The battle to ban glyphosate, Canada's most widely used pesticide, has made it to Parliament.

On Tuesday, Liberal MP Jenica Atwin tabled a petition signed by 18,385 people and environmental organizations calling for a ban on the common pesticide. She also asked the auditor general to evaluate what the government is doing to reduce pesticide use, which Canada pledged to do at the COP15 biodiversity conference last December.

Glyphosate is used in farming to control weeds and by foresters to limit the growth of lower-value deciduous trees. In 2015, the World Health Organization classified the chemical as "probably carcinogenic to humans." However, University of Guelph researcher Gregory Perry cautionned the assessment looks at whether the chemical could theoretically be linked to cancer; it does not evaluate the risk specific quantities of the chemical pose to humans, he said, meaning that if used within regulatory guidelines it can be safe. The chemical is also known to harm biodiversity.

"There is an alarming and growing body of independent scientific research proving glyphosate's harm to humans and all other life (that) Canada's regulator, the Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA), is ignoring," said filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal, who co-led the petitions with Atwin and recently released a CBC documentary about the pesticide.

Glyphosate has become increasingly common in recent years, driving a roughly 30 per cent increase in pesticide sales in Canada over the past decade. Estimates by cancer research group CAREX Canada found that roughly two million people in Canada — about six per cent of the population — live in areas with high concentrations of the chemical.

In 2017, the federal government reapproved the use of glyphosate until at least 2032, even as some European countries like Germany have plans to ban it or severely restrict its use. Despite these international concerns, in early 2021, federal officials proposed to increase how much glyphosate residue was allowed on commodities like lentils, peas and beans. Officials put these plans on hold following public outcry but have not indicated they will permanently reverse course.

A spokesperson for Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said in a statement that the government "ensure(s) that pesticides used in Canada are safe for human health, wildlife and the environment. All pesticides must undergo rigorous scientific review before being approved for sale in Canada, and they are regularly reviewed to ensure they continue to meet health and safety standards.”

Critics say Canada's departure from the more stringent glyphosate regulations developed by many of its European peers highlights the country's failure to help farmers and foresters reduce how much pesticide, including glyphosate, they use.

"The big issue is how are we going to have all-of-government support?" said Friends of the Earth Canada CEO Beatrice Olivastri. "We can't just ban pesticides and not do something different (to) support farmers."

The battle to ban glyphosate, Canada's most widely used pesticide, has made it to Parliament.

Glyphosate is not the only pesticide environmental and health advocates say federal officials should be regulating more tightly, with many emphasizing systemic issues within the PMRA, the agency responsible for these rules. For instance, a January investigation by Canada's National Observer found the agency had downplayed its own research into the health risks of chlorpyrifos, a once-common pesticide it decided to phase out in 2021.

Olivastri would like to see the government overhaul its rules to reduce pesticide use while helping farmers stay afloat and protecting biodiversity. Canada joined dozens of countries last year when it pledged at the COP15 conference to curb its pesticide use by half by 2030.

Baichwal echoed many of these concerns in the petition she filed this week with the auditor general. The document, which remains under review, lists several questions for the ministers of environment, health, agriculture and natural resources about Canada's continued support for glyphosate and their plans to overhaul the regulatory system for Canada's pesticides.

Updates and corrections

| Corrections policy
May 11, 2023, 02:15 pm

Editor's note: This story was updated to more accurately reflect the World Health Organization's assessment glyphosate could be linked to cancer.

Keep reading

as a 70 year old canadian, it has been sad to watch my faith in Health Canada making regulations on foods, chemicals, consumables slide ever closer to zero from a high of absolute faith in my youth in the 60 s to now , when they clearly are in the pocket of corporations and part of the gaslighting of us all about how safe, clearly unsafe things are!!! yikes. I dont trust the canadian government to govern for the good of citizens. and I dont think Im a conspiracy nut. :(
Until the cancer “fighters” focus on regulations to get carcinogens out of our food, water, air, products, I wont give them money, but support environmental defence groups instead, to fight the corps and government in court.
FIRST DO NO HARM. seems to have been wiped out of mind of our governors

The statement from the minister's office:

"ensure(s) that pesticides used in Canada are safe for human health, wildlife and the environment",

is sadly risible. As time goes by -- and as another comment points out -- it becomes increasingly apparent to me that the various departments in our national gov't -- with rare exception (say, recent DFO actions vis-a-vis west coast fish farms) --consistently prioritize status quo actors' corporate profits at the expense of "human health, wildlife and the environment" while discounting the future value of ecosystems and future quality of life of all species.

Or so it seems.

I'm happy to see it was Jenica Atwin who tabled the petition. We'll see where it goes from here.

One problem is that it's very hard to have pesticides that are safe for "human health, wildlife and the environment". The bottom line is, you have this stuff that's supposed to kill insects, and insects are part of "wildlife and the environment", so, like, if it works as intended . . . Same goes for herbicides killing plants.

You might think the human front would be better--there are all these pesticides that target particular chemical pathways that are important to bugs but not people. But I dunno, it never seems to work out. I think bottom line is that the stuff is going to be chemically active some way, and just because it's only SUPPOSED to be hitting this particular insect chemistry thing doesn't mean that's all it's ever going to do, and human chemistry is complicated so with any given chemical that does something active, there's bound to be SOMETHING happening in humans that it will disrupt.

But doing agriculture without poison bug and plant killing stuff is complicated and more labour intensive. Do it right and it can be very productive, but since it's complicated . . . meanwhile, capitalism seems to like things simple. Cookie cutter housing developments where you don't have to do designs every time but just cut and paste the same model over and over, huge farms all using the same turnkey monocrop system, stuff like that. So it's a hard problem, especially under our current economic model.

Corporations have matched seed, fertilizers, pesticides, equipment, and farming techniques together. Their scientists have a holistic approach. It can include GMOs. They protect much of the IP legally through patents and other measures. Farmers face difficulties changing one element, as this often involves changing many other aspects, and can be quite costly. Some where along the line they also often run into legal protections of corporations. Farmers are behind the "eight ball" on this one. Governments are both stymied and reluctant to make needed changes. Corporate profits prevail. Farmers are "hooked".

I'm in my mid-70s. Probably our "faith in government" back then was misplaced. Several pesticides that were common back then have since been discontinued. Malathion comes to mind, and before that, DDT.
The claims that various chemicals don't act on humans (and other mammals) are mainly nonsense. There is talk about metabolic pathways that don't exist in humans ... and the shikimate pathway by which glyphosate acts, isn't directly part of a human metabolic pathway. However, it disproportionately affects the "good bacteria" in our guts: the "gut biome" that has us taking probiotics with antibiotics.
And that, in turn, affects everything from the nervous system, to hormone production, to nutrient absorption, to the immune system, to ... it's practically a case of "just name it, and there's a good chance you're probably right."
The main problem with glyphosate is probably not even what's absorbed into the growing plant, but its use as a "dessicant" to "dry out" crops to make them ready for harvest.
One of the things it does is to make some important minerals unavailable to be digested and used by the organism consuming the plant stuffs that have absorbed glyphosate.
Health Canada seems to rely on platitudes and lack of research as presented by the chemical companies, rather than finding what other nations have discovered about them. Glyphosate in Canada is the same glyphosate as glyphosate in Europe.
Where glyphosate (as RoundUp) has been restricted, the "chemical companies" have now got approved another pesticide, Dicamba, in which glyphosate is an active ingredient, with another chemical added to boost its "effectiveness."

I don't doubt that the dangers of glyphosate were downplayed and denied by Monsanto, and that the current owner of the brand continues to do so. But I have a problem with calling the chemical a "pesticide" when it's a herbicide. The chemicals have different purposes and conflating them isn't necessarily helpful. While glyphosates may have unintended deleterous effects on the environment, the entire purpose of a pesticide is to poison living creatures, and that can impact ones that are not only not pests but are actually beneficial (pollinators, for example, or birds). Making relevant distinctions between agricultural chemicals should help determine whether one should be completely banned or just more strictly regulated.