WHO Gives Clean Chit To This Controversial Herbicide: What Does It Mean For HTBT Cotton Farmers In India? 

by M R Subramani - Sep 3, 2019 06:00 AM +05:30 IST
WHO Gives Clean Chit To This Controversial Herbicide: What Does It Mean For HTBT Cotton Farmers In India? Glyphosate usage not a risk says Chief Scientist at WHO.
Snapshot
  • The use of glyphosate, a herbicide, was one of the major controversies over the planting of HTBT cotton in India as its opponents claimed it was injurious to health.

    With the WHO clearing the air on glyphosate’s safety, the centre could come under more pressure to allow growing of Bt cotton varieties.

Farmers who have planted herbicide-tolerant transgenic (HTBT) cotton in the country can now heave a sigh of relief.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has given a clean chit to the use of glyphosate, a herbicide that is sprayed in cotton farms to kill weeds.

The use of glyphosate was one of the major controversies over the planting of HTBT cotton in India as its opponents claimed it was injurious to health.

The opponents arguments were based on World Health Organisation’s arm International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) report in 2015, which said that the herbicide was “probably carcinogenic to humans”.

World Health Organisation (WHO) Chief Scientist, Soumya Swaminathan, in a recent statement, has said that exposure to herbicides like the weed-killer glyphosate, through food is less than the maximum permitted limit of 1 per cent and hence not risky.

Referring to the IARC report, she says that the agency looked purely at the substance. “This is similar to when it said red meat could cause cancer theoretically but the amount you eat is insignificant,” she said in an audio message, a transcript of which is available with Swarajya.

She says other agencies like European Commission have had a look at glyphosate’s safety. The IARC report has caused a lot of confusion and in future any report before its release by a WHO arm will be “evaluated for all potential challenges”.

“The WHO doesn’t want two reports coming out saying two different things. We have learnt from the IARC experience,” Swaminathan said.

The WHO Joint Pesticide Management Review Committee looks at the risk of cancer-causing potential to human beings based on exposure. This is how the maximum or acceptable limits --- based on toxicity levels one can be exposed to --- are set for many pesticides and chemicals.

Glyphosate is sprayed on agricultural lands to kill weeds as they tend to hamper the growth of plants. While the weeds get killed by the herbicide, chances of the plants too getting affected by it are high.

The advantage of HTBT cotton is that it can withstand the effects of the herbicide and will be unharmed if glyphosate is sprayed on a cotton crop.

Controlling weeds on the farms is a big challenge to growers as these compete with the main crop for water, nutrients and sunlight. Their uninhibited growth can affect a crop’s yield.

World-over, glyphosate has been used for the last 40 years to control these weeds but one of the side-effects was that the plants themselves were affected by the spraying of this herbicide.

In India, HTBT cotton is yet to be approved for cultivation. In order to ensure that farmers didn’t grow HTBT cotton illegally as the seeds were uncertified and feared to be spurious, the centre ordered curbs on glyphosate availability.

Some non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in the country have been generally opposed to transgenic crops such as Bt cotton, which is being cultivated in the country since 2002-03.

The IARC report of 2015 has come in handy for these NGOs to oppose cultivation of HTBT cotton in the country.

However, many growers in Maharashtra, Gujarat, Haryana and Andhra Pradesh have planted HTBT cotton this year despite government efforts dissuading them from cultivating the transgenic variety.

Glyphosate use spreads beyond cotton cultivation. In India, the herbicide has been approved for use in non-cropped areas, tea plantations and pre-planting of paddy.

But the centre’s precautionary measure to curb its availability has resulted in some state governments --- such as Punjab, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Kerala --- banning its use.

The Punjab government justified the ban on glyphosate last year on the grounds that the state did not have any tea plantation. However, the move seemed unwise since the Punjab Agricultural University has recommended weed control for many crops.

Earlier this year, the Kerala government suspended the use of glyphosate and asked the registrar of Kerala Agricultural University to submit a report on the herbicide’s safety. However, in July this year the State Agro Input Dealers Association moved the High Court and got the suspension vacated.

A study initiated by the Sri Lankan government after it had banned glyphosate has revealed that it resulted in lower crop yield, plant damage and higher farming costs.

The ban had been imposed as the herbicide was suspected to have caused unknown chronic kidney diseases. But with multiple studies showing that there is no link between glyphosate and kidney diseases, the Sri Lankan government decided to allow the use of the herbicide.

With the WHO clearing the air on glyphosate’s safety, the centre could come under more pressure to allow growing of Bt cotton varieties.

The best course for the Narendra Modi government will be to go in for a thorough review of its policies on transgenic crops.

M.R. Subramani is Executive Editor, Swarajya. He tweets @mrsubramani

Get Swarajya in your inbox everyday. Subscribe here.

An Appeal...

Dear Reader,

As you are no doubt aware, Swarajya is a media product that is directly dependent on support from its readers in the form of subscriptions. We do not have the muscle and backing of a large media conglomerate nor are we playing for the large advertisement sweep-stake.

Our business model is you and your subscription. And in challenging times like these, we need your support now more than ever.

We deliver over 10 - 15 high quality articles with expert insights and views. From 7AM in the morning to 10PM late night we operate to ensure you, the reader, get to see what is just right.

Becoming a Patron or a subscriber for as little as Rs 1200/year is the best way you can support our efforts.

Become A Patron
Become A Subscriber
Comments ↓
Get Swarajya in your inbox everyday. Subscribe here.
Advertisement

Latest Articles

    Artboard 4Created with Sketch.