By Sofía García, AIDA intern, and Johans Isaza, former AIDA intern
In recent decades, the practice of healthy eating, and with it the quality of the food we eat, has gained particular relevance in western society. Many have grown concerned about industrial food production and its negative impacts on the environment and public health.
In response, environmental organizations, ethnic communities, rural farmers, international organizations and even some governments have spoken of the need to move towards an agro-ecological model.
This model implies the development of sustainable agricultural practices to optimize food production, and do so without the use of agrotoxins, while also promoting social justice and recognizing ancestral knowledge and traditional practices.
In recent weeks, public debate around glyphosate—the most widely used agrotoxin in the world—has regained prominence in Mexico and Colombia.
Glyphosate is used most frequently and intensively in the large-scale cultivation of genetically modified crops. In Mexico, roughly 45 percent of glyphosate usage is focused on transgenic soybean, corn, canola and cotton crops. The rest goes to the sowing of sugar cane and to forestry or fruit production. In Colombia, glyphosate is used primarily on cotton, corn, rice, tomato, sugar cane and palm plantations, as well as in the pastures where cattle are raised. Though a visible tool of the war on drugs, until 2013 less than 5 percent of total glyphosate usage in Colombia was destined to eradicate crops of illicit use.
As a non-selective herbicide, glyphosate not only affects the crop to which it is applied. Retained in the most superficial layers of the soil, it throws entire ecosystems out of balance and harms the health of the plants and animals that depend on them.
What’s more, glyphosate use affects biodiversity in a variety of ways and causes both direct and indirect short and long-term impacts. It damages aquifers, causing harm to aquatic organisms; can be deadly for some species of amphibians; causes biological malformations in animals like rats; reduces nutrient absorption in plants, increasing their likelihood of becoming sick or attracting pests; and affects pollination processes, which are fundamental for life on this planet.
When looking at the harms of glyphosate, we mustn’t fail to mention the serious social damages it causes as it filters into bodies of water, and becomes present in the food we consume on a daily basis. Since 2015, the World Health Organization has classified glyphosate as a probable carcinogen (placing it in the second strongest category of evidence on a four-tier scale).
Several studies have shown that glyphosate can irritate the eyes and skin, damage the respiratory system at the lung level, cause dizziness, lower blood pressure and destroy red blood cells.
The negative impacts of glyphosate use can result in the violation of various human rights, among them the rights to a healthy environment, to water, to health, to life and to integrity. Its use in indigenous and traditional lands may also violate the rights to cultural identity and territory.
Though evidence exists of glyphosate’s negative environmental and health impacts, it is not irrefutable.
There is no scientific certainty that glyphosate impacts the environment or harms human health and wellbeing. There is also no scientific certainty that the herbicide is harmless.
What is certain is that the above-described impacts are sufficient to necessitate the application of the precautionary principle. According to this principle, in cases that threaten serious and irreversible damage, and in the absence of scientific certainty, States have the obligation to adopt necessary and effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.
There’s no justification for postponing the measures necessary to mitigate the harms supposedly caused by glyphosate, until it is proven with absolute scientific certainty that glyphosate is not harmful.
Ongoing discussions in Mexico and Colombia provide an opportunity to reflect on our forms of food production and encourage a shift towards the agro-ecological model. The future of agriculture could be one that seeks wellbeing and prosperity, and promotes clean food production.
To this end, it’s essential that governments implement regulations to protect and ensure the return of native seeds, gradually eliminate agro-industrial technologies, and promote a return to the use of natural pesticides. Public policies must be implemented that respect both farmers and the environment.
The transition must include an intercultural approach that includes dialogue with and exchanges between rural farmers, indigenous peoples and scientists.
Achieving such a system would contribute to a more peaceful coexistence with other forms of life, and a healthier planet for present and future generations.