5 May 2016
The South African Police Service (Saps) has insisted that its rural dagga eradication programme is lawful and complies with local safety and environmental regulations. For more than three decades Saps has used helicopters to spray marijuana plantations with the herbicide glyphosate.
Activists and affected Eastern Cape villagers who rely on marijuana farming for an income say that these spraying operations pose a health risk and infringe on basic human rights.
This is the final part of a three part series on the war on drugs in the Eastern Cape.
Since January 2016, police officials have defended their actions by referring to an “expert report” that claims glyphosate spraying has “technically zero” chance of harming people or animals. But researchers from the University of Cape Town (UCT) and activists have disputed these findings, questioning the credentials and independence of the report’s author, Dr. Gerhard Verdoorn from the Griffon Poison Information Centre.
Verdoorn’s three-page report, available online here, states that it is “physically impossible for any organism … to be exposed to sufficient glyphosate [during police spraying operations] to warrant any concerns about acute toxicity, dermal irritation or even eye irritation.”
“Even with a continued exposure of 12 hours a human being will not inhale more than 1.64 mg of glyphosate — that is less than a third of the acute inhalation dosage over a period of four hours.”
Verdoorn, 57, is a qualified organic chemist and former Conservation Biology professor at the University of Johannesburg. Since 2005 he has run the Griffon Poison Information Centre — alone, with the title of Director.
In a recent telephone interview he said the purpose of the centre is to “mitigate the impacts of poisons on humans and the environment.”
Verdoorn also has close ties to CropLife South Africa, a non-profit that represents the local “plant science industry” (manufacturers and suppliers of crop protection products), and to The Association of Veterinary and Crop Associations South Africa (AVCASA), an umbrella organisation for companies operating in the crop protection and animal health product sectors.
Verdoorn chairs two committees for CropLife SA — Public Relations; Safety, Health & Environment — and is a regular consultant for AVCASA, handling their waste management programme.
The current President of CropLife SA, Marcel Dreyer, is also the CEO of Arysta LifeScience, the company which holds the patent for KiloMax, the glyphosate product used for eradicating dagga plantations by the Saps.
Verdoorn’s perceived proximity to the agrochemical industry has led critics to discredit his opinion on matters involving pesticide poisoning.
“As a non-independent [industry spokesman], Verdoorn is strongly financially motivated to defend glyphosate,” said Helen Whitehead from the Transkei Animal Welfare Initiative, one of the organisations currently fighting to end dagga spraying in the Eastern Cape. “Positive perception of glyphosate is crucial [for the industry] and Verdoorn’s opinion and advice play an influential role.”
Verdoorn told GroundUp that the Griffon Centre was “totally independent” and “100% self-funded.”
“[The centre] costs a lot of money,” he said.
In 2015, however, Villa Crop Protection, one of the largest agricultural remedy suppliers in South Africa, funded “toxicological analyses” at the Griffon Centre after 66 endangered vultures died from poisoning on the Lowveld. In a press release, Villa Crop’s Managing Director, Dr. André Schreuder, said that his company was “determined to undermine individuals who poison wildlife illegally by supporting investigations into their crimes.”
Responding to questions, Verdoorn told GroundUp that this funding was “once-off”. He also said: “When there’s a poisoning incident, [Villa Crop] helps out.”
Villa Crop, which claims an “approximately 65% share of the South African [crop protection] market at farmer level”, currently lists 11 glyphosate products for sale on its website.
“There was a big hoo-hah after the police sprayed dagga plantations in 2015,” Verdoorn told GroundUp. “But glyphosate is the least toxic compound the Saps could use. The Saps are acting within their constitutional mandate.”
Allegations of poisoning as a consequence of the spraying were “absolute rubbish,” he said.
“If glyphosate was poisonous I’d have died long ago. When I worked on farms as a student I used the stuff regularly.”
He added that he would “rather be exposed once-off to glyphosate than smoke dagga — even once.”
“I’m a toxicologist. I’m not stupid. [Marijuana] is a gateway drug — teenagers start out smoking it, then progress to crystal meth. I find it strange that people even entertain the thought of legalising it. When cannabis junkies drive into my car one day, who’s going to pay for it? The government will have to. It will have been them who made [smoking dagga] legal.”
People from the “cannabis community” and villagers in the Eastern Cape who claimed that marijuana farmers were “so impoverished” and “going hungry” were “irritating,” said Verdoorn, when asked if there was anything else he wanted to comment on.
“Why plant illegal narcotics instead of maize, wheat, or sorghum? If I was impoverished I’d plant food for my family, not these huge dagga plantations.”
In his report for the Saps, Verdoorn wrote that allegations of ill-effects from glyphosate could “only [be] treated with contempt” unless substantiated by “affidavits from health care practitioners and veterinarians.”
When asked to comment on the report, Dr. Leslie London, professor of Public Health at UCT, said that Verdoorn had “a long record” of interpreting findings in ways that “exonerate [the pesticide industry] of responsibility for any health problems resulting from pesticide exposure.”
London — a B-rated NRF researcher recognised internationally for his work on pesticides — added that the report was poor science and more closely resembled a “propaganda piece.”
In September 2013, London and his colleague Hanna-Andrea Rother published a letter of complaint in the South African Medical Journal in response to a “misleading” editorial by Verdoorn that attributed cases of pesticide poisoning to “highly irresponsible” end-users.
“It is not the products that are to be blamed, but rather people with insufficient knowledge who are allowed access to them and then use them without taking note of accompanying label or prescription instructions,” Verdoorn wrote in his editorial.
“Irresponsibility on the part of the victims of poisoning and their families is an opinion we do not share, since much can be done from a programmatic and policy point of view to practise upstream prevention at source,” responded London and Rother. “Simply blaming victims of pesticide poisoning for their problems is neither good public practice nor evidence based.”
Verdoorn’s glyphosate report ends by suggesting Saps contact the toxicologist Dr. Ockie Fourie “for another independent opinion.”
Fourie, a toxicologist with more than 40 years experience, told GroundUp that he “did a lot of consulting” for the police roughly between 1995 and 1998, monitoring their glyphosate spraying programme.
“It was very scientific,” he said. “Practically speaking, the spraying had zero negative impact on health or the environment. But I have no idea what has happened since then. It’s been many years since I worked on glyphosate.”
Saps officials did not respond to written questions before publication. In a letter to Stone, the attorney, on 7 March, Lieutenant General E Mawela wrote: “We have … taken the liberty to engage with a renowned and independent expert in the ﬁeld, Dr Gerhard Verdoorn … [there is] no indication in this report that the SAPS should desist from using the speciﬁc herbicide … The SAPS maintains that it is conducting lawful operations.”