WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
25 Mar 2015 | Commentary

Can Glyphosate Cause Cancer? A Nail in the Coffin of Coca Fumigation

On March 20, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an arm of the World Health Organization, released findings that glyphosate—the herbicide known as Roundup, which is used in the controversial aerial spraying of coca crops in Colombia—is “probably carcinogenic to humans.” The findings are backed by decades of research on the harmful health, environmental, and economic effects of using glyphosate to curb coca production in the Andes, and underscore the need to end the destructive practice. As Colombia—the only country in the world to allow the aerial spraying of coca—advances in its historic peace process and rethinks its drug policies, now is the time to end fumigation and to enact effective, evidence-based drug policies.

The IARC report has identified strong linkages between the use of Roundup and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and has found that it can alter DNA and chromosomal makeup in human cells. The independent group also reviewed studies on animals, finding “sufficient evidence” that the chemical causes cancer. A number of studies have come to similar conclusions on the harmful effects of glyphosate; in 2013, prominent researchers at the University of the Andes found strong linkages between aerial spraying in particular and miscarriages in Colombia. The IARC report has gained the attention of Colombian officials. “[W]ithout a doubt,” said Minister of Health Alejandro Gaviria, “this reopens the debate on fumigation and concerns us greatly.”

The IARC findings that glyphosate is probably carcinogenic adds to the growing number of reasons why Colombia’s aerial spraying program should end. The drug trade and counter-drug policies have contributed considerably to Colombia’s half-century long conflict, which has taken the lives of at least a quarter million civilians and displaced millions more. The illegal drug industry has been a key issue in the ongoing peace talks between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC). In June 2014, the sides reached a promising, if imperfect, tentative agreement on the issue of drug policy. The Colombian government agreed to prioritize human rights and promote public health in its drug policies, and would attempt alternative development and manual eradication programs, ceasing—at least temporarily—aerial spraying in these coca growing areas. The FARC, for its part, would end its role in the cultivation and transshipment of coca and cocaine. However, the government has also reserved the option of resorting to the aerial spraying of coca crops in more remote or violent areas, opening the door to the potential continuation of a strategy that, according to the IARC’s study, entails use of a chemical that probably causes cancer.

While it has yet to translate rhetoric into reform, the Colombian government has also adopted a more progressive attitude toward drug policy. In a December 2013 visit, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos raised the issue of possibly curbing the spraying program, as did then-Justice Minister Alfonso Gómez in March 2014. Speaking at the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) in Vienna just before the IARC report was released, Colombia Justice Minister Yesid Reyes outlined the government’s growing concerns with past drug policies and the need for change.

The United States—which partially finances the spraying program—has brushed aside the potential health effects of spraying and continues to see it as an important tool in reducing coca cultivation. Nevertheless, some officials have privately expressed that they are comfortable with the limitations on aerial spraying spelled out in the tentative accord, and continue to publicly support the peace process.

Colombia’s neighbors have questioned the policy as well. Ecuador, for its part, realized long ago that spraying could be harmful. It sued Colombia in the International Court of Justice for spraying too close to the border and allowing the glyphosate to drift into Ecuadorian territory. In 2013, Colombia agreed to pay its neighbor $15 million for spraying along their shared border. Neither Peru nor Bolivia have allowed for aerial spraying in their countries, and Bolivia has embraced a remarkably effective “coca yes, cocaine no” policy that allows limited coca production while discouraging diversion to the illicit market.

From its ineffectiveness at reducing coca cultivation to the availability of more effective alternative policies, reasons abound why aerial spraying should be ended. More than ever, it appears governments are beginning to take note. The finding that glyphosate probably causes cancer in humans should now hasten the end of fumigation.