Last Updated:11/19/00
World Wildlife Fund Comments on Glyphosate, October 30
Comments on Glyphosate
World Wildlife Fund (30 October 2000)
Contact: Lauren Spurrier

Widespread aerial applications of the herbicide glyphosate as part of Plan Colombia's drug eradication plan raise many concerns about the potential for this to cause serious and irreversible harm to human health, wildlife and ecosystem function. Glyphosate, the active ingredient in the herbicide better known by its trade name of Roundup, is acutely toxic to virtually all plants and frees. It is non-selective meaning that foliar applications of Roundup will stunt the growth or kill anything that is green, when the dose is high enough for a sufficient amount of the chemical to be taken into the tissues of the plant. The reliance on aerial application and wide dispersal of coca plants among crop- and forest- lands means that non-target and off-site exposure to people, plants, wildlife and aquatic systems to Roundup may be extensive. In addition, the inert ingredients mixed with the Roundup to increase its effectiveness can be as, or more, toxic to humans, wildlife and food webs than the pesticide itself.

Existing toxicology and environmental fate studies the U.S. EPA requires of pesticide manufacturers during the registration process may not be adequate to asses the impacts resulting from Plan Colombia's actual use of glyphosate (aerial applications, product formulation, frequency and rate of application, etc.) especially given the soils, topography, climatic conditions (temperature, rainfall, etc) plant and animal species found in Colombia. In addition, these studies focus on the pesticide active ingredient alone, not the combination of inert ingredients actually applied, thereby giving an incomplete assessment of the toxic threat. Finally, research has neither adequately addressed nor actually assessed the environmental impact of glyphosate at the ecosystem level given its primary use for agricultural applications.

To evaluate the potential short- and long-mn ecological impacts of "Plan Colombia's" use of Roundup, numerous direct and indirect impacts on people, plants and wildlife, and ecosystem function have to be assessed-individually and in combination. The range of potential impacts include:

  • Eradication of non-target plants and trees, both in target areas and off-site (food and cash crops, other indigenous plant species, forests, aquatic vegetation, etc). Because Roundup is extraordinarily non-selective any vegetation exposed to a sufficient amount of the chemical will die. This would include areas affected by drift resulting from aerial applications.
  • Increased potential for soil erosion and stream and river sedimentation. The loss of vegetative cover and root structure leads to increase in water movement through the soil, increased nutrient loss and increased erosion from the targeted spray areas. Shallow mountainside soils are extremely vulnerable to soil erosion and can be turned into a hardpan wasteland in just a few years. Aquatic organisms and vegetation also, of course, suffer from soil erosion.
  • Suppression of soil bacteria and fungi growth and function. Essential bacteria that fix nitrogen in soil and fungi that facilitate nutrient uptake by a plant's root system are inhibited which will have an impact on crop production and plant regeneration.
  • Toxicity to aquatic organisms, including fish and invertebrates that come into direct contact with Roundup as a result of aerial application. Rainwash (resulting from rain storms after applications of Roundup) will also introduce Roundup directly into streams and rivers.
  • Actions taken by people when they lose their food and cash crops. Some potential impacts include hunger, malnutrition, the loss of income, and migration to more ecologically vulnerable locations-deeper into forests or higher up in the hills.
  • Adverse impacts on wildlife. The loss of plant diversity limits availability of preferred foods, shelter, and breeding/rearing areas for young.
  • Adverse impacts on wildlife of exposure to Roundup and its inert ingredients through dermal contact to fur and or skin, inhaled mist, and eating sprayed foliage or other food sources. Effects can be mild to severe. Some studies link exposure to Roundup with potential endocrine system modulated effects, reproductive problems including decreased sperm counts, and immune system dysfunction. A recent study linked Roundup to the inhibition of steroidogensis.
  • Alteration of natural plant succession, diversity and density resulting from destruction of non-target plants, including aquatic plants and algae. Increased potential for the invasion of exotic plant species. More sensitive plant species and rare and endangered native plants may be eliminated altogether or be vulnerable to interference with fruiting ability or seed germination.

Questions to ask those responsible for implementation of Plan Colombia:

1. Describe the product formulation of glyphosate being used, including inert ingredients (surfactants and additives).

2. Have, or are you planning on, applying in tank mixes with glyphosate, any other chemical active ingredients (herbicides, fungicides, insecticides, growth regulators, etc.)?

3. Describe application rates, method(s) of application, frequency of application, and target areas.

4. Given the reliance on aerial application for glyphosate, provide information on the type of aircraft used, expected elevation over fields during application, and anticipated (and actual) drift area.

5. In anticipated and actual drift areas, describe the type of vegetation affected.

6. Describe the safeguards Plan Colombia is taking to ensure that the use of the product (application rates and frequency, methods of application, and other safety precautions) are in compliance with all United States and Colombian pesticide use and safety laws and used according to the manufacturer's label requirements.

7. Describe the risk mitigation measures implemented to minimize non-target and off site impacts including measures implemented to minimize contamination of water through runoff, soil erosion and spray drift. Provide the name of the agency(ies) and a contact person responsible for implementation of risk mitigation measures.

8. Are there plans to monitor ecological impacts resulting from aerial application of Roundup?

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