Cultivation of genetically modified herbicide tolerant crops relies heavily on glyphosate, a possible carcinogen
This year, three states tried to restrict the use of glyphosate to curb illegal cultivation of genetically modified (GM) herbicide-tolerant (HT) crops. Telangana’s Department of Agriculture Cooperation and Family Welfare issued a notice to this effect on July 10, 2018. According to this, the dealers would have to get a recommendation slip from the agriculture office even if they want to use it in non-crop area. In India, the herbicide is recommended for use only in tea plantations and non-crop areas.
Before this, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra had put similar restrictions. "We do not want the harmful chemical in our jurisdiction," says Kailas Wankhede, sub-divisional agriculture officer of Yavatmal district of Maharashtra. HT plants are resistant to glyphosate, a chemical that was classified as “probable carcinogen” by the World Health Organization in 2015.
Manifold increase in usage of glyphosate
As much as 8.6 billion kg of glyphosate has been used globally since it was introduced in 1974. Globally, total use increased from about 51 million kg in 1995 to about 750 million kg in 2014—nearly a 15-fold jump. This jump has been attributed to introduction of herbicide tolerant GM plants. In India, about 0.866 million kg of glyphosate was sold in 2014-15, according to the Directorate of Plant Protection, Quarantine and Storage.
In the US, over 4,000 lawsuits have been filed against Monsanto—the company which manufactured this herbicide. The first case, being heard in a court in San Francisco at present, is of DeWayne Johnson, a 46-year-old groundskeeper. He says the company failed to warn him of the dangers of using glyphosate, and as a result, he is suffering from terminal cancer. Monsanto was acquired by Bayer, a German pharmaceutical company, on June 7 this year.
Why farmers continue to use Glyphosate
Despite being aware of its toxicity, farmers in India want the chemical as it helps them control weeds in their farms at a lower cost. Cost of weeding can be as much as three times lower if glyphosate is used instead of manual labour. Farmers use glyphosate on all kinds of crops; they cover the crop plant with plastic baskets to protect them and spray the chemical on the weeds around it.
However, for genetically modified herbicide-tolerant crops, the usage is more as farmers spray it more liberally across fields to clear the weeds. “Farmers cannot afford to think about the long-term adverse health effects of the chemical. They are looking for ways to survive today,” says Dewanand Pawar, convener of the Shetkari Nyayhakka Andolan Samiti, a Yavatmal-based non-profit organisation that works on farmers’ rights.
States are likely to fail in their effort to restrict the use of glyphosate as they do not have the power to ban a chemical. For about two months, the sale of the chemical was curtailed in Yavatmal, Maharashtra. The farmers who wanted it, however, could procure it from the neighbouring districts. “Krishi kendras, the local shops that sell agro products, have asked for a license and we could not refuse permission,” says N M Kolapkar, district superintendent, agricultural officer, Yavatmal.
The district agriculture departments do not have the authority to restrict the sale of agrochemicals. Even state governments cannot ban the sale, distribution or use of pesticides beyond 60 days, according to Section 27 of the Insecticides Act, 1968. The decision to ban the sale and use of agrochemicals can be taken only by the Central Insecticide Board and Registration Committee (CIB&RC), which comes under the Union Ministry of Agriculture and Farmer’s Welfare. “Measures to restrict the use of glyphosate will not work because its entry into cotton fields has piggybacked on bollgard III (BG-III) cotton seeds developed by Monsanto. BG-III and glyphosate go in tandem for farmers,” says D Narasimha Reddy, director of Pesticide Action Network India (PAN), a coalition against pesticides.
Health impact of glyphosate
In 2017, at least 23 people had died in the district after inhaling pesticides being sprayed on cotton crop. An assessment by PAN suggests that this could be due to the cultivation of GM herbicide-tolerant cotton seeds. It seems that Roundup Ready Flex seeds were being illegally cultivated in the region. The tall plants growing close to each other trapped the pesticide which the labourers inhaled. To prevent such deaths, the state authority banned five pesticides. Though glyphosate was not one of these pesticides, there is no doubt that glyphosate is toxic. Shekhar Ghodeswar, assistant professor at the Vasantrao Naik Government Medical College, Yavatmal, has confirmed receiving a number of glyphosate poisoning cases.
Evidence nailing glyphosate is pouring in. Researchers at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine say that exposure to glyphosate increased by about 500 per cent since the introduction of GM crops. The researchers compared the levels of glyphosate in urine samples over a 23-year period, starting in 1993, just before the introduction of genetically modified crops into the US. The findings were published in the JAMA on October 24, 2017.
These residues have adverse health effects as seen in Argentina. A study published in Journal of Environmental Protection in April 2018 says that in areas where GM soy is cultivated, miscarriages were three times the national average and birth defects were two times the national average. On March 9, 2018, a study published in Environmental Health revealed that exposure to glyphosate resulted in shortened pregnancy length, which is detrimental to a child’s health. The research found that 93 per cent of a group of pregnant women in Central Indiana, US had detectable levels of glyphosate in their urine. Researchers found that the glyphosate levels correlated significantly with shortened pregnancy lengths.
Adverse impacts of glyphosate include acute poisoning, kidney and liver damage, changes in gut microflora, cancer, endocrine disruption, neurological damage and immune system dysfunction. Worse, glyphosate formulations have been found to be more harmful than glyphosate. For example, polyethoxylated tallow amine (POEA)—used by Monsanto as an adjuvant to increase the efficacy of glyphosate—has been found to be 3,450 times more toxic to human embryonic kidney cells than the herbicide itself. The formulations also had toxins like arsenic, chromium, cobalt, lead and nickel, according to a study published in Toxicology Reports in December, 2017. The adjuvants are not regulated.
“Glyphosate should be banned immediately because there is a huge fraud in the declaration of the active ingredient. Heavy metals, especially arsenic, are associated with glyphosate as formulants, but they have not been declared as active principles. Thus, they are the hidden, undisclosed poisons,” says Gilles-Eric Séralini, a molecular biologist at the University of Caen Normandy, France, who has worked extensively on GM crops and their health effects.
Such studies that capture the health effects of glyposate are missing in India. But the momentum to ban the chemical is building up here, too. In October 2017, the Alliance for Sustainable & Holistic Agriculture (ASHA), a network of agricultural organisations had petitioned the agriculture ministry to ban the chemical. “It should be banned as none of the farmers use the recommended personal protective gear and equipment mandatorily required to be used,” says Dileep Kumar, programme coordinator of PAN. Manish B Shrigiriwas, dean of Vasantrao Naik Government Medical College, Yavatmal, also recommends a ban. “Glyphosate should not be used as there is no antidote for it,” he argues.
In the interest of the health of the farmers as well as the consumers, the Union government must get serious on this toxic chemical. As of now, there seems little hope in the offing.
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