Before fields are sown with seeds on Cambodia’s largest corn, cassava, rubber and tobacco plantations, the soil is first sprayed with glyphosate, the world’s leading herbicide.
Glyphosate – commonly sold as Roundup – is largely marketed as a “safe” weed whacker, but recent data from the World Health Organization (WHO) indicate the herbicide is in fact a likely carcinogen, despite having inhabited the Kingdom’s list of approved chemicals for more than a decade and having even been promoted to Cambodian farmers by USAID.
In March, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a branch of the WHO, released data that linked glyphosate, along with four other common insecticides, to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, as well as chromosomal and DNA damage in human cells.
While 116 chemical pesticides were banned in Cambodia in 2009 – albeit with minimal enforcement, agriculture experts say – glyphosate has been on the “safe” list since 2003. Today, glyphosate is legal and easily accessible to Cambodians by way of local markets, and available for import from Thailand, China and Vietnam, home to two offices of agribusiness giant Monsanto, maker of Roundup.
However, agricultural organisations throughout Cambodia say the Kingdom’s farmers are often overly exposed and intentionally left uninformed about the potential dangers of glyphosate. Due to limited funds and knowledge, protective gear can be minimal for farmers handling toxic chemicals, and more often than not the risks are overlooked by those who rely on their crops for their meagre livelihoods.
“Some companies, they don’t tell the worker about the poisoning, and [farmers] don’t know to wear personal protection equipment – they wear only short pants, they don’t use masks or anything,” said Keam Makarady, the health and environment program director for the Cambodian Centre for Study and Development in Agriculture (CEDAC).
He added that he has seen workers on sugar cane plantations playfully spray each other with the herbicide.
“They say it is like drinking water because [they are told] it’s not harmful,” he said, adding that some “companies use their money to . . . lobby the government, saying it is not harmful”.
Makarady said that “most” plantations in Cambodia utilise glyphosate. Chemical poisoning, he added, is so common that many farmers visit the doctor on a weekly basis or hire others to do the work to avoid exposure. A 2011 report by Danish researchers found that nearly 90 per cent of Cambodian farmers surveyed on 100 farms displayed symptoms of insecticide and herbicide exposure.
“Some farmers actually know that the impacts of the chemicals are very, very bad . . . but they have no choice,” said Say Jeudi of the Coalition of Cambodia Farmers Community (CCFC).
Jeudi said that many farmers choose chemical options, often mixing a combination of strong herbicides, because they believe it will help them yield a larger crop and stay competitive in a market already dominated by larger plantations.
“People in the rural areas only calculate for their daily livelihood,” he said. “They don’t think beyond the immediate result”.
Earlier this month, Greenpeace released a report on pesticides that found farmers and rural inhabitants are the most at risk for chemical exposure, including to glyphosate. The report found that traces of pesticides, even those long suspended, still existed in hair follicles and could be transmitted through breast milk, leading to developmental impairment in children. Glyphosate is one of the most widespread chemicals, the report says, with a presence in more than 740 products used for forestry, urban life and home use, including gardening.
The recent reports on the herbicide have sparked an international furore. On Friday, Colombia suspended the use of the glyphosate after decades of using it to fumigate illegal coca crops and curb drug trafficking. The move followed years of local reports of skin ailments and developmental disabilities in children. Yesterday morning, the International Society of Doctors for the Environment petitioned the European Union’s parliament to ban the chemical entirely, and a German chain store has already pledged to remove glyphosate products from its stores by September.
Cambodian government officials, however, remain sceptical that glyphosate is a danger to the population.
“We have not banned the use of glyphosate,” said Hean Vanhan, deputy director of the Agriculture Department at the Ministry of Agriculture. “I accept the world is discussing its danger, but it is only dangerous if we use it in the wrong way.”
Lor Rasmey, spokesman for the ministry, also said yesterday he believed the herbicide to be of only minimal danger, explaining, “In France, they still use it.”
The argument mirrors that commonly used in the US, where as recently as 2010, glyphosate was referred to as a “miracle chemical for farmers”, according to the New York Times.
This language was also parroted in a bulletin for Cambodian farmers distributed by USAID in 2011, which states the “very low toxicity” of glyphosate and recommends it as an effective farming tool.
When asked if the agency would reconsider its endorsement, a spokesman yesterday referred to comments made by Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken on the situation in Colombia, who told El Tiempo: “I can tell you that glyphosate is used in all states of my country, and believe me, we’d have taken action if there was something wrong.”