The impact of municipal pesticide legislation on farmers - six questions for CropLife president Lorne Hepworth
With more and more municipalities across Canada banning the cosmetic use of pesticides, is agriculture next on the anti-pesticide lobby hit list? A leading crop protection industry advocate shares his perspective
Posted: November 5, 2008
As the debate over the cosmetic use of pesticides rages on throughout Canada with no clear end in sight, many producers are wondering about the impact of these decisions on their ability to use pesticides for crop protection.
As president of CropLife Canada, a leading advocate for the crop protection industry, it's Lorne Hepworth's job to keep his finger on the pulse of who is influencing who in this debate and how they are doing so. He's concerned that, in spite of the fact that Health Canada has declared 2,4-D safe if used correctly, emotionally charged rhetoric is taking the place of sound science in the court of public opinion. And with over 140 bans and restrictions on cosmetic pesticide use currently in place across Canada, he's concerned that restrictions on pesticide application in the farm sector will be the natural evolution of this approach.
Canada Sprayer Guide recently interviewed Hepworth, who offered a state of the union on the municipal banning of pesticides in Canada, his perspective on how food producers will be affected, and the communication challenges he says the crop protection industry and its partners face in order to inform the public that the manufacturers, legislators and users of crop protection products are acting in a responsible manner. Key to this, he says, is emphasizing the role of Health Canada in safeguarding the public's interests before products even hit the market.
"Health Canada already does a very stringent risk/safety assessment on these products. There's something in the order of 200 tests that our companies go through in order to get a registration from Health Canada," he says. "What we find at some municipal councils is that there are some activist councillors driven by ideology as opposed to good science in terms of public policy in this area. It's almost like they go out of their way to make sure that Health Canada's story doesn't get told."
Following is an abbreviated version of our discussion with Lorne Hepworth.
1. What's the status of jurisdictions banning pesticides in Canada? How many have banned them to date and how many are in the process?
Our best understanding is that there's something in the order of 140 "bans" and restrictions in place across Canada. They take varied shapes and sizes and a lot of different approaches. It's a real patchwork quilt, not only across individual provinces but in terms of different municipalities in different provinces. As a result you wind up with a real hodgepodge because they make their own rules on the fly about what should be banned or what shouldn't be banned or what would be permitted or when it would be permitted to be used. Whether they're all in full implementation I couldn't say. What they do is they get a by-law passed and then allow typically three years before it's fully enforced.
The one exception to that, which is very problematic, is in Ontario. The Province is putting in legislation on banning cosmetic pesticide use. On the one hand (this legislation) pre-empts municipalities across Ontario from doing bans and restrictions. Notwithstanding the fact that we still view that as unnecessary legislation in the first place, if there is going to be legislation at least it eliminates this patchwork quilt approach across Ontario.
The Province is allowing for less than one year (before enforcement), contemplating it becoming effective next spring. That's pretty hard for the independent retailers and the industry to react to given the lead times involved in manufacturing and managing inventory.
The other thing is municipalities cannot ban sale. The Ontario government, in addition to banning use, is also looking at banning sale. So municipalities would ban certain uses and maybe only allow certain uses, but they couldn't ban sale, so you had this incongruous situation. But if you went down to the local garden store you could still buy all the products.
2. What's the status of CropLife's campaign to counter this?
What we try to do is be a source of information and facts regarding the safety of pesticides and the regulation that occurs in Canada around pesticides. That largely means working with other allied industry associations and user groups, including the golf course folks, vegetation right of way people, farm organizations, and other industry associations such as the Canadian Consumer Specialty Products Association and 2,4-D Task Force.
We work with them on advocating and informing councillors about a.) why these products are needed and b.) that, by the way, Health Canada already does a very stringent risk/safety assessment on these products. We find most don't know about the role of Health Canada. That's true as well for the average public. They don't know the Pest Management Regulatory Agency at Health Canada has over 350 health and environmental professionals, toxicologists, biologists, environmental scientists and other PhD type folks whose job every day is to examine and determine the safety of these products.
One of the points we make is that the legislation that Health Canada operates under is probably the most modern and rigorous in the world because it was just modernized in 2002 and became enshrined in legislation in 2006. There are additional safeguards for children, for the unborn, and for other vulnerable populations. The precautionary principle is now enshrined in legislation. A lot of people say we need to take a precautionary approach but guess what? That's already part of the regulatory approach here in Canada.
There's something in the order of 200 tests that our companies go through in order to get a registration from Health Canada. We have to demonstrate through all this testing and assessment that there is no unacceptable risk to the public or the environment as a result of proper use. The DuPonts and the Dows and the Bayers and the BASFs have been in business for many, many years. Our member companies have no interest in putting products on the market that aren't safe for use.
A lot of people think, "Well, how do these companies do these tests?" Under this new legislation there's provision for what is called the "reading room." Any citizen can go in and look at test data and judge for themselves whether the companies are somehow not reporting the results of tests or assessing the tests accurately. It's a very transparent system. There's provision in this new legislation for a special review if you think Health Canada screwed up.
These are undertakings that can cost companies millions and millions of dollars, but we went along with all this in the new Act because we share the same objective as everybody else out there. Whether these pesticides are used on my farm, on my lawn or my garden, we don't want the public or the environment at risk either.
What we find at some municipal councils is that there are some activist councillors driven by ideology as opposed to good science in terms of public policy in this area. It's almost like they go out of their way to make sure that Health Canada's story doesn't get told. There will be hundreds of people that come and make delegations before councils but very rarely is Health Canada asked to come forward and have councillors ask them, "Do these things cause cancer or not?" and let them give the answer. We believe a local municipality or city can play a role in educating and providing information to citizens on safe proper use and using them in the context of integrated pest management.
3. What is the bottom line threat to food producers, and by extension food consumers, of municipal decisions to ban pesticides?
This issue could very much be the thin edge of the wedge. That's a huge concern to us and I would submit it should be a huge concern to farmers and consumers. It gets back to why we use pesticides in the first place. In the urban landscape, they have several important uses, a lot of which people don't always realize.
A lot of this debate gets focused on cosmetic areas like having a nice healthy lawn or nice healthy playing field. But there are other important urban uses for pesticides that get overlooked such as controlling rodents that might jeopardize the safety of food supplies in restaurants and hospitals and nursing homes. There's the public health risk from West Nile virus - pesticides are used to control potentially disease carrying mosquitoes.
That's on the urban side. On the farm side, the one that people most clearly and easily recognize is the role of pesticides in food production. What we're talking about there, if you don't have pesticides, is the impact on yields and the quality of the food produced. If you jeopardize those two things, you jeopardize the ability of Canadian farmers to do what they've always done so well and that is to provide consumers in this country with safe, affordable, nutritional foodstuffs. And I would underline that "affordable" piece this very day because you hear a lot about rising food prices and food shortages across the world.
Now we're blessed in Canada. Our food prices notwithstanding, rising commodities because of the exchange rate and all that stuff have largely been mitigated here in Canada. But if you start withdrawing our ability to manage that 30 to 40 percent of our crops that might be threatened if you didn't have insecticides and fungicides and herbicides, food prices go up, yields go down and who gets hit the hardest in that scenario is some of the poorest and most vulnerable in our communities.
The second thing at stake, the bigger issue at stake in some ways with all this foolishness going on by people that should be demonstrating more leadership, is science based regulation. I have to take issue with the Canadian Cancer Society, who are a highly regarded organization, over this fearmongering tactic they're using of going into various provinces and cities and holding news conferences and sharing with the public polling figures such as "75 percent of the public are of the view that we should ban pesticides on lawns." That polling is probably accurate if that's the question you ask. But they don't go so far as to provide information about how Health Canada regulates pesticides and that these products can be used safely if label directions are followed.
The day we start formulating public policy in the area of environmental and public safety based on polls instead of science is a very sad day in this country for good public policy. That's what's at risk here: emotion, public perception and polling trumping good science.
We accept these products should be regulated. We accept there can be great benefit but that there's risk involved. That's why we have to have a regulatory agency. But the day you start abdicating science, then our developers and researchers who are developing the newer and safer technologies don't know what the rules are.
The Cancer Society is saying we should minimize any possible risk to human health and the environment from the use of pesticides and that there is no beneficial value to using them on your lawn to, for example, control weeds. The trouble with that argument is this. The 2,4-D that is used on my lawn is the same 2,4-D that is used on the farm. It brings into question the issue of a double standard. What they're saying for you homeowners is that we don't want you to have any risk of cancer, so we'll ban these products. But for you farmers, because you're involved in a more noble enterprise, we'll let you have a higher risk of cancer.
I don't subscribe to that. All citizens in this country deserve their health to be protected. If there's a known risk, we shouldn't use it anywhere. That's the approach Health Canada takes and that's the approach we take. This stuff is either safe to use on a lawn or it's not and it's either safe to use on a farm or it's not.
4. What does the industry need to do next?
Obviously, we haven't been as successful as we'd like in combating all of these by-laws and that speaks to the fact that maybe we have to do a better job of communicating the safety of the products. But given that so many in the public don't realize and recognize that Health Canada does this massive safety assessment, we would encourage Health Canada, not in any way to be a shill for the industry or its products, but to step up to the plate in an even bigger way than they have done and tell the public what they do.
We also have to do a better job in getting the message out about the benefits of these products. There are lots of people who believe (pesticides) don't have any role in urban landscapes. That's until, as we've seen in Toronto here, some bug comes and tries to wipe out all the trees. Or until some sports field is so infested that kids are getting injured because it's just like hardpan out there. Or there's some rodent infestations in restaurants. A lot of people don't realize that probably the biggest use of pesticides in this country is in chlorinating city water supplies. We've got to do a better job of getting the benefits message out than we've done in the past.
5. You've said farmers are next. Give us your sense of current thinking on this.
As I said before, we're very much concerned that this debate is the thin edge of the wedge. Every time you have this discussion in the public about the lack of safety in pesticides and how there needs to be a municipal ban, it further stigmatizes the farmer and the food production system that's using these pesticides in a very responsible and safe fashion.
You start to say, "Oh Hepworth, you're overstating it, you're fearmongering now just like you accuse the Cancer Society of doing." But I would submit as evidence the conference the Canadian Cancer Society Web site is hosting this fall examining the question of pesticide safety in agriculture (Editor's note: details on this conference are available here). And I'm all for that if there's going to be some good science brought to bear on the issue and not more polling and fearmongering. If there is a legitimate concern, we want to know, our companies want to know, the regulators want to know.
So we see this as a very real and tangible concern that to allow this lack of science to prevail in the regulation of pesticides could very easily spill over and affect farmers as well as consumers in this country and, in fact, around the world given that we tend to be a breadbasket for much of the world.
The other dynamic playing out in the international media is the tragic, sorry and sad stories on food shortage in many of the developing economies. In that scenario what comes to the forefront is the benefit of the technologies of the members I represent, whether it be their pesticides or biotech. We are part of the solution in meeting these world challenges in providing safe, affordable and nutritious food. We're not the solution but we're part of that solution.
6. As a follow-up, is there even a chance crop protection products could be banned completely?
I would hope not, for sure. But if you look at what's happening in Europe these days, there are measures and regulatory changes that take these levels of restrictions to new levels and in some instances outright bans. It's going on at new and higher levels than one would ever have thought. So all of this bears watching, but I'm hoping at the end of the day that science will prevail and be more fully acknowledged.
Despite all of what I've said about this great job that Health Canada and regulatory agencies from around the world do, at the end of the day an individual can say, "Hepworth, I don't really care. I don't like you guys. I don't like your products. I don't trust Health Canada. I don't trust the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. I don't trust any of those guys." And that's the great thing about this system and this world. The individual still has the choice not to use pesticides. But similarly, those who have an insect invasion on their crop or on their lawn should have the right and the choice to use a Health Canada safety-assessed, registered product.
Author: Jeff Melchior