There is one chemical that is igniting much fuss these days — legislators in New Zealand want it banned; South African leaders are asking why they are continuing to use it; closer to home in Sri Lanka it is being discussed in Parliament. Europe last year went through a bitter, high-volume contention on whether it should renew its licence for use. It first dithered, then gave a limited renewal, and finally, in November 2017 it agreed to a five-year extension. But the debate rages on and refuses to go away.
It is argued that the chemical is toxic to humans; it is indicted for being a “probable carcinogen”. People exposed to the chemical have shown a higher incidence of non-Hodgkin lymphoma and kidney ailments. It is said to be responsible for the disappearance of bees and butterflies in the agricultural lands of the world.
But the chemical in question is a wonder substance — one more in the line of those marvels of industrial discoveries like ozone-destroying CFCs — that is widely used. In fact, it would be fair to say that farmers who spray it on their fields are addicted to it. It is used as a herbicide — instead of manually removing weeds, farmers spray it before sowing to clear the fields to remove weeds and then before harvest. Now, with genetic modifications (GMs) of crops, the scope of using this chemical has also expanded. Crops are designed to be resistant to only this chemical, so now farmers can spray without any worry.
This is US agro-chemical giant Monsanto’s glyphosate, also known as Roundup.
The question is: If there is evidence of its toxicity, why are governments not banning it? Why the continued fuss? Why can’t we decide what is good or bad? Is it only about corporate power, or is it also about the inadequacy of science? Is it about the lack of evidence of toxicity or is it about the complicity of science and scientists?
In the book White Wash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer and the Corruption of Science
, US-based journalist Carey Gillam describes how science has spun and spun on this chemical.
Take the case of the EU, which is seen to be a global leader in environmental management and takes a precautionary stance on most such issues, including growing GM crops.
Why did it renew the licence? This, when in 2015, the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer had concluded that there were enough studies on animals to list the chemical as a “probable carcinogen”. In 2016, when the 15-year licence to use glyphosate had expired, the EU Parliament
had to decide what to do. Medical practitioners, particularly cancer doctors, and civil society were dead set against the renewal. Parliament said, perhaps, there should be restraint on its use and cited concerns of cancer and endocrine disruption. In fact, in May 2016, urine tests of some 48 EU parliamentarians showed that samples contained much higher levels of glyphosate than expected — some 17 times higher than the acceptable limit. It led to outrage.
But Germany’s Federal Institute of Risk Assessment and the European Food Safety Authority
(EFSA) reviewed urine tests and concluded that the herbicide was “rapidly eliminated and shows no signs of bioaccumulation”. So, no reason to worry, they said. But as Carey Gillam explains, this conclusion relied heavily on evidence from the US Environment Protection Agency
(USEPA), which had rejected the 2001 study on glyphosate exposure and tumours in Swiss albino mice. The data used by these agencies — they themselves admitted — had come from the Glyphosate Task Force, a consortium of chemical companies, including Monsanto, which had come together to ensure that the registration would be renewed in Europe.
The scientific challenge has been the “proof” on the exposure on mice. Way back in 1983, when several groups of mice were administered diets that included glyphosate, the USEPA had concluded that this study showed a higher incidence of renal tabular adenomas, a rare kidney tumour, based on dosage. But then all was done to destroy the credibility of this study. Another study was produced to show that there was a small kidney tumour even in the control group of mice. In other words, glyphosate was not the cause. It was natural.
This study and others were used to show “conclusively” that there was no problem with the chemical. The USEPA was pushed aside. Carey Gillam explains how in all cases and again and again science was manipulated, scientists were bought off, and voices within regulatory institutions were silenced. In all cases, Monsanto
was behind the production of this “science”.
Now this last fortnight, on March 21, 2018, the EU approved the merger of the two chemical giants, German Bayer
and US Monsanto.
The interests of Germany in voting for glyphosate in the EU can now be even better understood.
But the fact is, as I said, the controversy is not going away easily. Nor should it. As I have said before, science can be defeated, but only temporarily. The truth will prevail. The problem is that this will happen only after many have suffered and died because science is in the hands of the powerful and it is easily corrupted.
The writer is at the Centre for Science and Environment