Farms and forests across Canada could soon be sprayed with pesticides or planted with GMO (genetically modified organism) seeds that haven't been evaluated for safety by the country's regulatory agencies.
A new private member’s bill proposes to allow Canada's Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) to "provisionally" approve new pesticides, seeds and animal feeds that are legal in two or more other "trusted" jurisdictions. These jurisdictions are yet to be determined and could be countries or "subdivisions" of countries, such as individual U.S. states.
The bill aims to help farmers buy technologies used in other countries in a "more timely manner," explained the bill's sponsor, Liberal MP Kody Blois, when he presented it to Parliament last month.
In its current form, the bill is unlikely to become law, but environmentalists are warning that a cohort of MPs backed by Canada's Big Ag lobby are leading a backdoor campaign to have its core tenets included in the 2024 budget. Blois' office did not respond to several requests for comment.
Currently, new products like pesticides or GMO seeds in Canada are reviewed by the PMRA or CFIA for safety and environmental risks before being approved for sale. Only after this review is complete — a process that can take years — can the product be sold and used in Canada.
If passed, the bill would require government officials to give pesticide and agricultural companies a "provisional" registration within three months if the chemical is approved in other countries like the U.S. This provisional registration will be considered valid indefinitely unless the government fully registers the product or the company decides to pull it from shelves.
"I couldn't believe it when I read it. I thought I was hallucinating," said Ecojustice lawyer and pesticide expert Laura Bowman. "It's beyond reckless."
The bill risks forcing the federal government to approve products dangerous to the environment or human health without consulting or even obtaining data about their risks, potentially including banned pesticides like DDT, she said. These data are typically provided by companies and reviewed by officials as part of the registration process.
The new rules risk exacerbating problems with Canada's existing regulatory system, which is already among the most permissive of toxic pesticides on the planet and is plagued with transparency problems. In the last year alone, two Canada's National Observer investigations revealed the PMRA downplayed to Canadians the health dangers of two pesticides that harm the endocrine system, cause cancer and birth defects and pose severe health risks to fetuses.
Farms and forests across Canada could soon be sprayed with pesticides or planted with seeds from genetically modified organisms that haven't been evaluated for safety by the country's regulatory agencies.
Without this requirement, there is no longer an incentive for the companies to provide the data, leaving officials "in complete darkness" about potential risks from their products. And once a product is approved, it takes a "herculean effort" to get it banned again. That is because the onus falls on federal officials to prove how new evidence about its risks justifies implementing a ban, Bowman said.
Those dangers risk being compounded by how the products might be used here, which could differ from their use in other countries. For example, under the bill, a product approved in the U.S. primarily for citrus fruit could be granted provisional approval in Canada but be used here with different application techniques on a completely different crop.
Bowman explained those changes risk causing environmental damage or health threats in Canada that were overlooked in the other country's risk assessment.
The bill harkens back to an earlier "conditional registration" provision in Canada's pesticide laws that let the PMRA "conditionally" approve pesticides for five years without undergoing a full health and environmental safety review. A 2015 report by the federal auditor general lambasted the agency for failing to review the chemicals within five years and simply renewing the conditional registration instead.
Facing criticism, the then-Health Minister Jane Philpott ended the practice in 2016.
"This is a very worrying procedure," said Friends of the Earth CEO Beatrice Olivastri in an email. It is "very peculiar" for a bill to attempt to modify public health and environmental laws without formal consultations, giving her the impression it is "an end run on due process/democracy."
Her concerns are shared by the National Farmers Union’s director of research and policy Cathy Holtslander. The bill "basically hands over the regulation of seeds and pesticides to other countries," giving them control over "really important parts" of Canada's food system.
This is beneficial to the world's largest agribusinesses, which exert even more influence over regulations in the U.S. and other countries than in Canada, she said. With only six firms controlling 78 per cent of the world's agrochemical market in 2020, and two controlling nearly half the patented seeds, those companies already have tremendous influence over Canada's regulators.
This bill would only make the problem worse, potentially forcing Canada to accept other countries' lower health and environmental risk thresholds. Canada's regulatory agencies are a safeguard meant to protect Canadians' health, ecosystems and economic interests; "sidestepping" them to blindly approve pesticides used in other countries "is not democratic," she said.
Helping ease trade costs for those corporations and other agribusinesses is the driving force behind the bill, Bowman added. The U.S. in particular is more lenient with its pesticide rules than Canada, putting Canadian farmers, especially the ones operating at an industrial scale, at a competitive disadvantage compared to their American counterparts.
Big Ag's support for the bill is evident among the groups that have endorsed it. Canada's leading agrochemical lobby group, CropLife Canada, has praised C-359 on social media but declined an interview with Canada's National Observer about the bill.
In a Tuesday interview with Canada's National Observer, Canadian Federation of Agriculture president Keith Currie said the farm organization will give Blois "all the support he needs" to make the bill become law. The group has been lobbying "for years" to help farmers more quickly access pesticides, seeds and other technologies approved internationally but not in Canada.
His group sees C-359 as a way to "expedite this process" while ensuring that "if there are any red flags along the way," Canada's regulators can still do their "due diligence" and evaluate the products' health and environmental risks.
As it is currently written, Bill C-359 would require the government to approve new feeds, seeds or pesticides used in two or more so-called "trusted" jurisdictions within 90 days unless the product is found to violate Canadian laws. But that three-month window to review the product is too short to properly assess the risks because most full health and environmental reviews take years to complete, Holtslander said.
Bowman concurred, noting the measures as written inspire little confidence Canada's regulators will be able to adequately protect Canadians from new, potentially dangerous chemicals.
"It has got a recklessness to it that is just staggering," she said.