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Q:
Is it true that Sri Lanka has become the first country to ban Monsantos RoundUp Ready chemical, glyphosate, in light of recent studies linking it to chronic kidney failure? This is being reported on the net.
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A:Expert Answer

Update: May 29, 2015   

 

Chronic kidney disease of unknown cause (CKDu) has been a significant health issue in parts of Sri Lanka for many years.  The reasons for this have been explored at length by World Health Organization and by other experts and organizations in Sri Lanka and in other locations, and no clear cause has emerged.  There is no evidence that glyphosate causes or contributes to kidney failure in humans or animals. Many other statistical risk factors have been proposed, but none are proven to be causally related at this time despite decades of effort. These include, for example, exposure to metals or to fluoride, snake bite, dehydration, and use of non-prescription analgesics; and a recent publication documents that genetic predisposition may account for a substantial portion of CKDu risk.

 

In March of 2014, Jayasumana et al published a theory that glyphosate interacts with another factor in the environment and proposed that a combination of glyphosate with arsenic, other heavy metals, or some unknown material results -- by some unknown means -- in kidney injury.  Despite a lack of evidence for causation, a ban on glyphosate use was proposed in response to this paper, but was not implemented. Rather, restrictions on glyphosate use were considered in specific regions where CKDu occurs. A panel of experts was convened to determine where restrictions should be imposed and what those restrictions should be. On May 13, 2014, the Ministry of Agriculture announced that efforts to ban glyphosate had been suspended, citing a lack of evidence. (This article states the ban was “lifted,” we do not believe it was ever officially in place and certainly was not implemented as import or use restrictions had not been observed in the field.)

 

On December 22, 2014, notice was posted in The Gazette of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka (their official document of record) banning glyphosate as well as other agents (propanil, carbaryl, chlorpyrifos, and carbofuran in four Districts and in three Divisions of a fifth District of the country (Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Kurunegala, Moneragala and parts of Badulla).  In late May 2015, we became aware of a decision to restrict the use of glyphosate throughout Sri Lanka with exceptions made only for specific types of plantation operations.  We have no additional information regarding scientific or political events precipitating this action.

 

Glyphosate products have a long history of safe use in countries around the globe, as discussed in GMO Answers. Please read this excerpt from an earlier response by a colleague to a different question on glyphosate product safety, also posted on the GMO Answers website:

 

“Glyphosate is one of the most widely used and most comprehensively evaluated active ingredients in herbicides worldwide, and all assessments have consistently concluded that glyphosate does not pose any unacceptable risk to human health, the environment or non-target animals and plants. Glyphosate’s overall low toxicity and its excellent safety profile are major benefits that have contributed to the widespread use of glyphosate-based plant protection products.”

 

CKDu is a serious health issue in portions of Sri Lanka, affecting a large number of individuals, and is a significant political issue. Pressure to take action has been great despite the lack of a clearly identified cause. At this time, there is no evidence that glyphosate contributes to chronic kidney failure in Sri Lanka or elsewhere, and indeed glyphosate is used extensively in many places where elevated rates of renal failure do not occur.

 

While restrictions on glyphosate use now appear to be in place, this decision appears to be based only upon a purely speculative interaction of glyphosate with one or more unidentified environmental factors.  The National Academies of Sciences of Sri Lanka (NASSL) has stated that “…the scientific data is lacking to support the contention that glyphosate is the cause of CKDu….”  NASSL further notes that they “are not aware of any scientific evidence from studies in Sri Lanka or abroad showing that CKDu is caused by glyphosate. The very limited information available on glyphosate in Sri Lanka do not show that levels of glyphosate in drinking water in CKDu affected areas (North Central Province) are above the international standards set for safety. Further, CKDu is rarely reported among farmers in neighbouring areas such as Ampare, Puttalam and Jaffna or even the wet zone, where glyphosate is used to similar extent. It has also not been reported in tea growing areas where glyphosate is far more intensively used.” You can view their official statement here: http://nas-srilanka.org/

 

Other pesticides have also been restricted (with a similar lack of evidence), and there has been consideration of contemporaneous alterations in water supply, diet, or other factors in an attempt to address this important health problem. In the face of multiple interventions, and given that the cause of CKDu is unknown, any observed improvements in the progression or rate of CKDu cannot be attributed to glyphosate or any other isolated factor. 

 

May 15, 2014

 

No ban has been put in place. On May 13, 2014, the ministry of agriculture announced that efforts to ban glyphosate had been suspended, citing a lack of evidence. (While the attached article states the ban was “lifted,” we do not believe it was ever officially in place.) Please note: we will not attempt to predict an outcome of the political process in Sri Lanka, nor can we predict when the matter will have final resolution. However, glyphosate products have a long history of safe use in countries around the globe, as discussed in GMO Answers. Please read this excerpt from an earlier response by a colleague to a different question on glyphosate product safety, also posted on the GMO Answers website:

 

“Glyphosate is one of the most widely used and most comprehensively evaluated active ingredients in herbicides worldwide, and all assessments have consistently concluded that glyphosate does not pose any unacceptable risk to human health, the environment or nontarget animals and plants. Glyphosate’s overall low toxicity and its excellent safety profile are major benefits that have contributed to the widespread use of glyphosate-based plant protection products.”

 

Background:

 

In March 2014, a paper was published (Jayasumana et al.) proposing a theory that glyphosate in combination with heavy metals may cause chronic kidney disease of unknown etiology (CKDu). As the name of this condition indicates, the cause is not known. No evidence to support this theory has been provided. There does appear to be a relationship between farming as an occupation and the occurrence of CKDu, but farming is associated with many different factors: multiple different pesticides, heat stress (considered by some to be a major factor), local water supply and patterns of modern and traditional medication use (for example, modern anti-inflammatories, as farming is hard work), to name a few. These are a list of confounders, not causes. There are no epidemiological or animal testing data suggesting a relationship to glyphosate, and there does not appear to be any justification for restriction on glyphosate based on this theory, which could just as easily be applied to heavy metals in combination with any other chemical or substance of choice. 

 

In response to this paper, action was taken in the direction of banning the use of glyphosate in Sri Lanka. This ban was not implemented. Rather, restrictions on glyphosate use were to be considered in specific regions where CKDu occurs. A panel of experts was convened to determine where restrictions should be imposed and what those restrictions should be. However, the panel was not convinced of any relationship between glyphosate and renal failure, given only an unsubstantiated hypothesis, and efforts to ban glyphosate import or use have been suspended.

 

CKDu is a highly political health concern in Sri Lanka. While it appears that the ban is resolved (as of May 13, 2014), we cannot rule out the possibility of further activity.

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