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Although farmers experience a low overall mortality, they are subject to a high rate of some types of cancer.
During the last 30 years, as chemical use escalated, there has been a striking increase in a diverse group of lymph-node and associated blood cell cancers referred to non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL). In the UK, NHL ranks 10th most common cancer (3% of the total in 2008) and forms 41% of blood cancers. Some 60 subtypes have been identified.
Because of the huge range of potentially damaging materials (including pesticides and fertilizers, besides viruses, and microbial toxins) to which farmers are routinely exposed, disentangling the effects of all such possible factors is “challenging”, and indeed expensive.
A valiant attempt to make a start with such a study was published in April.
French scientists reviewed 858 unique articles on occupational pesticide exposure published since 1980. They extracted 44 which were deemed sufficiently comparable, and of adequate quality, to provide a systematic review. A series of meta-analyses was carried out to identify links between key agri-pesticides and NHL in (mainly male) agricultural workers in high-income countries (America, Canada, Iceland, various European countries, Australia and New Zealand).
As expected, several widely-used herbicides and insecticides were positively associated with NHL.
In a handful of papers which distinguished between NHL subtypes, 'B-cell lymphoma' was linked to the herbicide glyphosate which is accumulated by most GM crops now on the market, and features heavily in our food chain.
The authors note that, since 2000, the classification of cancers falling under the NHL umbrella has become more comprehensive. Vital evidence may have been overlooked in the older data. Studies carried out today might find much stronger links between blood cancers and pesticides than in the past.
It was highlighted that the lack of studies in middle- and low-income countries is “potentially alarming, since these regions are responsible for much of the world's agricultural production. Also, lympho-hematopoetic malignancies represent a substantial proportion of cancers in low- and middle-income countries”. According to the World Health Organisation, NHL accounted for 37.7% of the estimated prevalent cancer cases diagnosed in the past 5 years among adults in less-developed regions such as Africa and Latin America.
Coming just one month after real fears were raised that glyphosate is a key factor in the epidemic of cancer and fatal chronic kidney disease in Sri Lanka , and just three weeks after the Dutch government recognised that:
“Glyphosate is increasingly associated with health problems such as infertility, birth defects, damage to the nervous system, Parkinson's disease and several forms of cancer”,What action is being taken?
A total glyphosate ban in Sri Lanka was proposed but has been watered-down to a restriction of its use in areas where the kidney disease is highly prevalent. The reason is that “the entire paddy plantation sector could collapse within 2 or 3 months” due to the shortage of manual labour to substitute for chemical weed control.
The Dutch Government has implemented a ban on glyphosate sales to private individuals (with a raft of exceptions). Applying such a measure within agriculture was never considered.
Just before the publication of the French finding, the Federal Public Prosecutor of Brazil had already requested a suspension on eight common pesticides, including glyphosate, pending a re-evaluation of their toxicity.
The missing data in all these emerging concerns about glyphosate are the effects of chronic exposure to GM glyphosate-accumulating foods, and glyphosate-contaminated drinking water, especially as these might impact on women, their infants and children.
There's an important lesson in the inadequate glyphosate bans in Sri Lanka and The Netherlands. Neither developed nor developing countries have the infrastructure to take glyphosate out of use without bringing their agriculture and food production to its knees.
In view of Brazil's headlong dive into glyphosate-tolerant GM crops and resulting dependence on their export, the suggested ban on glyphosate would likely bankrupt the country.
Such a level of dependency on a single chemical is dangerous to our food supply.
Farmers, especially in less-affluent countries, have a right to good health, as have consumers. The sooner there's a global move away from toxic agri-chemicals, such as glyphosate, the more secure our food and our health will be. Keep asking for it.
- Leah Schinasi and Maria E. Leon, 2014, Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma and Occupational Exposure to Agricultural Pesticide Chemical Groups and Active Ingredients: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis, International Journal of Environmental Research Public Health 11, 23.04.14
- Chandani Kirinde, Dangers weedicide: No total ban, Sunday Times (Sri Lanka), 23.03.14
- Public prosecutor wants to ban use of glyphosate, (GM Watch translation), AgroLink, www.agrolink.com.br, 25.03.14
- Dutch Parliament Bans Glyphosate Herbicides for Non-Commercial Use, Sustainable Pulse, 4.04.14