In a press conference held on 11th April, the Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA) stated that fresh laws should be introduced to take “stern action” against people involved in smuggling in such “harmful chemicals” like glyphosate. The GMOA considers glyphosate to be “harmful” because it allegedly causes cancer and kidney disease. However, just last November, the world’s largest study on the health effects of glyphosate covering over two decades and involving 90,000 people, found NO harmful effects even on applying powerful statistical analysis to scrutinize the data.
Published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute (JNCI) on 9-November 2017, the long-term large-numbers study found that there was NO association between glyphosate, the main ingredient in Monsanto’s popular herbicide RoundUp and any type of cancer. In particular, there was no association with “any solid tumors or lymphoid malignancies overall, including non-Hogkin Lymphoma and its subtypes”. The new study used long-term data collected through the Agricultural Health Study. The study carefully monitored the health of nearly 90,000 people in Iowa and North Carolina from 1993 to 2010. These included farmers licensed to apply pesticides to their crops, and their spouses. The impact of more than 54,000 pesticide applications is taken into account in the study of which 83 percent contained glyphosate. Many of the farmers had been using glyphosate even before the study. Yet, after some two decades of continuous and intense use of glyphosate herbicides, they found NO significant increase in cancers among those exposed to the chemical.
Most scientists acknowledged the quality, clarity and decisiveness of the study, funded entirely with government and university sources. Prof Sir David Spiegelhalter, Winton Professor for the Public Understanding of Risk at the University of Cambridge, said:
“This large and careful study shows no significant relationship between Glyphosate use and any cancer. The reported possible association with acute myeloid leukemia (AML) is no more than one would expect by chance when looking at 22 different cancer types. In fact the association that comes closest to statistical significance is a negative link with testicular cancer – that is, higher Glyphosate use was associated with lower risk – but again this is just the sort of chance result one would expect.”
So, how did the GMOA miss this decisive, massive study which in fact looks at the type of diseases that the GMOA thinks is caused by glyphosate? Even though we can excuse Ven. Ratana and his acolytes to be out of touch with the scientific community, one would expect that the GMOA would have its committee of mavens when it comes to technical matters, even though we recognized that the GMOA is a trade union with the primary mandate of protecting its own turf.
The most important “non-communicable disease” that the GMOA refers to is cancer. This is precisely what is now definitively excluded from any association with the use of glyphosate, even if the latter were used continuously and intensely for two decades by a farmer. Perhaps the GMOA also has in mind the form of chronic kidney disease of unknown origin (CKDu) that is prevalent mainly in the Rajarata. There is no scientific evidence at all in support of this, while there is compelling evidence against the claim. In Sri Lanka, a small but politically powerful group of individuals led by Ven. Ratana, and a small number of scientists on the fringe of the main scientific community have claimed that chronic kidney disease is caused by the glyphosate in the environment and the food chain, and that too only if arsenic, hard-water and other agents are found in conjunction with glyphosate.
But the cats, dogs, cattle, and many villages in the Rajarata itself where the residents drink water from agricultural channels, rives and lakes do NOT get CKDu, while those who drink water from their private wells, located away from the paddy fields, get CKDu. So there is a strong anti-correlation between agrochemical use and CKDu. We also know that countries like Malaysia or NewZealand, which use many dozens of times more agrochemicals than Sri Lanka have no such chronic diseases.
Furthermore, the 90,000 people monitored by the US-NCI study would have also alerted the researchers to any higher incidence of kidney disease, since many different health indices of these subjects were a part of the inputs to the data base. While the presence of correlations does not establish a causal connection, the LACK of any correlation is a very strong indication that glyphosate cannot be a causative factor in diseases that the GMOA has indicated.
This US-NCI study is just one of the many studies that have come to this conclusion. Over 190 countries of the world are satisfied and approve the use of glyphosate. However, strong political movements that take a nostalgic, romantic and often anti-science approach to agriculture have become very powerful during recent decades. Their strength is the unreasoned fear of the public, fanned by the “MANTHRA” that chemicals “in the food” cause all sorts of chronic diseases. These groups join hands with the commercial interests of large consumer chains that offer “organic-foods”, “natural foods” “holistic foods” etc., catering to the elite classes who also control the politics of most countries, constituting about 1% of the world population. It is not surprising that many educated people and indeed medical doctors who do the “daily grind”, but do not follow the research, fall for the “chemicals are poisoning our food” MANTHRA. In fact, many agrochemicals, if applied in sufficiently high doses can be toxic, as with ALL pharmaceuticals and industrial substances like gasoline, chlorine, or common detergents. Even spices like chillies and cloves are potent toxins when their familiar-use thresholds are exceeded.
The conclusion of the International Agency for Research in cancer (IARC) in 2015 that glyphosate is a class-II hazard causing cancer at high doses was a god-sent to the “no-chemicals in my-food” (NCMF) lobby. The class-II HAZARD was weaponized for propaganda and renamed a dangerous TOXIN although no health risk was implied by the IARC. The NCMF lobby joined the powerful activists engaged against “Frankenfood”. This was their name for foods cropped from genetically modified organisms (GMO). Wheat, Soya, canola oil, rice and vegetables where specific genes in their DNA have been replaced by other genes confer them economically or medically desirable properties. Genetic engineering of crops is the modern version of “plant breeding” where trial and error approaches are replaced by a modern approach guided by the DNA of the crops of interest. A key role in GMO cropping has been given to glyphosate in that it is economically advantageous to use GMO crops resistant to glyphosate to allow weed control. Sri Lankans have been safely eating GM-wheat flour from USA, and Canadian lentils, for decades.
The opponents of GMO have directed their guns on glyphosate as a part of their campaign against so-called “Frankenfoods”. Every manner of propaganda trick has been used. One of the most farcical is the Kangaroo court organized by a French journalist, Marie-Monique Robin in the Hague, Netherlands. This propaganda event, patented and owned by Ms. Robin is named by her “The international court of Justice, Hague”, is to deceive the public by associating with similar-sounding institutions linked to the United Nations.
This “court” pronounced in April 2017 that Monsanto has committed crimes against humanity in unleashing glyphosate which is “a weapon of mass destruction”! Ven. Ratana, and Dr. Jayasumana were the main Sri Lankan “delegates” to the Kangaroo court. The delegation claimed that 3 out of every 100 families in the Rajarata gave birth to deformed children due to glyphosate use. However, 3% is the expected average birth statistic for deformed children, irrespective of glyphosate use, even in the days before glypohsate, be it in “glyphobic” Norway, Sri Lanka or “glyphilic” North America. Ven. Ratana repeated the same false claim of 3% birth defects in the Rajarata “being due to glyphosate” on Derana Television, 27-3-2018.
On the same broadcast, Ven. Ratana stated that the GMOA is with him. Does the GMOA stand with the false statistics that Ven. Ratana rattles out? Has the GMOA taken cognizance of the world’s largest study on glyphosate covering some 90,000 people exposed to glyphosate for some two decades, continuously? As a responsible, professional body, we hope that the GMOA acts on the basis of evidence and rejects the false claims of misguided zealots.
Meanwhile, two medical doctors, Prof. Saroj Jayasinghe, and Prof. Herath have stated that glyphosate should continue to be BANNED on the basis of what they call the precautionary principle (PP), i.e., as a precaution because there is some doubt among the scientific community about the total safety of glyphosate. There is always doubt about everything in science, as science never makes dogmatic statements that claim 100% exactitude. There are always some scientists as well as individual members of the public who claim that vaccinations are not safe, that fluoridation of water is not safe, that coconut milk is not safe etc., etc., and so on.
The precautionary principle when used to “ban and banish” is known as the PP-BB. Such approaches have failed historically as with alcohol, guns etc. Indeed the imposed ban on glyphosate has led to a glut of contraband from India, proving that the PP-BB does not work. The lack of glyphosate or any other viable alternative weedicide during the last three years, and the consequent loss of crop productivity is believed to have made the country directly loose some Rs 30 billion, while indirect losses, and abandonment of plantations, have to counted in as well.
The modern approach to PP is to use “control and constrain”, i.e., PP-CC, where the toxic substance, or the dangerous weapon, is not made available to the public but available through qualified service providers. Thus guns and weapons are available to the police and security forces, but not to the public. Pharmaceuticals are available to doctors and hospitals, and only non-prescription drugs can be bought by the public without any controls. Toxic agrochemicals like paraquat can also be made available to the farmer through technically competent, approved service providers, just as spraying for Dengue mosquitoes can be requested by any member of the public who may need such a service. No harmful insecticides and larvicides are sold directly to private individuals. That is, the PP is fully implemented by having the right controls and constraints on the toxic substance.
However, we have to be fore-warned that today we have Professors of medicine who may reverse much of our gains in public health by opposing even fluoridation of water on the claim that the scientific community is divided on the issue, and hence fluoridation should be banned on the basis of the PP. Given such misunderstandings on the nature of scientific doubt, PP-BB and the public good on the one hand, and the action of anti-science zealots who want to turn back agriculture to the days of slash and burn cultivation, we face a grim reality that the public may not be aware of.
*The author was a past Vice-Chancellor and Professor of Chemistry at the J’pura university, Sri Lanka, and currently works as Physicist at the National Research Council of Canada, Ottawa, and the Dept. of Physics, University of Montreal, Canada.