Should GM be labelled? Is organic healthier? Does glyphosate cause cancer? Do you put your kids at risk if you feed them meat or is the caveman diet the way to go? Your good friend and neighbour thinks Gwyneth Paltrow is right about all this stuff, is she correct?
All of these questions, and a few conspiracy theories, flood Twitter, Facebook and every other social media tool. Celebrities are using “food fear” to promote themselves, their latest book and their latest lifestyle products. It is a deluge of information and misinformation. What should consumers really believe? What should we think about when we are filling our grocery basket?
I would like to boil this down to two words: “hazard” and “risk.”
It is possible that a meteorite will fall on your head (mine too) in the next 10 minutes. This is a hazard. But should this hazard dictate what we do every day? Do we need to retreat to a concrete bunker because of the meteorite threat? Some might say that this is an absurd example, but it is just as real, and more likely, as most of the “food fears” that social media is pumping out every day.
We practically deal with hazards every day. How we deal with them are determined by (a) the likelihood that something will occur, and (b) what can be done to mitigate trouble. The probability of that meteorite hitting either of us on the head is infinitesimally small (but it is not zero). There is almost no risk so we don’t have to change our life. Crossing the street is a hazardous operation, but we can mitigate this by looking both ways for traffic.
The same principles apply to our food. Everything can be a hazard. Drink a lot of water too fast and your electrolyte balance will be upset and you will die. This is a hazard, but not much of a risk because the problem can be easily avoided. Feed a rat nothing but raw potatoes for its entire life and it might develop tumours. This shows a hazard, but it is not a complete assessment of risk and does not mean that we need to stop eating potatoes.
The World Health Organization’s (WHO) International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has assigned the hazard classification “probably carcinogenic to humans” 79 times, including to shift work, hot beverages, and glyphosate. But we need to remember that “hazard” is only one part of the equation. When we assess risk in our daily lives we must also consider probability (or exposure) and the ability to take mitigating action.
It is the job of Heath Canada regulators to look beyond potential hazard (we would all be in bunkers if they did not) and protect Canadians through comprehensive science-based risk assessments of food ingredients, food processing and the inputs farmers use to grow our crops, fruits, and vegetables.
The Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA, part of Health Canada) employs over 350 scientists whose sole purpose is to conduct evaluations of new and existing insecticides, fungicides and herbicides. A product must go through over 200 different health and environmental studies before approval is given for use. The risk, not just the hazards, are fully assessed.
Glyphosate provides a good example of the way we can sort through the difference between information and misinformation. Glyphosate is the world’s most commonly used pesticide, which might explain why it is a common target for those who want to jettison modern agricultural practices. How do consumers decide who to believe, the farmer who says it is safe or the activist who wants it banned?
Recently the PMRA released its re-evaluation of the safety of glyphosate. The work was carried out over seven years and was extensive, including review and incorporation of more than 450 peer-reviewed, published scientific studies.
The PMRA has issued unequivocal findings stating that products containing glyphosate are unlikely to affect your health (when used according to label directions). PMRA went further, explaining that a hazard classification, such as the one issued by IRAC, is not a health risk assessment. The level of human exposure, which determines the actual risk, must also be taken into account.
What’s more, on April 12 the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) released a report on the testing of Canadian food for glyphosate residues. Testing foods for residues is a tool used by the CFIA to detect food safety risks and ensure that the food supply is safe. The CFIA’s report, appropriately titled Safeguarding with Science, reported, “no human health concerns were identified.”
Canadian pesticide registration and food safety regulations are designed to scientifically assess risks to Canadians’ heath. Pesticides are registered for use in Canada only if the level of exposure to Canadians does not cause any harmful effects, including cancer. The work done by Health Canada helps us sort through the conflicting “facts” coming at us from all sides.
Cam Dahl is executive director of Cereals Canada.