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.