Colombia: Poisoning the Future with Glyphosate?

By Luis Gilberto Murillo, Pablo Palacios Rodríguez, and Michael Julián Córdoba*

Fumigation in Colombia

Fumigation planes spray the Colombian countryside./ KyleEJohnson/ Flickr/ Creative Commons

Colombia is the second most biodiverse country and has the greatest number of unique species in the world, but the government’s approval of the widespread use of glyphosate – by agroindustry as well as in drug-eradication operations – continues to threaten this important resource for humanity. The country undoubtedly has greater awareness than many others of the link between protecting and taking advantage of its environmental richness. Economic and political interests, however, are shoving those values aside. The COVID‑19 pandemic has accelerated deforestation in some parts of the country as the nation prioritizes public health and economic recovery.

  • The use of herbicides such as glyphosate (known commercially as Roundup) in agriculture and, especially in the past, aerial eradication of illicit drug crops poses the greatest threat. The Colombian Agricultural Institute (ICA) estimates that glyphosate in 2016 represented 17 percent of the 10 million liters (equal to 359 medium-size swimming pools) of herbicides used in the country. Industrial farms use it in fields that produce a vast array of foods, including sugar, rice, citrus, bananas, and fresh vegetables.
  • The ICA and the National Police say that 10 percent of the glyphosate that year was sprayed from airplanes to destroy illicit crops. (In the previous 20 years, some 2 million hectares had been sprayed.) This practice has continued despite growing evidence that aerial fumigation is inefficient and ineffective – most often merely forcing growers to move production elsewhere, expanding deforestation. UN experts estimate that 60 percent of coca producers replant eradicated fields. Spraying glyphosate is also expensive, costing about US$70,000 per hectare.

The administration of Colombian President Iván Duque has been reversing what progress his predecessor, Juan Manuel Santos, and the courts had made in ending the use of glyphosate.

  • Santos began a process that, if continued, would have led to a total prohibition of the use of glyphosate. The policies were based on the growing body of evidence that the substance could cause cancer. The International Agency for Research on Cancer in 2015 designated it as “possibly carcinogenic for humans.” Previously, in 2005, Colombia’s National Health Institute had already demonstrated its genotoxicity (causing mutations) and cytotoxicity (harming cells). The government also argued that more than half of the U.S. states had prohibited the use of glyphosate. The Constitutional Court backed Santos’s push in part to protect the rights of Afro-Colombians and the Indigenous of Chocó, who studies show have been seriously affected.
  • Since taking office two years ago, President Duque’s administration has changed policy back, including on spraying glyphosate to reduce illicit drug production. It has dismissed the validity of existing studies and asserts that the scientific evidence about the herbicide’s effect on the environment and animal and human health is weak. The Colombian government is intensively pushing to resume fumigation of coca fields. The government is also sympathetic to agro-industry’s argument that any substitute herbicide could be worse than glyphosate.

The science is clear even if the politics is not: Glyphosate, especially when aerially sprayed, has serious implications for ecosystems and is already showing toxic effects on many species of plants, many of which are endemic (unique) to Colombia, as well as insects necessary for ecological balance. Trustworthy studies indicate that up to 40 percent of the country’s biodiversity is threatened. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has found that, in the United States alone, glyphosate threatens 74 species with extinction – a small fraction of what Colombia stands to lose. Agro-industry’s argument that other herbicides could be worse dodges the fundamental issue that continued reliance on glyphosate is dangerous.

  • The pandemic has been a convenient excuse for the government to avoid thoughtful debate and pull back on enforcement of the few existing regulations in place governing the use of herbicides. But now is actually a good time to take up the issue, as environmental protection and the fight against climate change are central to the post-COVID period.

August 24, 2020

* Luis Gilberto Murillo is a former Colombian Minister of Environment and Sustainable Development and CLALS Fellow. Pablo Palacios Rodríguez is a professor of biology at the Universidad de los Andes. Michael Julián Córdoba is coordinator for public policy at Fundación Tierra de Reconciliación.

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