Will India take heed as a US court rules that Monsanto’s Roundup pesticide causes cancer?

India’s pesticide-regulation framework is burdened with red tape despite multiple agencies overseeing it. Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg/Getty Images
04 October, 2018

On 10 August this year, a California jury ruled that Roundup, the world’s most widely used herbicide, caused the terminal cancer of Dewayne Johnson, who was formerly a groundskeeper of a school near San Francisco. The jury directed Monsanto, the agricultural biotechnology corporation that owns Roundup, to pay Johnson $289 million—Rs 2116 crore—in punitive and compensatory damages. In his court testimony, Johnson said he worked with the herbicide 20–30 times a year and was soaked with the product on at least two occasions. In 2014, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a rare type of cancer.

The key ingredient in the herbicide is a controversial chemical called glyphosate, which has been under scrutiny by governments and international public-health organisations because of its potentially toxic impact on humans and the environment. For instance, a 2013 study by the Indian Institute of Toxicology Research concluded that Roundup “poses the risk of serious human health hazards including cancer.” Two years later, the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, or IARC, classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans.” According to “the Monsanto Papers” published in Le Monde last June, the company lashed out against IARC after the latter’s 2015 report. An English translation of the articles claims that the company dismissed the report as “junk science.”

In its annual report for 2017-18, Monsanto India Limited maintained that Roundup “is an environmentally sustainable glyphosate herbicide that provides efficient post-emergent weed control.” A company spokesperson responded to my queries on the US ruling stating that, “We are sympathetic to Mr. Johnson and his family. The decision does not change the fact that more than 800 scientific studies and reviews – and conclusions by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. National Institutes of Health and regulatory authorities around the world – support the fact that Glyphosate does not cause cancer, and did not cause Mr. Johnson’s cancer.”

However, Monsanto continues to be embroiled in around 5,000 lawsuits in the United States alone, all alleging that Roundup causes cancer. Johnson’s case, the first of these lawsuits to go to trial, is an opportunity to examine the use and regulation of glyphosate in other parts of the world.

A number of countries have tried to restrict or ban glyphosate and herbicides that contain it. In 2013, the legislative assembly of El Salvador voted for a ban on pesticides containing glyphosate, while Belgium, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Portugal have imposed restrictions on it in subsequent years. It has been the subject of fierce debate in France too—French president Emmanuel Macron proposed a ban on glyphosate-based herbicides as one of his campaign pledges, a plan that was recently rejected by his party’s lawmakers. In the wake of rising incidents of chronic kidney disease among agricultural workers, Sri Lanka imposed a partial ban on glyphosate, which was subsequently lifted. But in India, a weak pesticide-regulation framework and the government’s reluctance to acknowledge its dangers have allowed the chemical to escape deep scrutiny.

On paper, glyphosate is currently registered for use only on tea and non-crop areas in India. However, there is evidence to suggest that it is being used far more extensively. According to the agriculture ministry’s provisional consumption figures for 2016-17, the chemical accounted for approximately 35 percent of herbicide imports and 14.5 percent of local manufacture. “Glyphosate is widely used for non-tea crops and that is a violation of its terms of registration,” Dileep Kumar, a programme coordinator at the Pesticide Action Network India, or PAN—an organisation that researches sustainable alternatives for pesticides in agriculture—told me. Kumar claimed that “Glyphosate is being applied in fields before sowing. They are exploiting a loophole because technically, a bare field is a non-crop area.” He added that glyphosate was also being used on illegal crops of herbicide-tolerant cotton, or HT cotton, the latter being a genetically modified crop resistant to herbicide. (When glyphosate is sprayed on the crop and the weeds surrounding it, the chemical works only on the latter.)

The IARC’s 2015 study stated that agricultural use of glyphosate increased worldwide after the introduction of genetically modified crops resistant to the chemical. In India, too, reports have suggested that a growth in the illegal cultivation of herbicide-tolerant crops has led to an increase in the use of the herbicide.

Earlier this year, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana clamped down on retailers stocking glyphosate. The Andhra Pradesh government cited ecosystem damage caused by “the injudicious use of herbicides … like Glyphosate” in its February 2018 order. Similarly, the Telangana government issued an order in July 2018, stating that the “indiscriminate usage of non-selective herbicides like Glyphosate in agricultural crops in general and cotton in particular is increasing in the Telangana State due to the spread of illegal unapproved Herbicide Tolerant (HT) cotton.” But neither state banned it because as per the Insecticides Act, states can only temporarily prohibit pesticide sales for a period of 60 days, and can extend it to upto 30 days.

One of the major weaknesses of pesticide regulation in India is this lack of state autonomy. For instance, the state of Kerala first banned endosulfan—a once widely-used pesticide the world over—in 2001. However, the ban on use of endosulfan (apart from aerial sprays of the chemical) was lifted in 2002 despite evidence linking it to late sexual maturity, physical deformities and mental disorders. Eventually, the Supreme Court banned endosulfan across the country in 2011.

“There are many lacunae in the regulatory framework that governs pesticide use in India,” Donthi Narasimha Reddy, director of PAN, told me over the phone. “Apart from being overly centralised and not giving too much power to the states, the government is not registering pesticides from the perspective of sustainable development. It’s become a file-moving process rather than a comprehensive approach that considers public health.”

Glyphosate’s use in India is governed by the Insecticides Act of 1968, the legislation that underpins the legal framework for pesticide regulation. In 1970, the agriculture ministry created an agency called the Central Insecticides Board and Registration Committee, or the CIBRC, comprising two bodies. An autonomous body under the agriculture ministry, the CIB is the apex regulatory agency for the manufacture, sale, storage and transportation of pesticides and assesses their risk to humans. Meanwhile, the Registration Committee grants registrations to pesticides after scrutinising them and verifying the claims made by the manufacturer or importer. When I emailed the secretary of CIBRC for a comment on pesticide regulation, I was told that the CIBRC is “not the appropriate place” for my queries and I should contact the agriculture ministry’s Plant Protection Division. I also emailed the secretary at the Agriculture Cooperation and Farmers Welfare and a director at the Plant Protection Division but had received no replies at the time of writing.

The Insecticides Act additionally specifies that companies have to obtain a licence from state governments in order to manufacture, sell or distribute pesticides. A different agency, the Food Safety Standards Authority of India determines the maximum residue limits—the highest level of pesticide residues legally tolerated in food. In addition, the Environment (Protection) Act of 1986 has the authority to give directions to prevent the accumulation of pollutants, including pesticides, which harm the environment.

Despite the large number of government agencies involved, the regulatory process appears to be mired in red tape. For instance, in 2008 the government introduced the Pesticide Management Bill in Lok Sabha to replace the 1968 Insecticides Act. “Overall the framework between the two is not substantially different,” Reddy told me. A detailed analysis by civil-society groups suggested 61 changes to the bill, including the definition of pesticides, strengthening the registration process by means of environmental impact assessments and introducing new requirements in the packaging and labelling of products. “When we went through it clause-by-clause, we realised that the bill was written from an industry perspective,” Reddy added. The bill is pending due to pressure from civil society and suggestions from the parliamentary standing committee on agriculture.

The government’s response to a question asked in parliament this year further highlighted the vagaries of India’s current regulatory framework. In March 2018, Telugu Desam Party’s Naramalli Sivaprasad asked if the “controversial herbicide glyphosate” was being used illegally on HT cotton and whether toxicity studies had been conducted on its ecological impact. Sivaprasad also enquired if the Anupam Verma Committee—which was set up by the agriculture ministry in 2013 to review 66 potentially harmful pesticides that were restricted or banned internationally—had reviewed the chemical for a ban. Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, the minister of state for agriculture, had no specific response about the toxicity of the chemical or information regarding the illegal use of glyphosate. According to Shekhawat, the Verma committee did not review glyphosate because it was not banned by any other country. In an email exchange, Verma also confirmed that “glyphosate was not in the mandate of the committee.”

Kavitha Kuruganti, the national convener of the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture—a network of over 400 Indian organisations working to protect agricultural livelihoods and food security—told me that she believes the regulatory process lacks teeth. “The US case is about damages to one person who was able to show that Roundup was a substantial factor in causing harm to him,” she said. “In our country there may be many who may not be able to show a cause and effect relationship … It is vital for the regulators in India to take a bigger stand on glyphosate.”

Kuruganti and other activists filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court on 30 October 2017, claiming that at least 99 pesticides—which were banned, withdrawn or restricted by at least one other country—had been cleared for manufacturing and usage in India. The petition raised the issues surrounding glyphosate, stating that, “It is surprising to note that glyphosate does not feature in the list of pesticides reviewed by the government of India’s committees despite a large body of evidence which makes glyphosate’s safety questionable.”

The petition stressed the “large number of cases of acute poisoning due to pesticides which result in deaths, hospitalisations and subsequent ill health, and overwhelming evidence that farmers and farm workers have been suffering from severe diseases ranging from abnormally high number of cancer cases to reproductive disorders to mental illnesses that are attributable to the use of pesticides in farming.” As evidence, it cited the adverse physical and mental health effects caused by endosulfan in Kerala; pesticide poisoning in Yavatmal, Maharashtra, that killed 272 farmers over four years the use of chemical pesticides resulting in environmental contamination, water poisoning and the resultant rise in cancer cases in Punjab; and the deaths of at least 23 students in Saran, Bihar in 2013 after consuming a midday meal contaminated by a pesticide called Monocrotophos. The case is still being heard.

Kuruganti, however, appeared optimistic about the perils of glyphosate being recognised in India. “It is only a matter of time before evidence of the toxicity of glyphosate catches up here in India,” Kuruganti told me. “Given the multiple and more direct exposure routes to pesticides in Indian cultivation conditions, we are staring at a huge potential disaster before the regulators wake up. Hopefully, the Supreme Court will take cognisance of the serious matter of violation of right to life of our farmers and farm workers and direct the government to ban glyphosate and other such toxins.”