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Editorial: Meeting in the middle

Health Canada has delivered some reassuring news for people worried about glyphosate in their food and the environment in the wake of some of the controversial reports and court rulings last year.

The much-publicized jury ruling in favour of a California plaintiff claiming long-term exposure to the weed killer caused his cancer, has touched off a storm of conjecture about what is arguably the most heavily used herbicide in modern agriculture.

Health Canada had conducted a regular review of data pertaining to the herbicide in 2017, concluding that it did not pose undue risk. It reopened the file last year in light of the stir created by the courts’ consideration of the so-called “Monsanto papers,” which reportedly document how the company underhandedly tried to influence regulators and public opinion.

As well, eight individuals or groups protested the 2017 ruling, arguing that federal scientists with the department’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) either didn’t look at the right data or didn’t give appropriate weight to the concerns that were raised.

“Health Canada scientists reviewed the information provided in these notices, and assessed the validity of any studies in question, to determine whether any of the issues raised would influence the results of the assessment and the associated regulatory decision,” it said in a statement issued Jan. 11.

Health Canada says it reviewed publicly available data as well as data from manufacturers. It used 20 of its own scientists who were not involved in the 2017 re-evaluation of the product to carry out this latest review. It also reviewed the scientific reports referred to in the so-called “Monsanto papers.”

“After a thorough scientific review, we have concluded that the concerns raised by the objectors could not be scientifically supported when considering the entire body of relevant data,” it says, noting no pesticide regulatory agency in the world currently considers glyphosate a cancer risk.

That doesn’t mean we start adding a shot of it to our morning orange juice. Nor does it preclude new data in the context of changing use patterns from future assessments making a different call. As with all scientific assessments, the conclusions you reach depend on the questions you ask.

The decision by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in 2015 that glyphosate is a “probable carcinogen” (in a category that also includes wood smoke and processed red meat) has created an aura around the herbicide that has been hard for manufacturers and farmers who rely on the herbicide to shake.

The California ruling is just one of more than 9,000 lawsuits making similar claims before the courts. And just this week, a French tribunal ruled that country’s regulatory agency failed to properly weigh the risks posed by a newly introduced formulation of the product. Its approval was immediately revoked while the case is appealed. The fear is, the ban could be applied to all glyphosate products in that country.

So given all this, why should we believe the Pest Management Regulatory Agency assurances that things are OK, really?

There are a few reasons. For one, the PMRA falls under Health Canada’s mandate, not Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s (AAFC), which is where some in the agricultural community would like it to live.

AAFC’s mandate is to promote the agricultural industry and support this country’s bid to be a global food exporter. Health Canada’s mandate is to protect and promote the health of Canadians.

Secondly, while farm groups and industry applauded the results of this latest assessment, the groups and individuals who appealed the 2017 decision are up in arms.

However, farmers and the industry weren’t so happy with the agency a few months ago when it proposed a ban on the commonly used neonicotinoid pesticides because of their risk to aquatic insects. Environmental lobbyists were celebrating that time.

If you are in the regulatory business — or the reporting business, for that matter — and you can manage to get both sides mad at you within the space of a year, you are probably doing your job.

Farmers don’t usually see it this way but sometimes regulation is an industry’s best friend.

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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