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Comment: A more transparent regulatory system is key to public trust

The deepening controversy over glyphosate is only the tip of the iceberg

My parents decided in the mid-1980s that they wanted to do a better job of caring for the soils on our southern Manitoba farm — and tillage had to go.

However, eliminating tillage meant coming up with another way of controlling weeds that would otherwise choke out a fledgling crop.

One of the tools they could use was Monsanto’s Roundup, the first glyphosate product brought to market. The herbicide was invaluable as a “pre- seed burn-off” in no-till operations. The farmer could dispatch the weeds and days later, plant into a clean field.

But it was prohibitively expensive. As the patents started to come off in the early 1990s, the price quickly dropped — and the conservation agriculture movement in Canada took off.

Most soil scientists would agree reducing tillage is one of the best things farmers can do to support soil health. On our farm, we witnessed the soil become increasingly mellow, less compacted and more capable of absorbing and retaining moisture.

Viewed through that lens, glyphosate is one of the greatest evolutions in modern crop farming.

You wouldn’t conclude that from reading the headlines these days, which portray this little bundle of chemistry as the bane of mankind. Non-farmers sometimes ask me whether glyphosate is bad for you — to which I respond with the question — is a car bad for you? Glyphosate is a tool.

The hysteria — yes, I call it hysteria — over glyphosate escalated with a California jury’s decision earlier this year to award US$39 million in compensation and a whopping US$250 million in punitive damages to former groundskeeper Dewayne Johnson, 46, now dying of cancer.

The ruling after the first stage of appeal was a win-lose scenario for Bayer CropScience, which now owns Monsanto — and the liability for glyphosate. The judge reduced the punitive award to US$39 million but reinforced that punitive damages were indeed warranted.

That means that two courts have looked at the evidence and concluded that the so-called “Monsanto Papers” — thousands of pages of documents submitted as evidence in the trial — substantiate claims that company officials knew there was a risk that the product is linked to cancer and went to great lengths to keep that information under wraps.

There are now an estimated 9,300 similar lawsuits in the U.S. court system. Bayer’s stock values have reportedly dropped 30 per cent. CBC Radio has reported Health Canada is now reviewing its data on glyphosate in light of these disclosures.

There is evidence in the first trial documents that Monsanto even paid “independent” scientists to attach their names and reputations to documents ghostwritten by the company to discredit unfavourable analysis and the scientists behind it. One of its targets was the infamous report by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which in 2015 cited glyphosate as a probable carcinogen.

For the record, breathing fumes from burning wood, consuming processed red meat and drinking very hot beverages all fall into the same IARC category.

So much for sitting around a summer campfire, eating hotdogs and sipping cocoa.

The question isn’t whether glyphosate “causes” cancer. Lots of things we expose ourselves to every day can harm our health — even cars. Of course we need to understand and mitigate those risks. We can’t hide from them.

The development of crop varieties that can tolerate this herbicide’s use in crop and its use as a pre-harvest desiccant have substantially increased the amount of glyphosate used and are raising new concerns about the herbicide’s effect when applied on plants that become our food. Those concerns need to be investigated.

The real question, however, is whether existing regulatory systems are equipped to properly evaluate the risks when they rely on data supplied by the companies producing the products.

Two more reports surfaced this week that suggest the glyphosate debacle isn’t an isolated case of data manipulation.

An investigative report published by Reveal of the Center for Investigative Reporting and the Food & Environment Reporting Network said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ignored independent research that warned that dicamba sprayed on tolerant varieties of soybean and cotton was at high risk of evaporating into the air and drifting onto non-target crops.

The EPA relied on research sup- plied by companies that manufacture dicamba to approve the new use. An estimated five million acres of non- target soybeans have been damaged or lost over the past two years as a result of dicamba drift. That adds up to more lawsuits, more juries and less credibility for the crop protection industry — no matter how much money it throws into “public trust” campaigns.

Meanwhile, when Swedish researchers examined the raw data from a company-funded safety evaluation of the organophosphate chlorpyrifos, they found the chemical affected the brains of exposed laboratory animals at all tested doses. This information wasn’t included in the reported conclusions. In fact, the company-funded conclusion was that there was no effect, even at high doses.

“One conclusion we draw is that there is a risk that the results of industry- funded toxicity tests are not reported correctly,” said the lead researcher Axel Mie at Karolinska Institutet in Sweden. “This makes it difficult for the authorities to evaluate the pesticides in a safe and valid way. We also conclude that independent academic research should be given a higher status in the evaluation of the safety of chemicals.”

Some say just ban them all. However, chemical-free farming has its challenges too.

If, for example, it prompts a wholesale return to old methods of pest control — such as excessive tillage — that’s not so good for our collective health either. Healthy soil is the foundation for sustainable food systems.

Policy-makers, industry and the general public need to support a regulatory system for these tools that is open, transparent and not swayed by vested interests. That’s easy to say, but difficult — and expensive — to do.

However, if the alternative is regulation by juries and headline writers, it may be the best investment in public trust we as a society can make.

About the author

Editorial Director

Laura Rance is the Editorial Director for Glacier FarmMedia. She is an award-winning journalist who has covered agriculture and rural issues for more than 30 years.

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