Luddite Eco-Activists throttling Sri Lankan Agriculture

Chandre Dharamawardana,  3 July 2016, with hiS title of choice being “Ban on agrochemicals”
article_imageGlyphosate (herbicide) finds re-approval by the European Union while “Toxin-free” Sri Lanka continues to throttle its farmers.

Last year the Yahapalanaya leaders, flush with electoral victory banned Glyphosate, the well-trusted but controversial herbicide, heralding their “toxin-free nation” policy announced with much fanfare. The government hopes to replace modern agriculture with “traditional agriculture”, based on “traditional seeds” and “traditional farming methods” that do not use modern technology, chemical fertilizers, insecticides or herbicides. A pie-in-the sky vision!

  Glyphosate is the most widely used herbicide in the world; it has been used in agriculture for over three decades with no casualties or directly attributable illnesses caused by it to agricultural workers. In fact, according to world-bank data, the usage of agrochemicals is higher in the more developed countries with virtually no chronic disease, and lower in the less-developed countries with high levels of chronic diseases. For instance, New Zealand or Malaysia use some ten times more agrochemicals per hectare than Sri Lanka does. There seems to be a clear anti-correlation between the use of agro-chemicals and the presence of chronic diseases, as I pointed out in greater detail in a previous article published in the Island (March 16, 2016) and elsewhere.
  The government leaders of the “Toxin free” movement include Ven. Ratana as well as Champika Ranawaka of Politpto fame (see Dr. Pethiyagoda’s articles in the Island and Lankaweb, 19 June, 2016). Those who wanted a ban on glyphosate claimed (without evidence) that glyphosate is the cause of CKDu, the mysterious chronic kidney diseases of unknown origin that has begun to plague the North-Central Province (NCP) of Sri Lanka since about 1990, even before the usage of glyphosate in Sri Lanka. The herbicide has not been chemically detected in the soil or water of the NCP. The very presence of green algae in the NCP water proves the absence of herbicide residues which would kill the algae. The ban was propelled by a hysteria of public fear fanned by the technical reclassification of glyphosate by the World Health Organization (WHO). Glyphosate, taken in unusually large doses over a long period of time may cause cancer. Here we are not talking of acute toxicity but of chronic toxicity. The daily dosage of glyphosate needed for chronic toxicity is quite large, and comparable to those of kerosene or carbolic soap .

Politically vociferous “eco-activists” have targeted glyphosate for decades, because a glyphosate ban is a necessary step in their Luddite-like opposition to ALL genetically modified (GMO) crops. The European parliament, in its recent review of pesticides gave the anti-glyphosate lobby a day-long hearing where several scientists presented their studies on the toxicity levels of glyphosate, as well as the toxicity arising from substances added (adjuvants) to the herbicide to facilitate its use. However, weighing all the facts and taking account of the disagreements, the European commission decided to re-approve the use of glyphosate until its next periodic review (see the German news item dated 28-June 2016:

The dose for causing chronic toxicity was set by the WHO as a daily ingestion of at least eight table spoons (i.e., about 40 mg) of full-strength glyphosate taken regularly, for a farmer weighing 70 kilos. This implies that even if workers did not wear gloves or goggles, they are unlikely to be affected, unless they directly drank it! The ingestion by normal farm workers is so small that their urine is found to contain perhaps a few billionth of a gram of the substance, and not milligram quantities. Furthermore, this chronic toxicity was not related to kidney disease, but to cancer, a disease that can be provoked far more easily by a whole host of other common substances, e.g., diesel and petroleum fumes, DDT-contaminated tea, cloves, citronella oil, re-used cooking oil, organic solvents, lead paint, electronic waste, and discarded Ni-Cd batteries, all of which are widely present in the Sri Lankan environment.

  The WHO banned DDT in the mid 1970s and Sri Lanka followed it, while India ignored the ban and uses DDT in her plantations as an insecticide. India is also a big user of glyphosate and other agrochemicals. Sri Lanka imports many food stuffs from India. Indian tea (contaminated with DDT) is imported to supplement and blend with tea grown in the “toxin-free” land.
  It should be noted that the WHO re-approved the domestic use of DDT in 2006 while maintaining its ban for agricultural use. However, Sri Lankans are not allowed the domestic use of DDT even against the Dengu mosquito, or the use of glyphosate that had hitherto been used widely (and safely) in our own agricultural sector.
  A recognized toxin that causes kidney disease is the metal cadmium, (Cd) found in the environment in trace amounts. Excavation and geological activity can raise the level of Cd in the soil. However, since Cd is not toxic to plants, many plants absorb it, and simply concentrate Cd in leaves, seeds and vegetative parts. Organic fertilizers made by composting common plants, often including Neem ( Kohomba) for its insecticidal properties, can contain elevated amounts of cadmium. Neem is a Cd accumulator. Grass also accumulates metal toxins, and hence cow-dung contains elevated amounts of Cd and other toxic metals. Rice, being a grass, is well known to concentrate Cd. There is a legitimate concern that CKDU may be caused by soil Cd from organic fertilizers, or from the use of poor-quality tri-phosphate fertilizers. Arsenic is another toxin that causes kidney disease. It too is found naturally and also may be in the soil via the use of chemical or organic fertilizers. The Eppawela triphosphate contains high amount (about 25 parts per million) of Arsenic. Thus the study of kidney disease sponsored by the WHO and the Sri Lanka National Science foundation (NSF) examined the possible presence of heavy-metal toxins. It also studied pesticide and insecticide residues, and concluded in 2104 that that metal toxins or pesticide residues cannot be the cause of CKDU. However, it left open the possibility that Cd is the cause because the urine of CKDu victims were high in Cd. Nevertheless, control groups that did not have CKDu also had high levels of Cd, making the results somewhat puzzling. The puzzle is partly resolved when we recognize that Cd absorption, and its toxicity depend on the chemical form of Cd (i.e., bio-availability) as well the co-presence of mitigating substances like zinc (Zn). High levels of zinc suppress the toxicity of Cd. Furthermore, several studies have shown that the much-maligned glyphosate is found to suppress the toxicity of Cd by binding to it and making it unavailable to plants. Furthermore, a recent study of the Mahaweli river by Diyabalanage and co-workers showed that “cadmium that is often attributed to the etiology of unknown chronic kidney diseases in certain parts of the dry zone is much lower than previously reported levels”.

Scientists must advise the government to lift the sham ban on glyphosate introduced an year ago, throttling the agriculture sector which can no longer compete with its international-export rivals. Indeed, the new policy of providing money (instead of fertilizers) to the farmer, and the tactic of making the farmer find for himself the (non-existent) organic fertilizer for engaging in “traditional agriculture” will lead to the rapid extinction of farming in this country. A “Divaina” article ( by Seneviruvan has even raised the possibility that the government is pursuing the deliberate extinction of the farmer. Then farm land could be acquired for “megapolis projects” favoured by the global investor. Disaster capitalism eyes Sri Lanka to buy assets at fire-sale prices, with the rupees in free fall, with foreign-exchange controls removed, so that capital can be moved out of the county at a mere mouse-click of a computer.

Chandre Dharmawardana, in Canada

Leave a comment

Filed under accountability, economic processes, life stories, modernity & modernization, politIcal discourse, self-reflexivity, sri lankan society, the imaginary and the real, truth as casualty of war, unusual people, welfare & philanthophy, world events & processes, zealotry

Leave a Reply