By Sylvain Charlebois
and Stuart Smyth
University of Saskatchewan
Canadians had until July 20 to comment on the federal government’s proposal to increase the amount of glyphosate herbicide residue allowed on legumes. Now, due to some deserved public pressure, Health Canada extended the deadline to Sept. 3.
The debate on glyphosate in Canada and around the world is populist, chaotic, political and simply unsettling. Many groups are regrettably weaponizing research to make a point, either to support the use of the well-known chemical, also known as Roundup, or to declare it cancer-causing and poisonous.
Some are treating science like a buffet, carefully selecting research to accommodate a certain narrative. It’s messy and a disservice to the public.
At the core, it’s a battle between organic and modern family farming, or even rural against urban views. Consumers have every right to be concerned about the safety of the food they buy, but most of the information they’re exposed to is incredibly skewed by politics from many sides.
The inconvenient truth about glyphosate is that it’s not poison – unless used irresponsibly, of course. Most farmers adhere to responsible and sustainable practices based on precision agriculture, where overuse is both costly and wasteful.
Health Canada didn’t help the debate with its less-than-mediocre risk communication strategy. Knowing it was dealing with one of the most controversial issues in agriculture, it has shown some hesitancy in disclosing all the information it had, forcing media to dig deeper. The federal department should be as transparent as possible, especially when dealing with the most widely used, and important, chemical in Canadian agriculture.
Misrepresentation of glyphosate’s toxicity misleads the public, the scientific community and regulators. With glyphosate, detection doesn’t equal toxicity.
Health Canada’s intent is to harmonize standards across North America. For the sake of more transparency, the federal agency should be clear about why the evaluation is being done and who’s asking for it, or whether it’s part of Canada’s commitment to complying with international trade and regulation agreements.
It should also explain what the risks are. By known standards, a person would need to eat at least 32 bowls of Cheerios every day for more than a year to even approach the limit suggested by Health Canada. Or a person would need to eat over 600 kg of lentils over a few months.
These thresholds are at least 100 times less than levels that could impact someone’s health. Many studies suggesting glyphosate to be harmful often set unreasonable standards based on questionable data.
Many environmentalists and organic farming groups are behind a lot of the reports condemning the use of glyphosate. For years, these groups went to war against genetically modified organisms (GMOs), only to realize most consumers weren’t buying the ‘frankenfoods’ fear campaign.
These groups are after the chemicals supporting genetic engineering in agriculture but expecting modern agriculture to be chemical-free is simply unrealistic. Over 140 chemical compounds are approved for use in the production of organic crops in Canada, and Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) data reveals that chemical residues are present on nearly half of organic produce.
We’ve come a long way since the dust bowl era on the Prairies. We’ve learned how tillage can be damaging and how soil science can serve agriculture more meaningfully, with the support of resourceful biotechnologies. Tillage has long been used to control weeds in crop/food production. The use of glyphosate has removed 99 per cent of tillage area in Saskatchewan, reducing soil erosion and increasing moisture conservation.
Some consensus is building on the safety of glyphosate. Seventeen regulatory agencies and thousands of studies have evaluated glyphosate’s human health and environmental impacts, including one major report from the European Union, released in June.
Overlooked by most major media outlets in Canada, the European report has deemed glyphosate not cancer-causing. That’s right, not carcinogenic.
The sample design and methodologies of past studies suggesting glyphosate may cause cancer were heavily criticized after they were released.
We should certainly have an ongoing debate about the use of chemicals in agriculture. And working to fully understand inherent risks and verified benefits to our health and the environment is critical.
But some organizations and academics with clear conflicts of interest continue to disregard the prevalence of evidence supporting current farming practices. And that’s a disservice to honest public discourse on the issue.
Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University. Dr. Stuart Smyth is Agri-Food Innovation and Sustainability Enhancement Chair at the University of Saskatchewan.