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Published on Monday, 24 March 2014 16:53
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Glyphosate 630px 14 03 24It is reported that the widely used herbicide, glyphosate has been banned because of its link to kidney disease. Pesticides are environmentally undesirable but our current agricultural practices heavily depend on this pesticide popularly known as roundup. However, there is no compelling scientific evidence to link glyphosate to kidney disease.

There is much hype about a paper published by a group of researchers from the Rajarata University and the Suwasaviya Foundation linking glyphosate to Rajarata kidney disease. Incidentally, one of the coauthors of this article is a person who first claimed to have found arsenic to be the responsible factor through divine intervention. I wonder how much of divine powers were involved in formulating the current hypothesis. This paper has merely put forward a hypothesis which cannot be accepted as gospel truth. Such proclamations through local media are highly misleading and can affect our agriculture in the long term. What is necessary is to control the application of pesticides in our agriculture to protect the health of our people. For example, vegetables are sprayed with pesticide just before harvest and even after harvesting. This highly undesirable practice has to be controlled with the necessary legislation and banning glyphosate certainly will not help to control the kidney disease.

Glyphosate undergoes microbial decay in soil over a period of weeks and its herbicidal activity disappears in a much shorter time owing to absorption to clay and organic matter in soil. This effect is mainly due to the formation of insoluble complexes with metals in the soils such as iron, calcium and magnesium. Some of these complexes are extremely insoluble and there is no way that they can find their way into the drinking water wells located away from the paddy fields. Because of this the pesticide has very little chance of getting into well waters since glyphosate is effectively immoblised due to binding to various metal ions in soil.

Let us now look at the history of glyphosate use in Sri Lanka. In 1977, glyphosate was given permission by the Department of Agriculture for controlling weeds in non-crop lands in the hill country and this was extended to all of Sri Lanka in 1994, again for only non-crop lands. Use in paddy fields was granted only in 1998 but even at that time paraquat which was much cheaper was used to control weeds by farmers. When paraquat was banned from use in 2007, glyphosate gradually came into use. It was only in 2003 that the patent rights for the manufacture of glyphosate was removed from its parent company, Manosanto. Thereafter, various companies started manufacturing glyphosate under different trade names and it became considerably cheaper. Large scale application of glyphosate to paddy lands became widespread only after about 2011.ea

The earliest recorded cases of detection of CKDu cases go as far back as 1996 when glyphosate was non-existent in that area which contradicts the findings of this hypothesis. How can one explain the occurrence of this disease prior to its use? Generally chronic endemic nephropathies manifest in humans only after a reasonably long incubation period of about 10-20 years of living in the same region and this hypothesis cannot explain this discrepancy. Furthermore, this hypothesis assumes that hard water in combination with glyphosate is responsible for kidney disease. There are many other areas in Sri Lanka where the water is hard but do not get the disease. In particular, Puttalam district, Jaffna, Matale and the Moneragala districts do not report such kidney patients. Leaving aside Jaffna which has highest hardness where there were some restrictions of transporting agrochemicals, how can this hypothesis exclude other hard water areas? Also, the hardness map purportedly from the Water Resources Board is quite different from the published hardness maps of Sri Lanka such as the hydrogeochemical atlas authored by Prof. C. B. Dssanayake. When quoting from such a map proper acknowledgement to a person is essential in order for anyone else to check on the veracity of such information.

This paper published paper talks about the formation of metal complexes in the body which bypass the liver where toxic substances get decomposed and goes straight to the kidney where the damage is done. Such fanciful deductions without any scientific evidence will only mask the real reasons for this disease. I feel that the learned members of the GMOA should first analyse these facts before jumping into conclusions that glyphosate as the root cause and demand an end to use of this weedicide.

Those who have political connections can easily mislead the President to issuing a ban on glyphosate. It is the same group which claimed that they found arsenic is the cause of this by analyzing rice samples. Research carried out both here and abroad conclusively put an end to this since our arsenic levels are much lower than those of other countries. Banning glyphosate will not solve the kidney diseases and will only hurt the economy of the rural communities.

As a researcher who has worked on this problem for over years and working closely with medical professionals, I find his situation quite distressing. Researchers who claim unfounded hypothesis as gospel truth not only mislead the public but also spend state funds for this purpose with impunity. In my opinion, there is a long way to go to pinpoint the real reasons for the chronic kidney disease and the hypothesis which I put forward involving high fluoride has so far been not disproved although other factors such as the hardness of water and calcium/sodium ratio may also have auxiliary roles. The reason as to why certain high fluoride is free from this disease needs to be explained by other researchers and this remains as a hypothesis until its role is well established.

Publicising an unconfirmed hypothesis as a sacred truth will not only divert the attention of the masses but also ruins the already existing research programmes aimed at finding a solution to this problem in a scientific manner. This published paper talks about the formation of metal complexes in the body which bypass the liver where toxic substances get decomposed and goes straight to the kidney where the damage is done. Such fanciful deductions without any scientific evidence will only mask the real reasons for this disease. It is imperative for the Government to seek the views of all those who have worked from the very beginning to get a balanced view on this situation before taking drastic actions such as banning glyphosate .

By Prof. Oliver Ileperuma

(The Island)

Last Updated on Monday, 24 March 2014 16:53