Poor Farmers Facing Mysterious Illness Across Two Continents

Charles W. Elliott

We’re following a story that continues to emerge from Sri Lanka, India, and Central America of a mysterious illness striking down tens of thousands of poor farm workers, destroying their kidneys. The victims are often young, male outdoor farm workers, far removed from the usual patient with severe kidney failure: older, sedentary men with a history of diabetes or hypertension. What would connect these dying farm workers in different countries across two continents?

Dambj_20120501_9681Photo credit: Anna Barry-Jester, Center for Public Integrity

A recent study estimated that the ailment, called “chronic kidney disease of unknown etiology” (CKDu) has killed more than 20,000 people in Central America alone.

We invite you to watch this five-minute video “Mystery in the Fields” from the Center for Public Integrity that explains the problem and shows its devastating human impact on poor families and communities.[1]


No one has been able to definitively determine the cause of this illness, although prime suspects include a combination of kidney-damaging heat stress, and exposure to toxic heavy metals, pesticides and chemical fertilizers. While no direct cause and effect has yet been established, research has associated this illness with exposure to Monsanto’s toxic chemical pesticide glyphosate, the main active ingredient in the world’s most widely used herbicide, RoundUp. One research report concludes: “Although glyphosate alone does not cause an epidemic of chronic kidney disease, it seems to have acquired the ability to destroy the renal tissues of thousands of farmers when it forms complexes with a localized geo environmental factor (hardness) and nephrotoxic metals.” [2] Monsanto denies that glyphosate is the cause of these illnesses.

For its part, Sri Lanka restricted the use of Roundup in areas afflicted by CKDU. However, the enforcement of these restrictions has reportedly been delayed following opposition from Monsanto and the agrochemical industry.  El Salvador’s legislature approved a ban on glyphosate and dozens of other agricultural chemicals, but the ban was not signed into law by the country’s president. [3]

This epidemic of CKDu began to first emerge in the late 1990s, following the introduction and widespread application of chemical pesticides on genetically-modified crops. The problem is not limited to farmers in developing countries. This graph shows the temporal relationship between an epidemic of kidney disease and the use of GMO crops in the United States:

acute_kidney_disease.jpgGraph credit: http://www.greenmedinfo.com/blog/dramatic-increase-kidney-disease-us-and-abroad-linked-roundup-glyphosate

The use of glyphosate skyrocketed after seeds were genetically engineered to tolerate the chemical. Because these seeds produce plants that are not killed by glyphosate, farmers can apply the weed killer to entire fields without worrying about destroying crops.

More research to definitively identify the cause of this global problem is urgently needed. The families and communities that are being devastated by this disease deserve answers based on the best science, without pressure or interference from industrial agricultural and chemical interests.
More information on CKDu is available at:

http://www.cbsnews.com/news/medical-mystery-rare-kidney-disease-killing-sri-lanka-farmers/

http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/34899-monsanto-s-pesticide-is-top-suspect-behind-mysterious-kidney-disease

https://news.vice.com/article/monsanto-s-herbicide-might-be-killing-farmers

More background information on glyphosate is available in this National Geographic News article:

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/04/150422-glyphosate-roundup-herbicide-weeds/

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[1] The Center for Public Integrity has been investigating this problem for several years: https://www.publicintegrity.org/news/Chronic-kidney-disease; “Countries target pesticides as suspected link to rare kidney disease”, https://www.publicintegrity.org/2013/09/20/13444/countries-target-pesticides-suspected-link-rare-kidney-disease

[2] “Glyphosate, Hard Water and Nephrotoxic Metals: Are They the Culprits Behind the Epidemic of Chronic Kidney Disease of Unknown Etiology in Sri Lanka?”, Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2014, 11(2), 2125-2147; doi:10.3390/ijerph110202125 (open access http://www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/11/2/2125)

[3] When El Salvador took steps to ban glyphosate and other chemicals in September 2013, the Millennium Challenge Compact (MCC) stopped the aid package process until “’specific’ economic and environmental reforms were made.” According to one article, “The United States will withhold the Millennium Challenge Compact aid deal, approximately $277 million in aid, unless El Salvador purchases genetically-modified seeds from biotech giant, Monsanto.”  The United States denied the connection between its decision to withhold aid under the MCC and pressure to buy GMO seed, asserting that it was based on an El Salvador’s action plan, which “included a commitment to ensure that the Ministry of Agriculture’s procurement of corn and bean seed would be consistent with the provisions of the CAFTA-DR (Dominican Republic-Central America-United States Free Trade Agreement).”  Of course,  if CAFTA indirectly prevents aid recipients from adopting policies and laws prohibiting the use or importation of GMO seed, the result is the same.

Charles W. Elliott is an environmental attorney and a board member of Buddhist Global Relief.

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3 responses to “Poor Farmers Facing Mysterious Illness Across Two Continents

  1. Kelly Harkenrider

    Wow! This is really terrible. More people need to know that this is going on. Brandon Stanton from Humans of New York reaches millions of people and is a great humanitarian. If he could take pictures in the affected countries and publish their stories it could have a huge impact.

  2. I understand these symptoms can apply to many possible contaminants. However, they are the main ones we see with cadmium contamination and uptake in crops, specifically rice in rural western Thailand. The heavy metals are sourced from mining and in central Thailand, they’re sourced from historic pesticide use (arsenic). In fact, heavy metals are a major issue in many regions in Thailand. I’m working on soil remediation strategies for heavy metals in western Thailand tied to mining activity.

    Health impacts from heavy metals are prolific in Sri Lanka; its one of the few places I’ve seen tied to mortality cases. And I was contacted by a researcher in South America about the same issue, heavy metals (cadmium) in cocoa crops sourced from mining activity. Soils and plants can be tested quite easily in these areas, given there is a lab or university in the region that can carry out the analysis. A few things that would be useful to know are industrial projects (mining, coal fired power plants, electronic waste recycling, etc) in these regions, their proximity to major agricultural areas, and then a health impact assessment with exposure cases in these areas. I’m sure much of this has already been done though. I really hope they find the direct cause.

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