The government banned the popular herbicide known as “Glyphosate” in 2105 using the epidemic of Kidney Disease in the Rajarata as justification for its drastic action. It proposed to create a “toxin free nation” eventually banning agrochemicals. Ven. Athuraliye Rathana is Sri Lanka’s presidential adviser on agriculture, promising to “rid the country of toxins”. He angrily and passionately holds forth like a modern-day Savonarola. But, unlike Savonarola’s moral anger, Ven. Ratana’s anger is based on misinformation that totally dominates the internet, and the rejection of main-stream scientific opinion. Having embraced fake news and exploiting public fear as its selling point, Ven. Rathana talks of glyphosate killing all bacteria, microbes and soil organisms when it is used in agriculture. In fact earthworms and other soil organisms thrive better in its presence. But he has come forward as the saviour of the nation against this alleged “evil toxin poisoning the whole environment and the food chain, triggering innumerable diseases including the chronic kidney disease ravaging the Rajarata”!
On 23rd August the Derana TV program “Aluth Parlimenthuwa” had assembled a discussion panel led by Ven. Rathana. Others were an ex-minister of agriculture, i.e., Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena(MYA), Namal Karunaratne (NK) of the “Samastha Govijana Sammelanaya” (a Farmers’ League) , Dr. Priyanka Yapa (PY) of the Sabaragamuwa University, and Asoka Abeygunawardana (AA). The latter is a government ideologue pushing “sustainable agriculture” and a so-called “strategic enterprise management agency” – SEMA. To some extent Asoka A is what Lysenko was to Soviet agriculture. There was also a selected set of “members of the audience” brought from Trincomalee, Dambulla Kurunegala etc. Their role was to ask rhetorical “questions” vigorously supporting the “doing away with all agrochemicals”, not just glyphosate. The veteran figures from Sri Lanka’s science, agriculture, health, or experts from the plantation institutes or the WHO were conspicuously absent and presumably not invited. In my view, only the ex-minister MYA talked some sense, i.e., stated scientifically valid things about toxins. Namal Karunaratne correctly described the plight of the farmers; but he as well as his co-panelists were totally wrong on toxicology and agrochemicals.
Namal Karunaratne correctly pointed out that Sri Lanka has been importing Soya products and soya milk grown using glyphosate technology from the West for many years. He raised the specter of a poisoned nation ranging from babies to grand mothers. And yet, given decades of such soya consumption, we cannot find anyone stricken down by the alleged toxicity of glyphosate! None noted that Sri Lanka has consumed Canadian Lentils (“parippu”) and Canola oil for decades, grown with GM (“genetically modified”) agricultural technologies intensively using glyphosate.
Nalaka Karunaratne noted that 40% of the fruits and vegetables produced by our farmers go waste due to lack of food preservation technologies and markets. Minutes before, it was noted that a fruit imported from Australia would remain on the table for “months” while the Sri Lanka fruit which rots in a few days was claimed to be healthy, “natural” and safer to eat. Not one “expert” panelist noted that the Australian fruit is simply coated with a layer of perfectly harmless wax which seals its aroma, its moisture, and prevents pathogens and mold spores from attacking the fruit. The wax can be washed off with hot water! But then, the toxin-free nation wants natural untreated fruits and nothing less. Let the farmers loose 40% of their produce!
Priyanka Yapa and Asoka A uttered the usual litany of lies about the green revolution and the capabilities of “alternative agriculture” that I have heard from Californian activists, revealing the source of their borrowed ideas. Dr. Yapa even stated that he “learned organic agriculture” from the West, while attacking Glyphosate as a “Western product”. Amazingly, he was willing to accept a toxin if produced in Sri Lanka itself! Priyanka Y mentioned several “alternative techniques” for killing weeds using equipment imported from China (not the West!) as alternatives to glyphosate. Every one of them are well known to most of us old hands, as being environmentally very harmful and rather ineffective, unlike glyphosate which is effective, inexpensive and environmentally friendly. These alternatives proposed by Priyanka Yapa, e.g., infrared rays, or flames, microwaves attack all bugs, good and bad, in trying to “burn” the weeds. Gyphosate acts only on green plants, and does not harm worms, beetles, and other organisms (as long as they do not use photosynthesis- i.e., not in the plant kingdom). Far from killing micro-organisms and earthworms, glyphosate actually helps to remove metal toxins like cadmium (by chelation) from the soil and allows earth worms to flourish in soils inhospitable to organic life before the use of glyphosate, as has been demonstrated by Chinese scientists who studied extremely contaminated soils (see. Environ. Toxicol. Chem. Volume 33, pages 2351–2357, year 2014.)
I have always held that the ban on glyphosate should never have been imposed. It should be lifted, NOT just for the benefit of the big tea plantations, but for the small-scale farmer, the vegetable farmer and all others. MYA (the ex-Minister) admitted that even after the ban, most practical-minded farmers (including himself) without ideological blinkers have used the glyphosate freely available at black-market in “the toxin-free nation” of Venerable Rathana, just as duty-free cars of MPs are available in the black market.
While Ven. Rathana and his team regard Glyphosate as the very devil itself, the vast majority of scientists (including those in Sri Lanka) consider glyphosate to be benign and NOT a health risk. Its “toxicity” is similar to that of Lifebuoy soap. The International Agency for Cancer Research (IARC) of the WHO declared it a class-II hazard (i.e., similar to “eating red meat” in the ability to cause cancer) in 2014. The WHO and the FAO clarify that it is not a health risk at all and issued a press release on 16th May 2016. The FAO-WHO Joint Committee on Pesticide Residues effectively says that even a few tea spoons of full strength glyphosate consumed daily is quite safe! It is so safe that it may be sprayed without wearing gloves and goggles, even using formulations like “Roundup” which contain toxic additives like tallowamine to help bind to leaves. This is because the quantity in the spray is miniscule, unlike the amount of toxins absorbed by the farmer by inhaling diesel fumes from his own tractor. In 2004 Professor Acquavela and collaborators made an extended study of farmers in S. Carolina and Minnesota who used no goggles or gloves in spraying glyphosate. He found a maximum of 223 parts per billion (ppb) of glyphosate in urine, and a mean value of 3 ppb, i.e., well below the US threshold of 700 ppb, showing that the ingestion of glyphosate is negligible while the ingestion of the adjuvents is even smaller.
The nonscientific public has misunderstood the IARC classification and concluded that glyphosate is a dangerous carcinogenic toxin. The toxins produced by Ven. Ratana’s duty free cars sold to the public at various times produce more harm to the environment than all the glyphosate used in the ex-minister MYA’s 30 acre tea estate in ten years.
MYA correctly argued (Derana TV, 23 Aug, 2017) that while two tablets of paracetamol can cure a headache, it becomes a toxin if you take more; he correctly stated that the problem with agrochemicals is identical – i.e., overuse. For Ven. Ratana, glyphosate is “worse than the LTTE”, and beyond comparison with mere overuse. Claiming that any glyphosate applied in the hills comes down along the rivers to poison the whole country, Ven. R wants no glyphosate applied there. If any glyphosate is present in river water, then it would have killed all the algae in our water bodies, and this is manifestly not so. All chemical tests have shown that there is no glyphosate or its breakdown products in the river runoff as they rapidly decompose and react with the soil (in the tropics), playing a beneficial role by fixing heavy metals naturally present in the soil. Glyphosate itself breaks down and ultimately contributes to the phosphate needed in the soil.
Every farmer knows of the egrets (“Kokku”) that follow his plough when he tills his land. If our soils are full of toxins and dead with no earthworms and soil organisms, then why do the egrets and other birds flock behind the plough? Why don’t the egrets drop dead? The soil is free of toxins and contain enough organisms to attract the birds. The biggest threats to our environment are (a) loss of habitat due to human encroachment, and (b) toxins and particulate matter from motor vehicles, farm equipment, and from industry. (c) another source of toxins is the bio-accumulation of trace elements by plants and in animal dung and their reuse in composting when a concentrated dose of metal toxins are returned to the earth. The so-called “contaminated mineral fertilizers” do not deliver significant amounts of metal toxins into the soil (for details, see Sec. 7 of the article ). In fact, it can be shown that even if “heavily contaminated” fertilizer (e.g., phosphate fertilizer containing 50 mg of Cd per kg of fertilizer, i.e., some 10 times larger than typically maximum stipulated values) adds negligible amounts of Cd toxin to the soil. For example, if we assume that 25 kg of phosphate fertilizer/hectare are applied into a depth of 15 cm in paddy cultivation, it will add only 1.25 μg of Cd and As per kilo of soil per application, while typical threshold values are 5 mg of
As and 1 to 3 mg of Cd per kg of soil. Hence, even if all the Cd and As remain in the soil, with no wash-off, it will take 2.4 millenia to have a discernible effect on the Cd level in soil, 4 millenia to have an effect on the As levels in the soil. In reality much of the Cd or As gets washed of by monsoons. So the existing Cd levels are mostly of geological origin.
A preposterous claim made by Nalaka Karunaratne stated that no one dares to drink water from a paddy field “Vakkadaya” (water port) any more. WHO Research and other independent studies show that the water in the vakkada, irrigation canals and tanks are perfectly safe to drink. The water in some specific household wells in the Rajarata contain geogenic fluoride (F) and magnesium (Mg). Conclusive evidence now point to the consumption of stagnant well water containing F and Mg as the cause of chronic kidney disease, with no links to glyphosate or heavy metals (see, e.g., research article in the renowned journal Nature-scientific reports: DOI 10.1038/srep42516, 2017, and https://arxiv.org/abs/1704.07906 in 2017).
Although glyphosate is less dangerous to soil organisms compared to soap, and even beneficial to the soil, the claim that glyphosate is a dangerous toxin is the unwavering message on the internet. Websites with catchy names like “Natural agriculture”, “nature’s pulse”, “back-to earth”, “truthout.com”, “traditional kitchen”, “nature’s garden”, “green wholesome” etc., flourish in the over-fed West and read in upper class Colombo looking for ever-elitist, “uncontaminated” organic foods. The Hollywood celebrities with much money and little education set the trend. If you Google the words “glyphosate” and “human toxicity”, you come up with a smorgasbord of fake news and cooked up “facts” well anchored in pseudoscience. However, it requires expert knowledge to ferret out the errors, especially because biased experiments designed to prove that glyphosate is toxic have been performed and published in fake journals which are now known as “predatory journals”
Close to a hundred Nobel Laureates issued a press statement (Washington Post, 4 July 2016) deploring faked science, and admonishing movements like “GreenPeace” to desist from creating and publicizing fake “facts”. These predatory journals look like proper scholarly journals, but they are not run by learned societies or reputed publishers. They publish anything once the fee is paid. Dr. Jayasumana of the Rajarata University, a Ms. Senanayake without scientific credentials but said to have psychic powers linking her to God Natha, and a US-based doctor used a predatory journal launched by a Chinese businessman to publish a “hypothesis” claiming that kidney disease is caused by the joint action of arsenic, glyphosate and calcium (from hard water) forming a complex, all said to be found in the Rajarata. No evidence was presented, as there is none anyway. No arsenic or glyphosate even as significant traces or exceeding controls has been detected in the Rajarata although today even one atom in a trillion other atoms can be detected. Biopsies on kidney patients have failed to detect any significant traces of glyphosate or its breakdown products in their blood, urine or body samples. And yet it was hailed by “Green” websites world over, and glyphosate has been declared the cause of kidney disease and banned from Sri Lanka, only to be replaced by black-market glyphosate. A country flooded in illegal hooch and narcotics has one more lucrative product for the underworld.
The internet can be used to “prove” that France, Netherlands and even Russia have banned glyphosate. The reality is different. Only Sri Lanka and El Salvadore have actually gazetted a ban. Russia in its Soviet era ruined its agriculture and is now catching up making its own glyphosate and GMO products. In Sri Lanka the local Lysenkos and Rasputins, blinded by their own ideology and rhetoric are taking Sri Lanka to a dark era of poverty, malnutrition and traditional technology. The latter contains a large dose of superstition and some gems of wisdom; the wisdom is now well encoded into scientific agriculture. As a scientist who worked hard to establish food science and environmentally sustainable technologies in Sri Lanka in my days (1974-1975) as a Vice Chancellor and Professor of the Sri Jayawardenepura University, I can join with Dr. Panabokke to say that today’s Sri Lankan agriculture and food science are in the hands of “Kattadiyas” (Shamans).