Conservation news

Sri Lanka scientist blames industry as award for herbicide research is axed

  • Two Sri Lankan scientists who were to receive a prestigious award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) were informed that their selection was placed “under review,” two days after they were announced as the recipients.
  • Sarath Gunatilake and Channa Jayasumana have long made the case that the chemical glyphosate, perhaps best known as the main ingredient in the widely used herbicide Roundup, is responsible for chronic kidney disease among agricultural communities.
  • Jayasumana says the award was withdrawn due to corporate pressure from the agrochemical lobby; an AAAS official said concerns had been raised about the scientists’ findings and a peer review process would be carried out to evaluate them.

A leading science advocacy group has suspended its decision to award two Sri Lankan scientists for their efforts to link a controversial weed killer to kidney disease, following a public backlash.

Sarath Gunatilake and Channa Jayasumana were to have received the 2019 Award for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) on Feb. 15 in Washington, D.C. But on Feb. 6, two days after the AAAS named them as the recipients of the award, it walked back its decision, tweeting: “We are taking steps to reassess the 2019 Award for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility, after concerns were voiced by scientists and members. This award will not be presented as originally planned while we further evaluate the award selection.”

Jayasumana told Mongabay that he had received emails from the AAAS informing him of the review of the award selection.

“We understand the immense pressure exerted by affluent agrochemical companies to negatively influence the emerging scientific evidence linking one of Sri Lanka’s worst public health problems to the agrochemical industry,” he said.

Tiffany Lohwater, chief communications officer for the AAAS, confirmed that “[t]he award was not presented as originally planned while AAAS further evaluates the award selection.

“AAAS plans to address the specific concerns raised through a peer review process designed to further evaluate the scientific findings underlying the award selection,” she told Mongabay in an email. “The process will include a panel of experts in relevant fields who will be vetted for potential conflicts of interest. Once that review concludes, AAAS will reach a decision about the award status.”

Gunatilake and Jayasumana, in their work, have long made the case that the chemical glyphosate, perhaps best known as the main ingredient in the widely used herbicide Roundup, plays a key role in transporting arsenic, cadmium and other heavy metals to the kidneys of those drinking contaminated water, contributing to the increasing number of cases of chronic kidney disease (CKD).

In its Feb. 4 announcement that it was presenting the award to Gunatilake and Jayasumana (now inaccessible but archived elsewhere), the AAAS referred to the scientists as “public health researchers who battled powerful corporate interests to uncover the deadly effects of industrial herbicides, solving a medical mystery and protecting the health of farming communities across the world.”

It said they had faced death threats and allegations of research misconduct while working to determine the cause of the kidney disease, and that their work had ultimately resulted in glyphosate herbicides being banned in several countries. While it’s true that such a ban has been imposed by many countries, only Sri Lanka and El Salvador have done so over concerns about glyphosate’s links to kidney disease. (In most other places where the chemical is banned, the primary reason has been glyphosate’s reputation as a likely carcinogen.)

In Sri Lanka, the government imposed the ban in 2015. In response to the move, the National Academy of Sciences Sri Lanka (NASSL) distanced itself from the conclusions of the two scientists, saying: “We are not aware of any scientific evidence from studies in Sri Lanka or abroad showing that [chronic kidney disease] is caused by glyphosate.”

Sri Lanka lifted the glyphosate ban in 2018, in response to weed-related crop losses in its tea industry, a key export commodity for the country.

A scientist associated with the NASSL, speaking to Mongabay on the condition of anonymity, suggested that the initial decision by the AAAS to award Gunatilake and Jayasumana shouldn’t be seen as an endorsement of their findings, but rather as recognition of their work bringing the issue of chronic kidney disease among agricultural communities to light. “Recognition for scientists is not always offered for proof of outcome and it often was about the process of highlighting issues of scientific validity,” the scientist said.

Banner image of workers in a field in Sri Lanka by Psychoslave via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Citations

Jayasumana, C., Gunatilake, S., & Senanayake, P. (2014). Glyphosate, Hard Water and Nephrotoxic Metals: Are They the Culprits Behind the Epidemic of Chronic Kidney Disease of Unknown Etiology in Sri Lanka? International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 11(2), 2125-2147. doi:10.3390/ijerph110202125

Jayasumana, C., Gunatilake, S., & Siribaddana, S. (2015). Simultaneous exposure to multiple heavy metals and glyphosate may contribute to Sri Lankan agricultural nephropathy. BMC Nephrology, 16(1). doi:10.1186/s12882-015-0109-2