By Chela Vázquez
The world is scrutinizing Monsanto’s popular weed killer, glyphosate, classified as “probably carcinogenic to humans” by the cancer arm branch of the World Health Organization (WHO).
On March 20, 2015 seventeen global health experts met at WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) to discuss years of data linking glyphosate and cancer in experimental animals, and concluded that it probably causes cancer in humans as well. Four other organophosphate insecticides also were evaluated.
IARC’s decision on glyphosate came on the heels of a study released by scientists from New Zealand that linked the herbicides glyphosate, 2,4-D, and dicamba to antibiotic resistance in disease-causing bacteria, such as E. coli and Salmonella.
Widespread use of glyphosate in Asia and around the world
Glyphosate, also known as Roundup for its tradename with Monsanto, is the most common and heavily used herbicide worldwide.
In Asia glyphosate is used in rubber, oil palm, sugar cane, tea, and hybrid corn plantations. It is also used on soybeans, cotton, rice, and wheat among other crops.
Monsanto created and marketed glyphosate as Roundup. After Monsanto’s patent on glyphosate expired in 2000, many agrochemical companies manufacture it under different commercial names. Over 700 glyphosate formulations are used globally.
China has become the largest glyphosate supplier in the world, with production over half a million tons, mostly for export.
Implications to human health
“Glyphosate is widely used in Asia, often with minimal protection. The people mostly impacted are farmers, agricultural workers, women and children” said Sarojeni Rengam from PAN Asia Pacific. “Therefore, the health implications of carcinogenicity and antibiotic resistance linked to glyphosate are enormous”.
In addition to exposure during pesticide spraying, pesticide storage creates health hazards. For instance, a 2011 field appraisal on the use of pesticides in Lao PDR, PAN Asia Pacific found glyphosate originating from China, in 15 and 30 liter plastic tanks, stored at home in close proximity to cooking and sleeping facilities. Pesticide shops also sold glyphosate and other pesticides close to food items.
Governments should take measures to remove this highly hazardous pesticide from the farming communities.
Increased use of glyphosate with genetically engineered crops
Monsanto also genetically engineered (GE) soybeans, corn, and cotton resistant to glyphosate, and multiplied its revenues by selling both GE seed and glyphosate. Monsanto’s US$15.9 billion annual sales are closely tied to glyphosate.
Because weeds developed resistance to glyphosate, increasing amounts of the herbicide are applied in combination with old and dangerous herbicides, such as 2,4-D, which was used as an ingredient of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.
Strong global response is needed
The IARC’s labeling of glyphosate as a probable carcinogen to humans has sent ripple waves around the world. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA), which registers and regulates pesticides for use in agriculture, has announced that it will require a weed resistance management plan for glyphosate from Monsanto, which includes monitoring for weed resistance.
PAN Asia Pacific and PAN International have called on governments to exercise their political will to protect people and the environment, and have demanded a plan in the next 60 days to address the use of highly hazardous pesticides and a way to move forward towards sustainable, healthy methods of agricultural production.