Pesticides and Pumpkinheads

Commentary, Agriculture, Rolf Penner

It’s that time of year again. Witches cackle maniacally from unseen places, vampires flash their spectacular eye-teeth and every unwholesome creature sprung from the imagination of man slithers and stalks through the darkness..

Joining in this year’s festival of fear is Canada’s own Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, Johanne Galinas. On Oct. 7 she not only tabled her annual report, but also issued a news release with the unsettling title “Pesticide Safety in Question”. This was followed by interviews across the country and a piece in the Oct. 8 Globe and Mail, “Pesticides: a Grave Oversight”. A cartoon of the Grim Reaper stretching his bony hand across a Canadian lawn ran with the article to reinforce the message that Death lurks just outside our front doors..

The Commissioner is a creature of the federal government; her unit works out of the Office of the Auditor General. Their job is to hold the government accountable for the “greening” of its policies and to provide objective, independent analysis and advice..

Though you would never know it from listening to her, the Commissioner’s responsibilities do not actually include conducting risk analyses or assessments of pesticides. She admits as much near the end of the current report: “Rather than address the science behind the evaluations of pesticides, we focused on the management context of the evaluations.”

The Commissioner’s report’s most controversial target is a branch of Health Canada, the Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA), which evaluates the tests that ultimately determine if pesticides are safe to use..

PMRA spokesman Chris Krepski has responded to Ms. Galinas criticism: “Essentially, the report is saying we are bad bureaucrats. Auditors follow paper trails, but it seems ours is not being done to the Commissioner’s satisfaction. However, that in no way suggests the pesticides registered for use in Canada haven’t been evaluated scientifically for risk to human health and the environment. They most certainly have. The pesticides on the shelves today are safe as long as label instructions are followed.

Croplife Canada President Lorne Hepworth has called Commissioner Galinas’ comments “irresponsible” and cited the extensive tests all pest control products undergo before they are even submitted to Health Canada’s assessment and registration process. “It takes an average of 10 years, up to 160 tests and roughly $300 million to bring a pest control product from laboratory to market. Testing is done not only for human toxicity, but also for any negative impact that might occur on fish, birds, earthworms, bees, ducks, etc., all to protect human health and the environment.”

Krepski concurs: “Before we even begin an evaluation on a pesticide we have a screening process to ensure that all the relevant data are available to make a proper assessment. For a chemical used in food production to get through that initial screening we need to see at least 20,000 pages of information for every new active ingredient. If we don’t see that amount of data, an evaluation will not start.”

One of the Commissioner’s key concerns was the issuing of provisional registrations despite a lack of information regarding their impact on children’s central nervous systems. Krepski counters this claim: “No product receives temporary registration unless the risk assessments have been done and the product has passed. We may require small amounts of data for, say, field trials to verify the efficacy of a product before we are willing to grant it full registration. But safety of all human health, including pregnant women, children, seniors and the environment is the first and highest priority for us the same as it is in the U.S. and in Europe.”

While researching this subject, I was struck by how easily the Commissioner has been able to limit debate. On one hand she wants to know if pesticides are safe, but on the other she has made a point of ignoring those who attempt to answer her questions.

Avoiding facts like a vampire balked by garlic, the Commissioner dismisses them as irrelevant if they are not presented by (what she regards as) properly authorized personnel in the exact format she has prescribed. Her most damning evidence comes solely from PMRA’s more relaxed attitude towards dotting its i’s and crossing its t’s – not its effectiveness at evaluation and regulation.

Commissioner Galinas’ interviews indicate that objectivity has been replaced by anti-pesticide bias. As a result, she is now proving more effective than the radical environmentalists in scaring the pants off the public. Happy Halloween.