At a time when the Indian farmers are increasingly relying on weedicides to protect their crop yields and keep costs under control, Bayer’s $10.9-billion settlement with the Roundup plaintiffs in the United States could possibly see the demand for ban on glyphosate gain momentum in the country. Glyphosate is an active ingredient in weedicide Roundup.

On Wednesday, Bayer agreed to pay $10.9 billion to settle 75 per cent of the 1.25 lakh filed and unfiled claims by Roundup users, who have said the herbicide caused them to develop a form of blood cancer, agencies reported.

In India, where glyphosate has been used since mid-80s, industry observers see no impact from Bayer’s settlement, while activists may step up demand for the ban. Glyphosate is one of the 39 widely used chemicals by the farming community in the country to control weeds in tea plantations, cropped and non-cropped areas. The use of herbicides in recent years has been growing as farmers have been increasingly relying on chemicals to tackle labour shortage, rising costs and protect their yields from weeds — which compete with standing crops for nutrients.

‘No toxic effect’

“Glyphosate, one of the rigorously tested and used chemicals globally, is registered after rigorous safety assessment and used for four decades in India,” said Bhagirath Choudhary, Founder Director, South Asia Biotechnology Centre (SABC), an agriculture advocacy group. He further said that there have been no harmful effects of the use of glyphosate reported in the country.

Further, Choudhary said the US EPA has ensured that there is no carcinogenicity in glyphosate and it has no toxic effect on humans, animals or other micro-organisms. The US EPA has recently reviewed and re-registered the chemical to use in the US. On Bayer’s settlement, Choudhary said it may be a step to reduce the amount of litigations that are going on and to create harmony and reconciliation among stakeholders.

Besides Bayer, other manufacturers of glyphosate in India include Sumitomo, Adama, Crystal and Rallis among others. Glyphosate sales in India are estimated at around ₹1,000 crore, about a fourth of the herbicide market.

While Bayer’s settlement in the US may have meant redressal for some affected people to an extent, what it certainly means is the fact that there is an admission of glyphosate having caused certain problems and that causal nature cannot be wished away, said Kavita Kuruganti of the Alliance of Sustainable and Holistic agriculture. “It will happen in India also and that’s the reason why the government here has to be proactive in its approach and banning glyphosate is the way to protect farm workers and others from harmful effects,” Kuruganti said.

The largest culprit which is pushing weedicide usage in the country has come in the form of glyphosate through illegal herbicide tolerant cotton, she added.

Last year, Ashwani Mahajan of the Swadeshi Jagaran Manch had launched an online petition urging the Prime Minister to ban glyphosate and so far, over 1.94 lakh people have signed it, Kuruganti said and the campaign would gain momentum.

While Punjab has restricted the sale of glyphosate, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh have curbed the use during the kharif cropping season, mainly to control the spread of illegal herbicide cotton. Kerala, which had imposed a ban on glyphosate, has revoked it.


Glyphosate in tea estates

In tea plantations, glyphosate is being used for about four decades now. “We have no alternative but to use glyphosate to control the weeds as it is cost-effective,” said B Radhakrishnan, Director, Upasi Tea Research Foundation. With recommended dosage, it is safe to use for killing weeds and there have been no cases of harmful effects so far, Radhakrishnan said.

Tea planter N Lakshmanan Chettiar of Golden Hills Estate in Coonoor says people are becoming more cautious on the use of glyphosate, which is getting reduced. As there are no alternatives, increasing the plant density to 25,000 bushes per hectare from the current 14,000 is the best way to curb weeds in tea plantation, Lakshmanan said.

“Without weedicides we can’t have our operations because of the large areas. They are not used extensively, but to manage weeds in open patches of the tea estates,” said BK Ajith, Secretary, Association of Planters, Kerala. Kerala is the highest cost producer of tea in India because of the higher wages. “We are finding it difficult to get workers. Until and unless some other technology comes in we have to use weedicides,” Ajith said.

Further, Kuruganti said glyphosate also has many other socio-economic implications as the large scale use of weed killer takes away the work opportunity from the marginalised and poor rural women.

Manual de-weeding is the largest source of employment for rural women in the country. “While on the one hand you are taking away employment opportunity by use of weedicides, while on the other we talk of creating rural employment by using public funds, which seems such a dichotomised approach to employment,” she said.

Interestingly, of the proposed ban list of 27 agrochemicals issued by the Agriculture Ministry, seven are in herbicide category, while 12 are insecticides and eight fungicides. Among the seven herbicides slated to be banned, 2,4-D is classified as highly toxic by the Central Insecticide Board and Registration Committee. Atrazine, Butchlor, Diuron and Pendimethalin are classified as moderately toxic, while Sulphoslfuron and Oxyfluorfen are slightly toxic.

Crop protection market

SABC’s Choudhary, quoting a Grant Thornton report, said herbicides as a category was witnessing a faster growth in the crop protection market as compared to other categories such as fungicides, insecticides and seed treatment. Herbicide category grew at 8.6 per cent per annum in 2018, while the crop protection sector is growing at 6.4 per cent.

According to CropLife India estimates, the domestic crop protection market in India in 2019 is estimated to be ₹21,000 crore; with a 8.9 per cent growth over 2018 estimates. “Of this, the herbicide market is ₹4,500 crore; with a 12.3 per cent growth over 2018 estimates. Herbicides has emerged as the second largest segment after insecticides and registered the highest growth among the three main segments,” said Asitava Sen, CEO, CropLife India.

“It is important to highlight that India has one of the lowest usage of pesticides at 307 gm/ha as compared to 5 kg/ ha in UK, 7 kg/ha in the US, 12 Kg/ha in Japan and 13 kg/ha in China. In India, we have only about 270 registered active ingredients registered; as against 1,175 available globally,” Sen said.