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Cancer, pesticides and posturing

If you went to Toronto expecting to get a clear, unequivocal answer on the issue of whether pesticides used in agricultural production can be linked to cancer, you might as well have saved yourself the disappointment and gone to the Royal Winter Fair instead.

As tempting as that was, it was a worthwhile exercise sitting through the two days of technical presentations – if only to observe the antics detracting from what was ostensibly a scientific discussion.

We all can agree that cancer is a bad thing. It will leave a painful mark on most of us at some point in our lives either through a personal experience of that of a loved one.

Where cancer gets controversial is when we start talking cause and prevention, as was the case at the meeting sponsored by the Canadian Cancer Society, entitled “Exploring the Connection: A State of the Science Conference on Pesticides and Cancer.”

Even asking such a question was enough to throw CropLife Canada and much of the farming community into a flap. Manufacturers have successfully convinced themselves and farmers that the snowballing bans on cosmetic pesticide use in Canada (at last count 145 municipal bylaws and three provincial ones) mean farm chemicals are next.

The pre-conference posturing made it clear ag industry saw this as a thinly veiled attack on farmers’ livelihoods – not to mention the take from billions of product sold annually in the name of crop protection.

“Frankly, we’re disappointed the cancer society didn’t assemble a more balanced program,” grumbled Richard Phillips of Grain Growers of Canada in the weeks leading up to the conference. “They only invited CFA (Canadian Federation of Agriculture.)” CropLife Canada lobbied for a spot on the agenda too, but was turned down.

In hindsight, these groups should be grateful.

Why? Because CropLife Canada is a lobby group. Because Grain Growers of Canada and all the other farm lobby groups that wanted an opportunity to trek up to the podium defending farmers’ right to spray ran the risk of doing collateral damage under the heading of “they doth protest too much.”

Even if it is right, a vested interest taints the message. CropLife has for years been citing some of the same information that was presented at this conference: the foods Canadians eat are virtually residue free, the products in use today have been rigorously assessed before commercial release. The handling and application technology has advanced to the point where applicators can virtually avoid any contact with the products they spray. The products themselves have lower toxicity and are more targeted.

But recent polling commissioned by the Canadian Cancer Society shows Canadians are more concerned than ever about pesticide residues. Sixty per cent said they worry about it, and 55 per cent said they don’t have enough information to make informed choices about the food they buy.

CropLife Canada president Lorne Hepworth even takes issue with the society’s decision to poll Canadians on their views. “That’s more like the activity a lobbyist, it’s more like something we would do,” he said.

“If we start making public policy based on perceived risk and polling risks and which way the wind is blowing as opposed to real risks, then you get a misappropriation of human and financial resources, misappropriation of health expertise and minimual risk compared to what the real risks are,” he said.

Maybe so. But the Canadian Cancer Society has yet to take a public position on pesticides used in agricultural production, even though it has been under significant pressure to do so. All the more reason to find out what the public thinks.

The two are very different issues. If that wasn’t clear to the public before last week’s event, it is so now. The conference was a balanced presentation of all perspectives.

The murky truth is there are questions that may never be answered and red flags that may never be lowered. As a society, we know there are many things about our lifestyles that are linked to a higher incidence of certain cancers, but clear evidence that any or all of those factors actually cause cancer remains nebulous. Hence the 70-year debate over the now widely accepted linkage between smoking and cancer.

So it is unlikely governments will step back from their stringent regulatory oversight of the pesticide industry. However, eliminating crop protection products in the absence of a clear commitment by society to develop viable alternatives would not only throw producers into a tailspin, it would make nutritious food less accessible for the general population.

What the more than 200 participants from coast to coast at this conference heard from independent experts will do more to address the worries non-farmers have about the safety of their food than anything pesticide and farm lobbyists could have said at the podium. [email protected]

About the author

Vice-President of Content

Laura Rance

Laura Rance is vice-president of content for Glacier FarmMedia. She can be reached at [email protected]

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