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India’s widely-used weed killer causes cancer?

Monsanto’s weedkiller, Roundup is glyphosate-based. There is growing concern across the world that glyphosate is linked to cancer, but the agro giant denies the claim.

health Updated: Oct 29, 2017 16:35 IST
Monsanto’s Roundup, is one of the most widely used weed killers in India.
Monsanto’s Roundup, is one of the most widely used weed killers in India.(AP File Photo)

A new study released this week triggered safety concerns about the rampant use of glyphosate, one of the most widely used weed killer in the country.

Many farmers die each year in India from pesticide poisoning.

Glyphosate, is the key ingredient in the agro giant Monsanto’s weedkiller, Roundup. The study said there is emerging evidence that long-term exposure to glyphosate causes cancer. The study also found that glyphosate use increased five times after the introduction of GM crops in the US.

In India the consumption of glyphosate was 148 million tonnes in 2014-15, the highest for any herbicide.

The European Union is currently debating whether to re-authorise the use of glyphosate.

Environmentalists say that regulation of pesticide and herbicide use in India is abysmal. Poor regulation was in the spotlight in the recent deaths of over 40 farmers in Maharashtra from pesticide poisoning.

In 2015 there were about 7,000 deaths because of accidental intake of insecticides/pesticides in India, according to the Centre for Science and Environment.

The fear is that increasing cultivation of GM crops will promote the indiscriminate and unsafe use of pesticides and herbicides like glyphosate.

A new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association ( JAMA) released this week found that exposure to glyphosate in the US, where GM crops were introduced in the early 1990s, increased almost five times in a 23-year time span.

In around the same time the use of Roundup grew 15 times in the US. Earlier this year the state of California listed glyphosate as a carcinogen.

“There are few human studies on the effects of glyphosate, but animal studies demonstrate that chronic exposure to glyphosate-based herbicides can have adverse effects,” Paul J. Mills, a co-author of the JAMA study, said in a release.

“Glyphosate has a long history of safe use. All labeled uses of glyphosate of which Roundup is a leading brand, are safe for human health and environment. Moreover, no regulatory body in the world has concluded that glyphosate is carcinogenic,” a Monsanto India spokesperson said.

There is rampant off-label pesticide and herbicide use and poor regulatory oversight in India.

“There are many problems in the way in which we are registering pesticides, weedicides etc, we are not asking for adequate information when we are registering, we also do not have regular review of pesticide use,” Chandra Bhushan, deputy director general at the CSE said.

Environmentalists allege that illegal herbicide-tolerant (ht) cotton is being grown in lakhs of hectares in India and this is spurring the use of glyphosate.

Herbicide-tolerance means that when an area is sprayed with a particular weed killer, everything apart from the herbicide-tolerant crop dies. It would be an effective way of dealing with weeds but if it is not properly regulated and the weed killer contaminates fields where the crop is not resistant, it can destroy crops in neighbouring farmlands.

In their opposition to sale of illegal ht cotton seeds environmental activists have found an unlikely ally in Monsanto, which finds its market for ht seeds threatened by the illegal sales.

“We have learnt about illegal Roundup Ready Flex (RRF) herbicide tolerant cotton being planted by farmers in key cotton growing states across India,” said Monsanto India spokesperson. “It is a matter of grave concern that some seed companies, while suppressing their real intent of profiteering, are attempting to illegally incorporate unauthorised and unapproved herbicide tolerant technologies into their seeds.”

But the illegal use of HT seeds is also linked to illegal use of glyphosate.

“Glyphosate use is permitted only for one crop: tea. When dealers are selling it in Vidarbha, it means it is being used for crops other than tea, such as cotton” Kavitha Kuruganti, from the Alliance for Sustainable & Holistic Agriculture (ASHA) said.

The GM Mustard being considered for approval by the Environment ministry, is not tolerant to the herbicide Roundup, it is Basta tolerant. Basta is a herbicide manufactured by Bayer Crop Science. Bayer, is in the process of acquiring Monsanto.

The Central Insecticides Board and Registration Committee chairperson did not respond to queries emailed to him.