Attempts to reduce glyphosate in Argentina a wake-up call
Good science must trump political manoeuvring.
Written by Treena Hein
Active ingredients such as glyphosate are put through extensive and ongoing tests, to ensure maximum safety for users.
Argentina is currently the world’s third largest producer of soybeans, and much of this rise in position came as a result of the advent of Roundup Ready technology. However, governments at several levels in that country have taken steps to restrict the use of glyphosate. This is a development the global scientific community, political bodies such as the European Union and major agricultural companies are keeping an eye on. The farming community in Argentina is also concerned; however farmers around the globe, including those in Canada, should take notice, too.
In March 2010, one province in Argentina banned the use of glyphosate within 875 yards of homes. In 2011, a federal bill was introduced to ban the use of glyphosate herbicides within 109 yards of urban areas. This bill is still in play, and some politicians are pushing for a 10-year phase-out of all glyphosate-containing products.
These actions all stem directly from research done by Argentine government scientists, which found that glyphosate causes abnormalities in frog and chicken embryos. In 2009, the researchers had their findings published in newspapers – an unusual move that is always met with suspicion by the scientific community. In mid-2010, they managed to have it published in the Journal of Chemical Research and Toxicology. However, their conclusions, and their methods used to reach them, have been highly criticized.
Before establishing why the research has been criticized, it is prudent to note the latest information on glyphosate research. "Glyphosate and its potential effects have been reviewed and re-reviewed for about 30 years, and it’s been found over and over again to be environmentally benign," says Dr. Keith Solomon, professor emeritus in the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of Guelph. "There are very few pesticides that are safe, yet it’s the most widely used herbicide in the world."
Glyphosate breaks down relatively quickly in soil after application (known as low "persistence"). Solomon notes that the only safety issue a person could have with the substance would be if he or she got the concentrated form in the eye. "But what’s coming out of a sprayer is of a low concentration," he says, "and those mixing and loading a sprayer should be trained, as they are in Ontario, and using eye protection."
Methods used questionable
The global scientific community has taken issue with many aspects of the Argentina experiments, but two stand out, in particular. "The concentration of glyphosate used was grossly excessive," Solomon notes. "It is nine times higher than would be lethal to tadpoles and is about 3000 times greater than the highest value measured in frog habitats in agricultural areas of Ontario."
Secondly, the "mechanism of exposure" was completely unrealistic. That is, glyphosate was injected into the eggs with a syringe, rather than topically applied, and this does not in any way reflect what could happen in the real world. Furthermore, injecting any number of benign substances (such as caffeine) into eggs will result in embryonic abnormalities. Solomon also points out that for risk assessments the World Health Organization does not recognize toxicity studies on pesticides or herbicides where injection is used to treat the animal.
In late 2010, the European Union’s Standing Committee On The Food Chain And Animal Health reviewed the experiments and concluded that they "had been performed under highly artificial conditions, extremely different from what can be expected in agricultural circumstances, and that it is hardly possible to predict adverse effect on mammals on this basis. . . There is a comprehensive and reliable toxicological database for glyphosate and the effects observed have not been revealed in mammalian studies, nor evidenced epidemiologically in humans."
After the study was published, the journal in question received and published a number of letters criticizing the research. In addition to the above points, the letter writers lambasted overall experimental design, description of the method and poor statistical analysis.
The question that remains is an important one: Why is this one study, containing research that was severely criticized by the global scientific community, still forming the basis for proposed federal legislation in Argentina? The answer is complex. It is partly because how science is properly conducted is not easily understood by those without a scientific background. It could also be that the media in Argentina have downplayed or misreported the criticism of this study, or not reported on it at all, leaving politicians and the general public in the dark. There is also conjecture that the proposed legislation is a result of animosity between the president of Argentina (who is politically left-leaning) and the farmers in that country (who are mostly right-leaning).
However, what is happening in Argentina is not unique. In Ontario, cosmetic use of any synthetic pesticide was banned in April 2009. "This was very clearly driven by a coalition of non-profit organizations, some with a focus on the environment and others with a focus on health," says Pierre Petelle, executive director of regulatory affairs at CropLife Canada, the trade association representing the manufacturers, developers and distributors of pest control products and plant biotechnology. "None of these groups is a credible scientific organization and none provided credible scientific references to back the concerns."
Petelle says more evidence that science was ignored is found in the singling out of synthetic pesticides. "The safety of a product has nothing to do with whether it was derived synthetically or naturally, which is further evidence of the political nature of the decision," he says. "The fact that the Ontario government disregarded the thorough scientific assessments of Health Canada not only deprives Ontarians of access to safe and effective tools for protecting their valuable landscapes, it also jeopardizes the potential for Ontario farmers and other commercial users to keep pace with the tools their counterparts in other areas of the world will have access to because Ontario is now seen as a risky place to invest in registration."
Bans on cosmetic use of pesticides have also been enacted in Nova Scotia and on Prince Edward Island.
In May 2011, a NAFTA tribunal announced that Quebec had lost a challenge brought forth by Dow AgroSciences in 2008 over that province’s complete ban of 2,4-D. Dow’s legal team had referred to Health Canada’s findings that 2,4-D can be used safely when label directions are followed, and in the settlement, the Quebec government states that it agrees with these findings. Of the win, CBC reported on its website that Brenda Harris, Dow’s regulatory and government affairs manager, said, "We always believed that there was no basis for their decision: their decision had nothing to do with science."
It is still illegal to employ 2,4-D for cosmetic use.
These are signs that the global agricultural community must pay attention to. All farmers must consider it important to seek opportunities to speak to friends, neighbours and strangers about modern agriculture. "The level of science literacy and awareness of modern-day agricultural practices is very low in the general population," says Trish Jordan, public and industry affairs director with Monsanto Canada. "As a science and technology company, we stand behind our products and their safety and we are always available to share information. But it is even more important that farmers defend their access to these important tools." Jordan adds that farmers have a high level of credibility with consumers, plus they have firsthand experience using these products and can help consumers understand why they are critical to producing a healthy, abundant and safe crop. "Farmers have a great story to share about environmental stewardship and sustainability," she says. "When they share their stories, they help build understanding. With understanding comes acceptance."
Much of the disconnect regarding the use of pesticides on farms is related to the average person’s lack of familiarity with scientific principles and methodologies.
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