Canada must start having 'mature' conversations about reducing glyphosate and other pesticide use after revelations that the country's agriculture department downplayed warnings about the controversial chemical, advocates say.

Last week, Canada's National Observer revealed David Cox, a former deputy director at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, had last year raised "red flags" about the federal government's failure to assess health risks posed by the controversial herbicide glyphosate, a key ingredient in Roundup, before leaving the ministry. The trove of emails were obtained through an access to information request.

Glyphosate-based herbicides are by far Canada's most widely-used pesticide, with over 50 million kilograms of the chemical sold in Canada in 2020. Farmers use it to kill weeds, and it is sprayed across forest cut blocks in most provinces except Quebec to kill deciduous trees. A recent Health Canada study found that the average Canadian has some amount of glyphosate in their urine.

Researchers have found the chemical, which is both a pesticide and herbicide, can cause cancer, is toxic to the nervous system and harms animals' gut bacteria. Glyphosate is considered to be potentially carcinogenic by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, and can harm male fertility.

“Our regulatory systems are supposed to take into account new evidence and adjust regulatory decisions, if needed, as new evidence comes up,” said Lisa Gue, national policy manager for the David Suzuki Foundation. The trove of documents seem to imply a “very concerning institutional culture that is more interested with defending the status quo than taking an impartial public interest view of emerging science,” she said.

Canada's Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) re-approved the use of glyphosate in 2017, despite pressure from health and environmental groups to restrict or ban the chemical. In the years since, hundreds of scientific studies have emerged that suggest the chemical poses a more serious health risk at lower doses than previously thought.

In a statement, the PMRA said that "to the best of our knowledge, PMRA officials have not been approached by Mr. Cox to discuss his concerns."

The agency's 2017 re-evaluation of glyphosate was based on "a review of the available data, which included published scientific literature, industry supplied studies and information from other regulatory authorities… Since completion of the re-evaluation in 2017, Health Canada has continued to monitor the scientific literature as well as information from international scientific organizations and/or regulatory authorities," it noted.

Critics suggest this could mean Canada's existing risk mitigation rules aren't strong enough to protect public health and should be reviewed in light of new science. Faced with reticence from the PMRA to initiate this type of review, a coalition of environmental groups sued the agency in 2022 for failing to review new research about the chemical's harmful impact before approving a glyphosate-based pesticide.

Critics say that politicians have shown "great reticence" to reopen discussions on the controversial pesticide #glyphosate, which is a key component of Roundup.

The same year, the Federal Court of Appeal ruled in a separate case the PMRA failed to properly justify its 2017 decision to re-approve glyphosate.

Gue noted the pesticide's health impacts aren't the only concern. In 2022, Canada joined a global biodiversity pledge calling for a drastic reduction in the risk to biodiversity posed by pesticides — including glyphosate. Part of meeting that target requires farmers to use fewer pesticides, mitigating the threat they pose to ecosystems. That shift has the additional benefit of reducing costs for farmers, she said.

"AAFC should be taking this new science [on glyphosate] seriously and moving to be at the forefront of research and practical support for alternatives," she said.

Her concerns echoed those raised by Cox in the trove of emails. Roughly 90 per cent of Canadian fields are contaminated with glyphosate, he noted. If the E.U. or other countries decide to implement more stringent rules for the pesticide on food imports, thousands of farmers with contaminated fields could be unable to export their produce — and the federal government would need to bail them out, he warned.

Cassie Barker, the toxics program manager for Environmental Defence, agreed. Canada's current sustainable farming strategy "does not read as serious" in terms of transitioning farmers away from the pesticide, she said. Cox's rare display of internal pushback is vital, she said, because Canada needs to wean itself off the chemical, reducing the risk it poses to human health and the environment.

"I'm glad to hear it," she said.

For her part, Gue said Canada needs to have "some courage" and undertake the process of reducing pesticide risk — likely by reducing their use. Farmers need "proper support" to achieve this, she said — but so far, politicians have been reluctant to have a "mature" conversation about the problem.

"There can be great reticence on the part of all politicians to suggest any type of conflict with agricultural interests," she said.

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Glyphosate, or rather more complex herbicides with glyphosate as one component, are used for something else, too, something even more worrisome. So, apparently wheat reacts to imminent death, such as by some chemical shock, by trying to get its seed out there right away before it dies. That is, it insta-ripens, if it's fairly close. My understanding is that farmers avoid the possibility of losing their crops to bad weather by hitting the wheat with roundup so it will insta-ripen, giving us food that got dosed just before it was harvested. Yum!

Amen. Apparently the glyphosate formulations still take several days to weeks to work, during which the entire plant absorbs the substance. Glyphosate was considered to be GRAS (generally regarded as safe) for human consumption, because it affects a metabolic cycle in plants named the shikimate pathway, absent in animals. What wasn't considered is that the gut bacteria of humans and other animals *do* have a shikimate pathway ... and at this point it's pretty clear that when gut bacteria populations (the "gut biome") is lacking or deficient in specific varieties, many illnesses follow, from nutrient malabsorption to mood disorders, learning disabilities, various metabolic disorders (including some kinds of obesity) and likely even dementia.
Glyphosate itself (among other pesticides and herbicides) causes Multiple Chemical Sensitivity in potentially over 30% of the populace.
It's nothing to sneeze at (though it can also cause allergies) ...
The studies on pure glyphosate are riddled with bad or even cynical science: designing studies so short they don't show long-term effects, or even cutting studies short when the test subjects develop tumors ... even re-writing the test design after the fact.
And then, as Rufus mentioned, there are the "adjuvants" to consider, each with their own toxicity profile, and few if any studies as to the interaction of those ingredients, much less their breakdown products. On top of the adjuvants (used to boost the effectiveness of the main ingredient) there are the so-called "inert" excipients, which are not chemically inert even by themselves, much less in combination with other substances.
Glyphosate, RoundUp and other herbicides developed around the world after Monsanto's original patent expired, are used not only on grain (Including millet & rice), pulse (beans, lentils, soy) and seed (flax, mustard, canola, sunflower, etc.) (e.g. canola, sunflower), but also potatoes.
One wonders if it's the dessicants that have led some people to do better, healthwise, if they eschew grains.
The purpose seems to be to be able to set harvest schedules in advance, and to at the same time kill weeds at harvest time, rather than in spring -- allowing earlier planting. That's also at the expense of soil micro-organisms.
Glyphosate has a "relatively" short half-life in soil, compared to other herbicides, but as it is taken up by the whole plant, the soil is effectively "re-dosed" as the dried plant residue left on the field breaks down over time. If crops are rotated, it could affect whatever else the planter grows, as well. And of course, it affects animals' gut biomes if it's used as forage. But as a society, we don't seem to care much about farmed animals, either. Clearly we don't care as much about people and their health as much as we care about GDP numbers.
"Going organic" would seem to be worth the extra cost, if a budget will bear it: however, even organic crops can use glyphosate as a dessicant, and maintain its "organic" status. That's after all manner of refuse (including domestic and industrial "sludge") can be used as an "organic" soil amendment.
"Foul!!!" I cry: "Foul!!"
And it's not only staple crops that are continually degraded in the name of higher profits. Varieties are bred with vastly inferior nutritional content, because the developers weren't asked to maintain nutrient values: only that whole fields should ripen at once, and be able to withstand jostling and bumping during harvesting and shipment, then to have a long shelf-life. So now we have fruits hard as rocks that rot from the inside before they ripen, and fruits and berries that are "tart" rather than sweet. Remember when bartlett pears were tender, sweet and juicy? No? Hope you like crunchy, sour ones. I don't. By now there's an entire generation of kids who think that's how pears *are*!
Some European countries don't use glyphosate at all, and in Canada, we use it more than the US does, ostensibly because of our shorter growing season. Never mind that we get more hours of sun per day.

Hello F Norvie,
Just a point of clarification on one of your comments. Glyphosate is definitely NOT allowed in organic production. Neither is sewage sludge. See wording from the Organic production systems
General principles and management standards document:

1.5 Prohibited substances in organic production and preparation
In addition to Clause 1.4, when producing or preparing organic products, the following substances are prohibited since they are incompatible with the general principles of organic production:
a) soil amendments, such as fertilizer or composted plant and animal material, that contain a substance not listed in CAN/CGSB-32.311;
b) sewage sludge;
c) any crop production aids or substances not listed in CAN/CGSB-32.311;

(CAN/CGSB-32.311 is the permitted substance list for organic production in Canada.)