Glyphosate herbicide, the poison from the skies

28 Aug

As part of its “war on drugs”, the US continues to finance herbicide spraying of coca crops in Colombia. The impact on production, trade and consumption of drugs is practically nil. The impact on people and the environment in Colombia is devastating.

By Chris Lang. Published in WRM Bulletin 97, August 2005.

The herbicide glyphosate was identified in 1974 by John Franz, a scientist working for US-based agro-industrial multinational Monsanto. Today Monsanto boasts that its glyphosate products, which include the herbicide Roundup, are “among the world’s most widely used herbicides”.

Glyphosate works by interfering with the metabolism of the plant and a few days after spraying, plants wilt, turn yellow and die. Glyphosate herbicides also contain chemicals which make the herbicide stick to leaves so that the glyphosate can move from the surface of the plant into the plant’s cells.

After spraying, glyphosate herbicides can remain in soils for long periods. The herbicide can drift onto neighbouring fields, streams or hedges. Roundup kills beneficial insects. It wipes out habitat for birds and animals. Glyphosate causes genetic damage to fish. It is “extremely lethal to amphibians”, according to assistant professor of biology Rick Relyea at the University of Pittsburgh. It is hazardous to earthworms. Glyphosate reduces nitrogen fixation. Roundup reduces the growth of mycorrhizal fungi. Roundup can increase the spread and severity of plant diseases (see WRM Bulletin 18).

Glyphosate herbicides can have a range of impacts on human health, including genetic damage, skin tumours, thyroid damage, anaemia, headaches, nose bleeds, dizziness, tiredness, nausea, eye and skin irritation, asthma and breathing difficulties. Several studies have indicated a link between glyphosate herbicides and non- Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a type of cancer.

Not surprisingly, considering the amount of money that Monsanto makes from sales of glyphosate products, the company plays down the health risks of glyphosate. Monsanto claims that glyphosate herbicides pose only a “low risk to human health” as long as glyphosate is used “according to label directions”.

Glyphosate herbicides are widely used in agriculture. Monsanto has developed a series of genetically engineered Roundup Ready crops which are not damaged by Roundup, no matter how much is sprayed on the crops. Those who are certainly damaged are local people and local environments.

Glyphosate herbicides are also used in industrial tree plantations, to kill off any plants which might compete with the trees for soil nutrients and water. This is particularly important for plantation managers when the plantations are established on land that was forested, to prevent the forest growing back. Glyphosate herbicide is often used to kill the trees themselves after the trees are harvested, especially in the case of eucalyptus trees, which re-grow after they are cut down. After two or three rotations, however, the growth is not as fast as from new seedlings. In addition, plantation managers often want to plant seedlings which are the results of the latest company breeding programme, rather than allowing the old trees to re-grow. As a result, vast areas of tree plantations are routinely sprayed with glyphosate herbicides.

But perhaps the most controversial use of glyphosate herbicides is in the US government’s “war on drugs”. For several years, the US has paid for aerial spraying of coca crops and opium poppies in Colombia.

In 2000, the Clinton administration approved a US$1.3 billion aid package called Plan Colombia, aimed in part at eliminating drug production in Colombia. Five years and US$4.5 billion of US “aid” later, Plan Colombia has failed to stop coca production in Columbia. The availability, price and purity of cocaine in the US, 90 per cent of which comes from Colombia, have remained stable.

A US military contractor, DynCorp International, carries out the spraying using a spiced-up version of Monsanto’s Roundup. DynCorp employs more than 300 people and has 88 aircraft in Colombia to fulfil its contract under Plan Colombia. In 2004, aerial spraying reached record levels with more than 330,000 hectares of coca and poppy crops sprayed, according to the US Department of State. Yet the area of coca grown in 2005 was almost identical to that in 2003.

Aerial spraying is having a terrible impact on people living in rural areas of Colombia. The herbicide doesn’t just kill coca crops, it kills food crops, livestock and fish as well. Spraying has also polluted villagers’ water supplies. Areas of forest have been destroyed in operations reminiscent of Agent Orange (another Monsanto product) spraying during the US war in Vietnam. Yet more forest is destroyed when coca farmers whose crops have been sprayed move further into the forest to clear land for a new coca crop.

Medical records from hospitals in areas where the aerial spraying has taken place show significant increases in skin and eye irritations, fever, stomach aches and breathing problems among the local people.

Since Plan Colombia started, the US embassy in Bogotá has received more than 12,000 complaints about herbicide spraying from rural people in Colombia. As a result of these complaints, however, only 12 people have received any compensation. The total compensation paid out amounts to US$30,000.

In May 2005, the US Department of State awarded a new contract to DynCorp to continue spraying in Colombia. Under the contract, DynCorp will receive US$174 million a year.

The fact that Plan Colombia is not reducing drug production seems not to matter. People’s health, livelihoods and the environment will continue to be destroyed as long as Monsanto’s poison rains from the skies.

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