, Roundup’s manufacturer, contends that the methods used in the study don’t reflect realistic conditions and that their product, which has been sold since the 1970s, is safe when used as directed. Hundreds of studies over the past 35 years have addressed the safety of glyphosate.

    “Roundup has one of the most extensive human health safety and environmental data packages of any pesticide that’s out there,” said Monsanto spokesman John Combest. “It’s used in public parks, it’s used to protect schools. There’s been a great deal of study on Roundup, and we’re very proud of its performance.”

    The EPA considers glyphosate to have low toxicity when used at the recommended doses.

    “Risk estimates for glyphosate were well below the level of concern,” said EPA spokesman Dale Kemery. The EPA classifies glyphosate as a Group E chemical, which means there is strong evidence that it does not cause cancer in humans.

    In addition, the EPA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture both recognize POEA as an inert ingredient. Derived from animal fat, POEA is allowed in products certified organic by the USDA. The EPA has concluded that it is not dangerous to public health or the environment.

    The French team, led by Gilles-Eric Seralini, a University of Caen molecular biologist, said its results highlight the need for health agencies to reconsider the safety of Roundup.

    “The authorizations for using these Roundup herbicides must now clearly be revised since their toxic effects depend on, and are multiplied by, other compounds used in the mixtures,” Seralini’s team wrote.

    Controversy about the safety of the weed killer recently erupted in Argentina, one of the world’s largest exporters of soy.

    Last month, an environmental group petitioned Argentina’s Supreme Court, seeking a temporary ban on glyphosate use after an Argentine scientist and local activists reported a high incidence of birth defects and cancers in people living near crop-spraying areas. Scientists there also linked genetic malformations in amphibians to glysophate. In addition, last year in Sweden, a scientific team found that exposure is a risk factor for people developing non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

    Inert ingredients are often less scrutinized than active pest-killing ingredients. Since specific herbicide formulations are protected as trade secrets, manufacturers aren’t required to publicly disclose them. Although Monsanto is the largest manufacturer of glyphosate-based herbicides, several other manufacturers sell similar herbicides with different inert ingredients.

    The term “inert ingredient” is often misleading, according to Caroline Cox, research director of the Center for Environmental Health, an Oakland-based environmental organization. Federal law classifies all pesticide ingredients that don’t harm pests as “inert,” she said. Inert compounds, therefore, aren’t necessarily biologically or toxicologically harmless – they simply don’t kill insects or weeds.

    Kemery said the EPA takes into account the inert ingredients and how the product is used, whenever a pesticide is approved for use. The aim, he said, is to ensure that “if the product is used according to labeled directions, both people’s health and the environment will not be harmed.” One label requirement for Roundup is that it should not be used in or near freshwater to protect amphibians and other wildlife.

    But some inert ingredients have been found to potentially affect human health. Many amplify the effects of active ingredients by helping them penetrate clothing, protective equipment and cell membranes, or by increasing their toxicity. For example, a Croatian team recently found that an herbicide formulation containing atrazine caused DNA damage, which can lead to cancer, while atrazine alone did not.

    POEA was recognized as a common inert ingredient in herbicides in the 1980s, when researchers linked it to a group of poisonings in Japan. Doctors there examined patients who drank Roundup, either intentionally or accidentally, and determined that their sicknesses and deaths were due to POEA, not glyphosate.

    POEA is a surfactant, or detergent, derived from animal fat. It is added to Roundup and other herbicides to help them penetrate plants’ surfaces, making the weed killer more effective.

    “POEA helps glyphosate interact with the surfaces of plant cells,” explained Negin Martin, a scientist at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in North Carolina, who was not involved in the study. POEA lowers water’s surface tension–the property that makes water form droplets on most surfaces–which helps glyphosate disperse and penetrate the waxy surface of a plant.

    In the French study, researchers tested four different Roundup formulations, all containing POEA and glyphosate at concentrations below the recommended lawn and agricultural dose. They also tested POEA and glyphosate separately to determine which caused more damage to embryonic, placental and umbilical cord cells.

    Glyphosate, POEA and all four Roundup formulations damaged all three cell types. Umbilical cord cells were especially sensitive to POEA. Glyphosate became more harmful when combined with POEA, and POEA alone was more deadly to cells than glyphosate. The research appears in the January issue of the journal Chemical Research in Toxicology.

    By using embryonic and placental cell lines, which multiply and respond to chemicals rapidly, and fresh umbilical cord cells, Seralini’s team was able to determine how the chemicals combine to damage cells.

    The two ingredients work together to “limit breathing of the cells, stress them and drive them towards a suicide,” Seralini said.

    The research was funded in part by France’s Committee for Research and Independent Information on Genetic Engineering, a scientific committee that investigates risks associated with genetically modified organisms. One of Roundup’s primary uses is on crops that are genetically engineered to be resistant to glyphosate.

    Monsanto scientists argue that cells in Seralini’s study were exposed to unnaturally high levels of the chemicals. “It’s very unlike anything you’d see in real-world exposure. People’s cells are not bathed in these things,” said Donna Farmer, another toxicologist at Monsanto.

    Seralini’s team, however, did study multiple concentrations of Roundup. These ranged from the typical agricultural or lawn dose down to concentrations 100,000 times more dilute than the products sold on shelves. The researchers saw cell damage at all concentrations.

    Monsanto scientists also question the French team’s use of laboratory cell lines.
    “These are just not very good models of a whole organism, like a human being,” said Dan Goldstein, a toxicologist with Monsanto.

    Goldstein said humans have protective mechanisms that resist substances in the environment, such as skin and the lining of the gastrointestinal tract, which constantly renew themselves. “Those phenomena just don’t happen with isolated cells in a Petri dish.”

    But Cox, who studies pesticides and their inert ingredients at the Oakland environmental group, says lab experiments like these are important in determining whether a chemical is safe.

    “We would never consider it ethical to test these products on people, so we’re obliged to look at their effects on other species and in other systems,” she said. “There’s really no way around that.”

    Seralini said the cells used in the study are widely accepted in toxicology as good models for studying the toxicity of chemicals.

    • 0

      Jim softy’s essay can be shortened to say that Glyohosate itself is not too toxic, but it has been formulated with stuff which are poisoneous.
      May be this is an opportunity for someone to sell it without the junk, since the patent has expired

  • 0

    Glyphosate is not without blame, but so are all agrochemicals. What is needed is not to ban Glyphosate, but investigate it’s effect on soil and plants when applied, the chemical changes that it undergoes in soil, it’s percolation and infiltration of the soil strata, run off and behaviour in waterways and water bodies, whether wells and deep water reserves are contaminated, are harmful metabolites formed and bound with drinking water, etc. There are so many research institutes but no one thinks it important?

  • 1

    Prof. Chandre Dharmawardana: Thank You for one of the best articles I have seen on this subject.

    Unfortunately, the usual knee-jerk reactions of politicians who should know better (but clearly don’t) has won the day. Their true reasons are only known to them.

    In your penultimate paragraph lies the answer; sales by controlled dosage. I would add that continuing further education is also a must. How many times have I heard our local farming people think that ‘more is better’ both for weedkiller and fertilizer.

  • 0

    Glyphosate has been found harmful to humans when used as weedicide,in Canada.
    Glyphosate resistant weeds are now flourishing and these are sought to be controlled by more and more weedicides.


    Sri Lankan scientists should read research studies worldwide before commenting on safety or otherwise of glyphosate, other weedicides and surfactants.

    • 0

      Justice says Glyhosate has been found harmful to humans in Canada.
      So is gasoline (petrol), but we allow it in millions of cars; gasoline, or its fumes are far more harmful than gyphosate.

      So, we still accept gasoline after weighing its bad effects against its importance to modern society.

  • 0

    Clearly, every thing has some negative effects and positive effects.
    (1)It is simplistic to say “each person should grow his/her own food. That kind of agrarian societies existed in the old days; There are good reasons why cities evolved and the old rural model disappeared.
    (2) Undoubtedly, Rounnd-up or any other herbicide or fertilizer will have their negative effects and positive effects. So, one must weigh the pros and cons, and make decisions.
    The best people for doing that are the agricultural scientists.
    (3)I fully agree that the sale of fertilizers must be done exactly as for medications, using a prescription from an agricultural field officer who can evaluate the needs of each plantation. This applies even to round up which should be sold only in a controlled manner, just like pharmaceuticals. Knee-jerk banning of this or that is a foolish reaction that this government has
    been resorting to, because they don’t have a rational policy

  • 0

    The David Suzuki Foundation has lauded the Cosmetic Pesticide Control Act passed by the province of Ontario, Canada which has a large area under cultivation.


    Sri Lanka should promulgate similar legislation to save the environment and lives of farmers.

  • 0

    Here is another review highlighting the dangers of Glyphosate :-


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