The writer was shocked to see the recent media reports quoting National Academy of Sciences of Sri Lanka, an academic body incorporated by Parliament, that the academy was not aware of any scientific evidence from studies in Sri Lanka and abroad showing that chronic kidney disease (CKDs) is caused by glyphosate. Nevertheless, the Government of Sri Lanka through a gazette notification issued recently has banned the import of glyphosate, which is extensively used for the control of weeds by tea estates.
Glyphosate is a broad-spectrum systemic herbicide used to kill weeds and grasses known to compete with commercial crops grown around the globe. The mechanisms of toxicity of glyphosate formulations are complicated. Therefore, it is difficult to separate the toxicity of glyphosate from that of the formulation as a whole. Most of the tea estates, including smallholders, depend on this chemical as opposed to manual weed control.
However, indiscriminate use of glyphosate in excessive dosages could adversely affect health and productivity of the tea bush as well as the environment. Regular use could result in glyphosate residues in our made tea. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the minimum residual level (MRL) of glyphosate allowed in black tea is 0.5 mg in one kilo of made tea. In order to minimise adverse effects, the Tea Research Institute (TRI) recommends that the number of applications of glyphosate should be limited to two rounds per year. The writer understands that the Pesticide Technical Advisory Committee has also found no scientific evidence on CKDs and glyphosate use.
Green movement and scientific conclusions
French Ecology Minister Segolene Royal announced last week the ban on the sale of popular weed killer Roundup from garden centres. The active ingredient in Roundup, glyphosate, was classified as “probably carcinogenic to humans” by the UN. A working party of the World Health Organisation (WHO) has declared that glyphosate is now considered to be ‘a probable human carcinogen’.” However, their full report is yet unpublished. So it is not conclusive.
The Planters’ Association has made representations to the government that they be permitted to use the minimum amount of glyphosate recommended by the TRI as there is no commercially viable alternative to glyphosate. It would be too costly and not practical to weed large areas of tea fields using labour force. Also if they are allowed to use scrapers and other utensils, there could be adverse effects on soil erosion. Ideally an “integrated weed management” system is recommended but it is not practical to implement in large areas as in the case of tea estates coming under the Regional Plantation Companies (RPCs).
In terms of the sustainability policy, the RPCs will continually assess the state of the environment covering the best agricultural practices adopted. The time is opportune for the tea planters to seriously address the ‘soil fertility management’ aspects and adopt the best agricultural practices to improve the quality and productivity levels on a sustainable basis, considering the future marketing trends and global realities.
Coming back to the possible causes for CKDu prevalent in the North Central Province (NCP), a new set of hypotheses is being developed to ascertain whether taking Mahaweli water to the Rajarata area under the accelerated Mahaweli diversion project in late 70s could be the cause for CKDu prevalent in that area.
According to a report published by the National Academy of Sciences (NASSL) titled ‘A quarter century of Mahaweli’; quote; “In proper land and water management, problems like salinity, iron toxicity, pollution from agro-chemicals should not arise” unquote (2000, page95). Recently, former Agriculture Director General Dr. Sarath Amarasiri raised a pertinent question to ascertain whether there is a relationship between CKDu and salts in in the NCP well water. All these are hypotheses. The writer’s view is a serious research work on the possible relationship of glyphosate usage and CKDs is still not conclusive.
The writer recently started reading an interesting book written by Professor Dirk Wolfson, titled ‘The political economy of sustainable development’ just published in June 2015. Dirk Wolfson, who was the Professor of Economics at Erasmus University Rotterdam, served with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), before his election to the Netherlands Senate. He publishes widely on the environment and political economy. As we know, the ‘political economy’ is the interplay between economics, law and politics, and how institutions develop in different social and economic systems, such as capitalism, socialism and communism. Political economy analyses how the public policy is created and implemented.
This book provides unique and valuable insights into the complex process in which the environmental policy is formed. Dirk Wolfson shows how sustainable development may be organised and valued based on the social cost-benefit analysis. More the writer reads the chapters from this book, more he realises how little we know on the subject matter. New knowledge is being developed on a daily basis challenging the previously known, tested and accepted theories.
Stephen Hawking is no wonder the genius of the century. Here is an amazing quote from him. “The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance; it is the illusion of knowledge.” The contemporary philosophers call this definition of knowledge as justified, true, belief. This prompted the writer to undertake a search on the current debate on the use of glyphosate and how it affects the lives of Rajarata farmers and the sustainability of the industry in Sri Lanka.
Economic wellbeing as opposed to ‘greening’
In order to make the economy work for people and the planet, we need new wellbeing economic measures that take into account environmental and social issues and supplement mere ‘GDP computations’ to become a central measure. It is important to be aware that the idea of merely ‘greening’ consumption will not achieve the necessary absolute reductions in use of resources and eliminate waste. Work is underway in governments around the world to develop new indicators. These new indicators will change the way we look at life and our planet and are bound to be revolutionary in the way they impact on our economy.
According to Prof. Dasgupta Parthe of University of Cambridge, some of the things which make life most valuable cannot be expressed in monetary terms. What price is clean drinking water, fresh air, friendship, health, tranquillity or a beautiful view? They also need to take into account the distribution of income, not just its growth. After all, £100 extra for a poor man is worth far more than £100 for a millionaire and yet currently ‘National Accounts’ treat £100 income identically, no matter who receives it.
At present, there are at least two more indicators measuring economic development and wellbeing, in addition to GDP per capita (adjusted for PPP) Human Development Index (HDI) measures a nation’s achievement in three dimensions of human development: long and healthy life (indicated by life expectancy at birth), knowledge (indicated by literacy and school enrolment rates) and decent standard of living (indicated by GDP per capita).
On the other hand, the Happy Planet Index (HPI) measures the ecological efficiency with which human wellbeing is delivered. It is multiplying indices of life satisfaction and life expectancy and dividing that product by ecological footprint. The score would be relatively higher for a country when the people continuously achieve high levels of satisfaction and health without adversely impacting environmental resources. If HPI instead of GDP was used to determine membership of the ‘G8 countries’, then none of the current G8 would be members any more. (Source: New Economics Foundation)
The proponents of wellbeing concept claim that a “green consumption” approach will not work. Unfortunately the ‘green movement’ preached by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) has largely fallen for the green consumption myth. They make the same mistake as the rest of the current system in treating people as consumers rather than citizens in sustainable communities, playing to their intrinsic selfish sides. Minor successes such as a greater use of hybrid cars and LED bulbs may still be a sign of our weakness for over-consumption and materialism.
Geo- economics and role of multinationals
Back to glyphosate controversy. Ten NGOs operating in EU countries have written an open letter in April this year to the Chinese President, Ambassador to the UK and Chinese people asking China to suspend exports of glyphosate herbicides while independent testing is carried out. Quote; “We understand that China already is the largest producer and exporter of glyphosate in the world, including supplies exported to Monsanto for use in the manufacture of Roundup formulations worldwide….” Unquote.
The patent held by Monsanto Corporation, US-based multinational, has expired and now China has become the leading exporter of glyphosate. The Monsanto already dominates America’s food chain with its genetically modified seeds. Now it has targeted milk production. Just as frightening as the corporation’s tactics–ruthless legal battles against small farmers–is its decades-long history of toxic contamination. No wonder this concentrated effort by western NGOs to ban Round Up. The Government of Sri Lanka has also issued a gazette notification banning the import of glyphosate on June 11, 2015 but the whereabouts of the 15 containers of glyphosates already arrived at the port of Colombo in mid-May are unknown.
World GDP is projected to grow by 300 percent between 2007 and 2050 and 60 percent of GDP is currently accounted for by consumer spending on goods and services. By 2025, it is expected that there will be 220 million middle-class consumer households in China alone – a fourfold increase from 2004. As these households increase in wealth – so their carbon footprints will also increase. The solution to over-consumption is not simply to buy more ‘green’ stuff, however more efficient or ‘green’ it might be. This thinking is just not radical enough to effect the real change that is needed in society today. This concept is fast gaining ground world over. Sri Lanka has a long way to go in this direction.
From the above, it is clear that a serious research work on the possible relationship of glyphosate usage and CKDs is still not conclusive and final. What is, therefore needed is to implement a major development project to provide safe and clean drinking water to the people in CKD-affected areas. It is easier said than done. The writer understands that the authorities in consultation with the relevant officials and the scientists have been working on this difficult task during the last one to two years. The political stability together with a visionary leadership to effect real change would become the necessary pre-requisite for moving forward in order to attain higher levels of environmental & human wellbeing.
Bertrand Russell, the British Philosopher was once quoted as saying; “The whole problem of the world is that fools are always so certain of themselves and wiser people so full of doubts.”
(Jayampathi Molligoda is a Fellow Member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Sri Lanka and he holds a FMIC Masters of Business Administration from the Post Graduate Institute of Management, University of Sri Jayawardhanapura. He is currently the CEO of Bogawantalawa Tea Estates PLC and can be contacted through firstname.lastname@example.org)