Higher concentrations of controversial herbicide glyphosate may soon be on your plate: here's why
MONTREAL -- UPDATE: On July 20, Health Canada announced that the consultation period has been extended by 45 days. Read more here.
Canadians have until Tuesday to comment on the federal government’s proposal to increase the amount of glyphosate herbicide residue allowed on legumes, according to Health Canada’s website.
Glyphosate, commonly sold under the brand name Roundup, is sometimes sprayed on crops in order to accelerate their harvest; by killing the crop, glysophate causes grains and legumes to dry out more quickly. The practice is increasingly common in provinces such as Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
Glyphosate is also used to kill weeds in crops containing corn and soy, which are bred for resistance to the substance, meaning they stay alive while surrounding plant matter perishes.
But the herbicide may be linked to cancer and environmental harm — although the extent of these risks is inconclusive.
Under the proposed change in regulations, traces of glyphosate residue on food may be up to three times higher than the current maximum allows, depending on the food.
Beans will go up from a tolerance of four to 16, and lentils from four to ten.
If Health Canada’s proposal goes through, Canada will allow higher concentrations of glyphosate residue in food in comparison to the U.S., as well as in comparison to the international standard — although that too will soon be increasing. The international standard, outlined by the United Nations, was developed to facilitate the import and export of food between countries.
MUDDY REGULATORY SCIENCE
The health risks of glyphosate have long been up for debate.
In 2015, an assessment from the International Agency for Research on Cancer found that glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic to humans,” but this conclusion was swiftly contradicted by later studies.
But some of said studies were called into question after it was revealed that Monsanto, the manufacturer of Roundup, reviewed some of the findings before publication, even editing some of the passages. Monsanto has also been accused of ghostwriting the studies, although it denies these allegations.
Some of these studies were used in the Canadian government’s 2017 re-evaluation of glyphosate use in the country, in which Health Canada concluded that the herbicide is safe for use. In light of recent revelations about Monsanto, however, the decision was met by controversy.
“There have […] been concerns raised publicly about the validity of some of the science around glyphosate in what is being referred to as the Monsanto Papers,” reads a 2019 statement on the Health Canada website.
In response to this pushback, Health Canada re-examined the validity of their data, stating, “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. The objections raised did not create doubt or concern regarding the scientific basis for the 2017 re-evaluation decision for glyphosate. Therefore, the Department’s final decision will stand.”
While herbicides such as glyphosate may or may not come with health risks, they do have some ecological advantages.
Herbicides are frequently considered less-destructive alternatives to tilling, or “turning the earth,” which breaks up compacted soil and pulls weeds in preparation for new growth. This can cause soil degradation as a result, destroying the microbiome and consequently impairing the earth’s ability to fertilize itself.
Glyphosate appears to be gentler on the soil, eliminating weeds chemically rather than physically. But many argue it isn’t exactly a “green” product, either — traces of the substance have been detectable in both aquatic and terrestrial environments, and may have all kinds of understudied effects on the ecosystem.
"We always want to be looking at the entire biodiversity that is in the ecosystem, not just shortsighted on what you're trying to grow and increase your yield on," says Tia Loftsgard, Executive Director of the Canada Organic Trade Association. "To really be truly regenerative, you need to be thinking of soil health, you need to be thinking of carbon sequestration, you need to be thinking of pollinators and all the other beneficial plant life that happens around farming and farmland."
To comment on the federal government’s proposal to increase the amount of glyphosate herbicide residue allowed on foods, Canadians should consult the Health Canada website before Tuesday.
"Health Canada will make the results of this consultation available on its website, as well as the decision on glyphosate as soon as it is finalized," Health Canada told CTV.
A previous version of this story said that the proposed maximum residue levels (MRLs) for glyphosate in Canada are higher than those currently outlined by the international standard. Although this remains the case, the international standard will also be increasing, Health Canada has informed CTV.
The original report also said that the MRLs for glyphosate were increasing in wheat, barley and oats. Health Canada has since clarified that MRLs are not changing for these foods — rather, the government is changing the terminology for wheat, barley and oat by-products, which is why these foods were included in the consultation.
The original report also implied that glyphosate use would increase among Canadian farmers, but Health Canada says this is not expected to happen, as farmers must follow label instructions for glyphosate products. However, Health Canada did not answer our question regarding whether said label instructions can change if the proposal goes through.
The article has been adjusted in accordance with the above changes.