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PCN talks back — Organic foods and agriculture are the way to go

By Meg Sears PhD, Co-chair Prevent Cancer Now

The following is based on Prevent Cancer Now’s response to a CBC interview with Len Ritter, on The 180.

The guest, Len Ritter, was in charge of the federal pesticides file when Canada (unlike the rest of the world) did NOT ban 2,4,5-T (dioxin-containing Agent Orange ingredient). He has been a pesticide apologist ever since. The first time I met him, we were speaking about pesticides in Huntsville. He described a highly unethical study where he exposed students (in various stages of undress) to a freshly sprayed lawn, and followed urinary excretion over several days, of the herbicide 2,4-D that they had absorbed through their skin, inhaled or otherwise were exposed to.

Fortunately the majority of Canadian lawns and gardens are now being maintained using least-toxic methods, thanks to provincial and local laws.

If, as claimed by Len Ritter, Canadians are kept safe as a result of other countries’ reviews, then why are bee-killing neonicotinoid pesticides banned in the EU and not here?

Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) has recently been forced by the court to review over 20 pesticide active ingredients that are banned in other countries but still used here.

When the Australian Broadcasting Corporation found very high levels of dioxin (a highly toxic contaminant) in a commercial sample of the herbicide 2,4-D, that country initiated an urgent re-review. The PMRA was not moved, saying that that brand is not sold here, and also pointing to industry data predictably showing no problem. The point is that it is cheaper to make contaminated 2,4-D, so only government monitoring and enforcement will keep dioxins out of these herbicides.

Contrary to another misconception promoted in this interview, modern pesticides are not necessarily short-lived. The bee-killing neonicotinoids break down over years, and some of the complex breakdown products are more toxic than the original chemical. As well — you guessed it — the breakdown products are generally not factored into the toxicity testing! Rodents’ cages are cleaned regularly, but pesticide residues cannot be vacuumed out of soil and streams. (See PCN’s recent submission to Health Canada for more information)

Effects of chemicals can persist when the chemical is gone, for instance if ecosystems are no longer in balance balance predator-prey relationships can be upset or susceptible pollinators can die out. My organic garden of 30 years thrives with checks and balances in a complex web of life. Predators take much longer to rebound than prey when this web is disrupted with toxicants, so the medium- to long-term effects are counter-productive.

We also disagree that Canadians are a bunch of simpletons who should blithely accept Health Canada’s or Dr. Ritter’s word that all is fine in the pesticides world, when common sense tells them that it is not. Other countries turned their back on pesticides used in Canada and Prevent Cancer Now has supported a lawsuit forcing re-review of hundreds of products. As well, pesticide use is sky-rocketing because weeds and insects are becoming resistant, so toxic residues are increasing in step. Face it, this is a failed toxic arms race. We need to change our agricultural strategy.

Recent research on organic foods says that they often ARE more nutritious, and importantly, are lower in pesticide residues. Organic foods are also lower in the toxic element cadmium. This final point probably has two contributors: Canadian phosphate fertilizer is high in cadmium; and the popular herbicide glyphosate mobilizes cadmium so that it collects in food grown on sprayed fields. Glyphosate also depletes soil microbes thereby promoting plant diseases, and eliminates milkweed for monarch butterflies and flowers for pollinators.

Organic farming does work, and in fact locally adapted seeds and diversity, freely shared, selected and collected by farmers, are essential to feed a chaotic world with climate change. Patented seeds reliant upon multiple chemicals is a great business plan for Monsanto, Dow and ilk, but a lousy plan for Canada’s self-sufficiency and resiliency.

Canada has unfortunately closed our federal grain research facility and doesn’t even offer data on pesticide residues in our foods, even when requested. The best we can do is to guess what is happening in Canada, based upon US data. When we hear that there is no evidence supporting Canadian organic crops, that is unfortunately true – we lack data from our science-hostile federal government.

Meg Sears PhD is an Ottawa-based environmental health researcher, and is Co-chair of Prevent Cancer Now