Govt's move on glyphosate use leaves all unhappy, may not curb rampant use

Topics Agriculture | Pest control | Farming

Though the draft official order did not mention it explicitly, many experts believe it is intended to curb the rampant spread of glyphosate among farmers
A few days back the Centre moved ahead for the first time to control the use of controversial herbicide glyphosate, by proposing to limit its sale through pest control operators.

This, in turn, meant that the herbicide that has been among the most widely-used plant chemicals in India, would not be allowed to be used by anyone else other than those who are involved in pest control operations.

Though the draft official order did not mention it explicitly, many experts believe it is intended to curb the rampant spread of glyphosate among farmers. Glyphosate has been found to be "probably carcinogenic" in a study by the World Health Organization's (WHO) research wing. 

To implement the proposed order, all certificates of registration for the chemical that companies have to get for manufacturing or selling the chemical have to be returned to the registration committee.

This is to enable them to incorporate the words, ‘Only to be used through pest control operators’ on all labels and leaflets pertaining to the chemical. Comments on the draft order can be submitted within 30 days.

Five big states-- Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Maharashtra, Punjab -- had already banned glyphosate during the past few years, much ahead of the Centre's decision.

In fact, the draft central notification mentions this and says that the move to limit glyphosate use only through pest control operators has been taken after the Centre received reports from Kerala.

Glyphosate has been banned not only in Indian states, but in several countries worldwide.

So what is it that makes glyphosate so controversial?

Early use 

Although the herbicide was introduced sometime in 1970s across the world, in India its serious use started a decade later.

Over the years, the plant chemical has become one of the most widely-used herbicides and its formulations are used for both crop and non-crop areas.

In crop areas, it has been majorly used in tea plantations where it is used to control unwanted plants. Glyphosate is also used on non-crop areas such as alongside irrigation channels, railway sidings fallow land, bunds, farm borders, parks, industrial and military premises, airports and power stations to achieve the same objective

Mainly for use in tea plantation, traces of glyphosate have been even found in crops such as chana where farmers are using it to desiccate crops, say activists.

Desiccation is a process in which plant chemicals are applied on crops just before the harvest to kill leaves etc so that the produce dries up quickly and evenly and can be harvested sooner.

This is mainly done to save labour cost and to facilitate mechanised harvesting in crops such as wheat.

Thus, clearly, while glyphosate is supposed to be used only for specific crops such as tea, it has found its way into a wide variety of crops where it is not meant to be used.

One big reason for the widespread use of glyphosate is its cost effectiveness.

Trade sources said that on average, 500 litres of glyphosate or formulations-based on it cost around Rs 250, while most other herbicides are much more expensive.

Glyphosate and Ht Bt cotton

Though in the market for decades, Glyphosate usage saw a manifold spike once Ht BT cotton, whose production and sale is not permitted in India, started getting illegally cultivated in the country.

However, civil society activists allege that in states such as Maharashtra and parts of Andhra Pradesh, Ht Bt is being grown illegally for the past few years.

In Ht Bt cotton, glyphosate helps in killing the weeds without harming the plant and its absorbtion is better than other crops.

Growth of Ht Bt has pushed up demand for glyphosate, though the government does not permit either. Stopping the sale of glyphosate will naturally end the spread of Ht Bt cotton, activists argue.

But, the plant chemical industry presents a counter-argument stating that banning or curbing the use of glyphosate with the hope that it will stop the spread of illegal use of Ht Bt cotton is ‘barking up the wrong tree’. Instead, a more appropriate method should be found out to curb the illegal planting of Ht Bt cotton instead of banning glyphosate. 

Carcinogenic properties

The biggest argument against Glyphosate cropped up when the World Health Organisation (WHO) International Agency for Research on Cancer published a study in 2015 that said glyphosate was “probably carcinogenic to humans’.

Thereafter, several countries went ahead and banned its and multiple court cases totalling millions of dollars have been filed in its parent country--the US--against the chemical. A judgement has also been passed for compensation.

In January, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) claimed that glyphosate is unlikely to cause cancer.

Critics, however, find several faults in its findings.

Lax end-use regulation and monitoring in India

Once a plant chemical is sold by a retailer, there is hardly any mechanism to check how and for what purpose it is being used by the buyer, who in many cases could be a farmer.

In such a situation, it is nearly impossible to ensure that farmers will engage pest control operators to spray the chemical.

Secondly, critics say this does not address the fundamental problem of stopping the chemical's sale once and for all. 

"How can someone ensure that only pest control operators are using glyphosate once it is sold by a retailer? We have such lax end-user regulations that it is very difficult to check whether glyphosate is being used by pest control operators only once it leaves the shop," said Kavitha Kuruganti, of Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture.

“Neither at the state level nor at the national level is there any mechanism to ensure that a farmer who has bought glyphosate has not used it in his crops,” said Kuruganti.

In urban areas, it is easy to find out whether glyphosate is being used through pest control operators, as almost all of the 300 registered PCOs are located in cities, but to keep a track in rural areas after the chemical has moved out of the retailers’ shelf is a herculean task.

“At present, glyphosate is sprayed by farmers themselves, but if it has to done through registered pest control operators, his cost will increase manifold,” a senior industry official said.

Dissenting voices 

Swadeshi Jagran Manch, an arm of the ruling BJP’s ideological parent RSS, has long been pressing against the continuous use of glyphosate and has been running a big signature campaign demanding its nationwide ban.

“But, this is not what we have fought for,” said Ashwini Mahajan, National Co-Convenor of the Manch.

He said the draft order is ‘incomplete’ and does little to stop its sale to farmers. “We in SJM will not stop unless a complete and total nationwide ban is imposed on sale of glyphosate," Mahajan said.

The industry too isn't happy 

A section of the plant chemical industry has alleged that the draft order was framed to favour a few domestic players whose products are very similar to glyphosate but aren't sold domestically as they are costlier.

Kalyan Goswami, Director General of Agro-Chemicals Federation of India (ACFI), feels that the draft notification has been made hurriedly for no scientific reason and also without giving a proper hearing to all stakeholders.

He said small and marginal farmers would face a tough time due to the draft order and already there have been reports of panic buying of the chemical due to the fear of it going out of stock.

Whatever is the truth, the government draft order has done little to end the controversies surrounding glyphosate. 

Some glyphosate formulations developed and registered over the years
Sr No Formulation type Salt Approved use
Glyphosate 41% SL Isopropylamine Tea, non-crop, pre-plant applications
2 Glyphosate 54% SL Isopropylamine Non-crop area
3 Glyphosate 20.2% SL Isopropylamine Non-crop area
Glyphosate 20% SL Ammonium salt Non-crop area
5 Glyphosate 71% SG Ammonium salt Non-crop area
6 Glyphosate 5% SL Ammonium salt Tea, non-crop area
7 Carfentrazone ethyl 0.43%+Glyphosate 30.82% EW Isopropylamine Tea, non-crop area
8 Oxyflurofen 2.5%+ Glyphosate 41% SC Isopropylamine Tea
SL: Soluble concentrate; SG: Soluble granules; SC: Suspension concentrate; EW: Emulsion in water; Source: Trade and industry


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