Ban the black market and permit the popular pesticide | Daily News
Glyphosate ban: The debate continues...

Ban the black market and permit the popular pesticide

It is no secret that Sri Lanka banned glyphosate largely because of political pressure. Of course, the claim made by the anti-glyphosate lobby is that its use causes a chronic form of kidney disease. Surprisingly, while this disease hits many villages in the Dry Zone, it spares others that also use glyphosate! It also spares the Wet Zone where glyphosate is most heavily used. Most scientists and kidney specialists hesitate to link glyphosate with this kidney disease.

Today, after three years of the ban and devastated crops, be it maize, paddy or tea, a committee of specialists has advised the minster in charge to lift the ban. If not for the huge black market in glyphosate, the damage to agriculture would have been much worse. However, Venerable Athuraliye Rathana Thera has threatened to ‘fight in the streets’ if the President lifts the ban.

Is it a health risk?

Gylphosate is a weak ‘Class-II hazard’ (not a health risk) according to the WHO . This means that glyphosate may cause cancer if very large amounts are consumed regularly. These ‘large amounts’ have to be large indeed, since the WHO and the FAO stated that even an intake of some 60 mg per day by a person of 60 kilos (i.e., 12 teaspoons per day) could be tolerated regularly! A farmer uses glyphosate only for a few days in each pre-planting season and absorbs less than a millionth of a teaspoon even if he uses no protective clothing, as shown in 2004 by Prof. Aquavella who studied urine and blood samples of farmers who did NOT use protective clothing while applying glyphosate. Hence it poses no risk to the farmer’s health, and no protective clothing is needed when using glyphosate. Unlike paraquat, it is not poisonous enough for committing suicide.

In spite of the lack of clear evidence against glyphosate, the GMOA and two university doctors (writing to newspapers) support a continuation of the ban. The two medics justified the ban quoting the ‘Precautionary Principle’. They forget that human societies routinely handle far more toxic and environmentally harmful substances like pharmaceuticals, petrol, kerosene, alcohol, tobacco, paint and plastics quite safely, without a ban. Instead of banning these substances, they are safely handled by trained individuals working through companies or government bodies. The same method is used in spraying against dengue.

Driving the black market

Glyphosate is a very popular herbicide of great economic importance; trying to ban it merely drives it to the black market. A minister (or ex-minister) actually stated on TV (August 23, 2017, on Derana) that he uses black-market glyphosate to manage his 30-acre tea estate! When Ven. Rathana Thera said ‘this is illegal’, someone asked if it is legal to sell duty-free cars imported by MPs in the black market!

Substances like glyphosate having a high demand CANNOT be banned successfully. People will always get it. However, if it is marketed LEGALLY, one can enforce the required safety standards as used all over the world in some 193 countries. Class-I toxins are far more dangerous than glyphosate which is a Class-II toxin. Many may be surprised that these dangerous Class-I toxins are linked to common substances like petrol, diesel, alcohol, tobacco, and red meat.

In Sri Lanka, kerosene is subsidised by the state. So the nation’s streets are full of ‘diesel’ buses and vans that use kerosene while not equipped to burn kerosene. Their exhaust gases are a thousand times more toxic and are a far bigger risk than glyphosate. The danger is compounded by the fact that particulate dust levels in Sri Lanka’s streets and in adjoining houses are a factor of 100 to 1,000 times higher than those approved by the WHO. The rural houses are no better, with interior cooking fires and smouldering fires (against mosquitoes).

Control rather than ban

Many societies have banned alcohol, tobacco and even meat without success as such societies soon became victims of black marketeers. So, the pressure by the medics and threats by Ven. Rathana Thera of ‘street fights’ will further enthrone the black-marketeer. The Agriculture Minister’s Cabinet paper was the end result of a democratic process involving wide consultations via technical committees. This democratic process is now being threatened.

Dr. Jayasinghe and Dr Herath, who want to keep the ban on, have argued that France looks to eliminate glyphosate in 2020 and that California wants warning labels on glyphosate bottles (but not ban it). But these are well known to be political decisions. The Sri Lankan National Academy of Sciences and many other learned bodies in other countries have expressed views supporting glyphosate. The UK wants to approve glyphosate without further political review for 10 years. The UK thinks that such reviews are a waste of time because the existing periodic review mechanisms are sufficient. Canada, Australia, Japan, China and most other countries also use non-politicised technical reviews, unlike the EU. Glyphosate is freely available in 193 of the 195 countries of the world. The farmers in those countrieshave the right to make the decision about what is best for his farm, with no bureaucrats or politicians imposing on them. The Buddha never coerced the kings to ban anything, but preached individual judgement based one one’s own circumstances (ehipassiko).

What’s the alternative?

France is just ONE of the 195 countries in the world that is looking for an alternative before a ban. But Sri Lanka is the ONLY country that has put in a comprehensive ban WITHOUT an alternative at the behest of JHU-political pressure. However, the safety of glyphosate is confirmed by a press release on July 4, 2016, by Nobel laureates in science and medicine, published in the Washington Post. The two Sri Lankan doctors ignored the mainstream view in their rush to join the ‘Ecolos’ who want to ban and govern by DICTAT than by consensus. It is the farmer who faces economic ruin if he fails, and the final decision for choosing his farming methods should rest with the farmer, and not with politicians. The government ministries should provide the necessary advice and a fair market.

Should we wait till all questions about glyphosate are resolved? Waiting under a ban is only possible for the elites pampered on ‘organic food’. Some 40 percent of schoolchildren come to school hungry, and many adults try to fend off on a single meal made of cheap food without nutrition. We cannot allow amateurs tinkering with the food system anymore.

Questions on toxicity and environmental impact are matters associated with what are known as ‘complex systems’, and clear answers are never easily available. The ideas of the French mathematician Henri Poincare were revived in the 1960s by the German physicist von Neumann. Today those ideas have penetrated even into the social sciences and into public health. The main characteristic of a complex system is that you cannot predict how it will behave. Trying to impose a ban on some aspect of its behaviour is destined to fail. Bans are possible for simple ‘on-off’ systems. That is why the effect of banning glyphosate results in its defiant re-appearance in the black market, where it becomes a coveted object!

The course of action available for the government is clear. It must follow the democratic process and implement the recommendations of the technical committee and remove the ban on glyphosate to prevent catastrophic consequences to Lanka’s agriculture. Its use according to a well-defined protocol can be set in place. I urge the government to set a tradition of following technical-committee recommendations instead of giving into political or medical ideologues and street fighters.

Finally, we need precautions against toxins being sold in the black market. The government must legalise the time-tested product judged safe to be freely available in 193 countries. Today the ‘Precautionary Principle’ is understood as taking control, and NOT naively imposing a ban.

(The writer is a recently retired lecturer of a technical college in Quebec, Canada.)

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