Canadian regulatory framework under scrutiny as glyphosate hearings near close

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WATCH: Four days of hearings on glyphosate spraying in New Brunswick wrapped up Friday in Fredericton. That day focused on conflicting definitions of whether the product should be considered “safe for use.” Silas Brown has more on what happened. – Jun 25, 2021

Over four days of hearings on pesticide spraying in New Brunswick, many arguments for and against the use of glyphosate have hinged on what exactly safe for use means in a regulatory context.

In 2017, after reexamining the use of the controversial herbicide, Health Canada upheld it’s classification of safe for use.

On Friday, the Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) of Health Canada appeared to define what that means.

“Our regulatory decisions are based on the review of hundreds and sometimes thousands of regulatory studies,” said Peter Brander, the executive director of the PMRA.

“These studies are used to decide whether or not a pesticide poses unacceptable health or environmental risks. If the risks are found to be acceptable the pesticide is safe for use.”

That Health Canada classification has been cited by almost every group in support of continued glyphosate usage that appeared over the course of the week’s hearings. On the other hand, those opposed to the use of glyphosate have cited the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer’s classification of the herbicide as a probable carcinogen.

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According to Brander, that classification is much different than the safe for use determination made by the PMRA which is based on a product meeting the an acceptable level of risk when used following label directions.

“That only considers the hazardous properties of a substance and does not take into account the likelihood of exposure to the substance, therefore the real world context is completely missing,” Brander said.

But the PMRA and Health Canada have been criticized by some presenters throughout the week. On Thursday, Rod Cumberland, a deer biologist and anti-glyphosate activist, said that the PMRA didn’t review the right studies when reviewing glyphosate in 2017.

Legislators who sit on the committee for climate change and environmental stewardship, who will ultimately be responsible for making recommendations to the legislature, are also split on how much stock to put in the safe for use classification of the PMRA.

“Who else do we trust? They have the knowledge, they have the scientists,” said Liberal environment critic Francine Landry.

Green leader David Coon called the acceptable risk burden “not comprehensive enough.” He says the agency has failed to take into account long-term studies that show potential impacts in third generation of children in laboratory rats, similar to the ways in which DDT has impacted humans.

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Read more: New Brunswick hearings on glyphosate spraying begin

Coon also raised concerns over industry’s access to the agency for lobbying purposes, noting that J.D. Irving owner James Irving, one of the largest users of glyphosate in the province, had met with the agency earlier this year. Brander confirmed that Irving had spoken to him about his spraying practices in the province in what he called a “general conversation.”

When it comes to glyphosate, Coon says he would prefer a precautionary approach, based on past experiences with pesticides like DDT.

“The experience time after time after time is taht pesticides get approved based on the information submitted by the companies that manufactured them and then over time, over decades, independent scientific research starts to mount up where it reaches the bar where that says well we cant continue to use these any longer because of the various health and environmental problems, but the damage has been done,” Coon said.

“Up until that decision point, they were considered safe. And that’s the problem with the regulatory process right there.”

Natural resources and energy minister Mike Holland says he feels there can be a double standard when it comes to trusting information from Health Canada. He said those who raise issues with the agency’s glyphosate approval don’t raise the same concerns with the Canada Food Guide or the approval of vaccines during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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“Personally, I have to trust Health Canada. They’re an overarching organization, if we can’t put faith in that organization as a country than we have some issues,” Holland said.

The committee won’t meet again to tackle the glyphosate issue until September 7, when Indigenous organizations will be invited to present. That comes after chair Jake Stewart proposed seeking Indigenous input after a presentation from Steve Ginnish, the forester for Mi’gmawe’l Tplu’taqnn Inc., who raised concerns over the lack of consultation on forest management with Indigenous groups.

After that, the committee will be responsible for presenting a report and recommendations to the legislative assembly.

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