Common citizens often do not have access to healthy food as they are contaminated with residual herbicides like glyphosate and other residual pesticides and hormones. Among all of them, glyphosate sold by Bayer as Roundup is the world’s most widely used agrochemical globally with 9.4 million MT already sprayed.

After the introduction of Genetically Modified (GM) Roundup Ready crops in 1996, which were engineered to tolerate Roundup herbicide, the use of glyphosate has increased manifold. In India, farmers spray glyphosate in harvested fields and burn residue to make the fields ready for the next planting of paddy as manual weeding is expensive.

Glyphosate does the job quickly. It is a total weedicide and kills grasses and hardy plants that have deep roots as it enters the leaves and goes to the roots through the stem. It acts by blocking photosynthesis. A few hours of bright sunshine after spraying is enough to kill a plant in about a week. It is also used to remove grass before construction of housing/industrial complexes resulting in high residues in food and damage to soil ecosystem.

Glyphosate was thought to be completely safe for many years as it works by inhibiting an enzyme pathway behind plant growth, which does not exist in humans. Numerous regulatory agencies including the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) have denied the possibility of any health hazard due to glyphosate. But many reports covering internal company documents have shown how Monsanto’s influence over the EPA succeeded in suppressing health concerns.

Last year courts in the US ordered Monsanto to pay damages of up to $2bn to individuals with cancer; it faces many more lawsuits. In 2015, the World Health Organization’s cancer agency, the IARC, declared that glyphosate was “probably carcinogenic to humans”. Research shows that the percentage of Americans with detectable levels of glyphosate in their bodies increased from 12 per cent in the mid-1970s to 70 per cent by 2014.

This would suggest US regulations have not kept pace with the latest science. Almost three-quarters of the peer-reviewed papers looked at by IARC found evidence of genotoxicity in glyphosate, compared with just 1 per cent of industry analyses. Researchers at a UK consultancy ADAS in 2014 concluded the loss of glyphosate would cause very severe impacts on UK agriculture and the environment with a 20 per cent fall in wheat and rapeseed production and a 25 per cent increase in greenhouse gas emissions – a rise of 12 m. tonnes a year – if glyphosate was banned.

Because glyphosate weed killer allows planting without ploughing, which helps stop carbon being released to the atmosphere. The ADAS research was used by the National Farmers Union in lobbying against an EU ban in 2017 when the renewal of the licence for glyphosate was being considered. Bayer said farmers around the globe rely on glyphosate to provide enough food for the world’s growing population.

But a German transparency campaign group, Lobby Control revealed two pro-glyphosate German studies that were partly funded by Monsanto and published in 2011 and 2015 without the funding being declared and said, “This is an unacceptable form of opaque lobbying”. Considering the ill-effects of glyphosate, 1.2 million citizens filed a petition calling for an EU ban but the pesticide licence was renewed for five years.

However, this was far shorter than the 15 years that had been sought. Despite its carcinogenic effect, use of the chemical has grown exponentially, with the chemical giant Monsanto – purchased by Bayer in 2018 – dominating the market. The researchers, based on scientific evidence, have explored the dangers of glyphosate – harmful to both human health and the environment.

Argentine scientists found that glyphosate causes birth defects in frogs and chickens. Doctors in Paraguay and Argentina have reported on serious ill-effects like infertility, stillbirths, miscarriage and cancer in GM Soy producing areas. The Chinese Army has reportedly banned all GM foods due to glyphosate residue.

Epidemiological evidence supports strong temporal correlations between glyphosate usage on crops and a multitude of cancers that are reaching epidemic proportions, including breast cancer, pancreatic cancer, kidney cancer, thyroid cancer, liver cancer, bladder cancer and myeloid leukaemia. Glyphosate in lentils originated from Canada is suspected to enter the Indian stomach in ever increasing doses and probably it is one of the major contributing factors behind the apparent runaway increase of autoimmune diseases.

This glyphosate is a powerful antibiotic that kills a lot of beneficial gut bacteria. US regulators set one “safe” level for all of us but they ignore the compounding effects of our daily exposures to combined pesticides and other industrial chemicals. They did not consider the higher risks at different times in our lives and in different conditions: a developing foetus, for instance, is particularly vulnerable to toxic exposures, as are children and the immunocompromised.

New research also shows that chemicals called “endocrine disruptors” can increase risk of cancers, learning disabilities, birth defects, obesity, diabetes and reproductive disorders, even at incredibly small levels. In India, after planning to ban 27 pesticides, the Centre has now moved to curb the use of glyphosate, a widely used herbicide in the country.

A draft notification issued by the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare, published on July 8 said: “No person shall use glyphosate except through Pest Control Operators”. The Restriction on use of Glyphosate Order, 2020, will come into force on the date of its final publication in the Official Gazette, the Ministry said in a notification.

The use of glyphosate has been on the rise as farmers have been increasingly relying on chemicals to tackle labour shortage, rising costs and to protect their yields from weeds. According to the industry, the government’s proposed move is impractical. While issuing this draft notification, the government did not critically appraise the full set of repercussions with glyphosate considering its ill-effects, correct dose of chemical that would not harm human health and environment and availability of pest control operators in rural areas.

The Government must think of banning the chemical to ensure safe food and to protect the environment. Scientific truth must not be manipulated simply to maximize profits of the corporate brigade at the expense of human health and environment.

Despite knowing the ill effects of glyphosate, huge amounts of toxic lentils, pulses and chickpea are still being imported from countries that use glyphosate and other synthetic chemicals. The high level of pesticides including glyphosate residues in both Indian and Canadian pulses, based on the findings of researchers, is a matter of serious health risk to a billion plus nation, as dal is ubiquitous in our diet.

(The writer is former Senior Scientist, Central Pollution Control Board)