BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Colombia's health ministry has recommended suspending a herbicide used in aerial spraying of cocaine crops after a report by the World Health Organization (WHO) found it to be a likely cause of cancer.
In a March report, the WHO's cancer arm, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, reclassified the herbicide glyphosate, saying it was "probably carcinogenic to humans".
Over the past three decades, more than 1.6 million hectares of land in Colombia have been sprayed using glyphosate to wipe out coca plants, the raw ingredient used to make cocaine.
"What's important about this study is that it summarizes scientific evidence on the issue (of glyphosate) .. we don't have another option but to ask for the suspension of glyphosate," Colombia's health minister, Alejandro Gaviria, told local W Radio station on Tuesday.
He said his recommendation heeded a 2014 ruling by Colombia's constitutional court that said precautions in the use of glyphosate should be taken when there are credible health risks to humans.
Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos has yet to respond to the health ministry's recommendation.
Glyphosate is a key ingredient in the world's most widely used herbicide, Roundup, produced by Monsanto Co.
Monsanto officials have said glyphosate has been proven safe for decades, and the company has demanded a retraction from the WHO over its report linking the chief ingredient in Roundup to cancer.
Colombia, a major cocaine producer, manufactures some 300 tonnes of the drug annually, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
While it has scaled back aerial coca crop spraying in recent years, and has focused more on eradicating coca plants by hand, it remains the only country in the world where drug plantations are targeted from the air.
The U.S.-backed coca fumigation program, carried out by U.S. contractors working in Colombia and national anti-narcotics police, is part of longstanding efforts to eradicate coca fields and in turn stem cocaine production.
Critics say coca crop spraying using glyphosate is not only harmful to humans but damages the environment because it contaminates the soil, rivers and drinking water.
In 2013, Colombia agreed to pay its neighbor Ecuador a $15 million settlement after the Quito government filed a lawsuit before the International Court of Justice in the Hague.
The lawsuit said that the herbicide released from planes spraying along their shared border had blown into Ecuador causing environmental damage and health problems in humans.
(Reporting By Anastasia Moloney, Editing by Emma Batha)