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Editorial: The gathering storm

The gathering storm


October 2, 2008
By Marg Land


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Hello, my name is Margaret Land and I’m a cynic. I’m not proud of it but I have to be honest and admit my faults.

Hello, my name is Margaret Land and I’m a cynic. I’m not proud of it but I have to be honest and admit my faults.

I’m notorious for finding the storm clouds in every silver lining. I’ve tried my best to keep it under control, fighting back the urge to look for conspiracies in every news story, suppressing the need to find the loophole in every funding announcement – holdovers from too many years as a daily newspaper reporter. It was hard work.

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So, when it was announced earlier this year that the Ontario government was bringing in a province-wide ban on “cosmetic” pesticides, I heard that familiar rumble, a sure sign there’s a storm brewing. All the releases, all the articles, stressed the ban would not include agriculture. The cynic in me was having a hard time believing it. Sure, the legislation didn’t include agriculture NOW, but who’s to say what would happen in a year or two, after the initial furor died down and the special interest groups and their lobbyists started applying the pressure? The precedent will already have been set with the passing of Bill 64.

The bill hasn’t even been finalized yet and the barometer is rising. A group of more than a dozen health care and environmental organizations are complaining the legislation is “flawed” and are calling for the government to tighten “loopholes.” They would like to see municipalities retain the right to pass their own pesticide bylaws above and beyond those set by the provincial government.

“Municipalities must retain the power to protect their citizens’ health by passing bylaws that are tougher than the provincial legislation,” says Jan Kasperski, chief executive officer of the Ontario College of Family Physicians. After all, he adds, “Pesticide use represents a real threat to all of our health.”

Dr. Patrick Moore, co-founder of Greenpeace, begs to differ. In an essay published in the National Post in 2006, entitled “How pesticides are saving the Earth,” he points out that the health of people would be under more of a threat if they boycotted eating fruits and vegetables because of pesticide fears.

“Eliminating pesticides would make fruits and vegetables more expensive, thereby decreasing consumption and increasing the risk of disease,” he stated, adding that analysis done by SafeFood Consulting Inc. in 2005 found that without the use of pesticides, crop yields would drop by 30 to 50 per cent, due to insect and disease pressure, and food prices would rise by 27 per cent.

He also cites the findings of an international panel of cancer experts, organized by the National Cancer Institute of Canada, that evaluated 70 published studies, ultimately concluding that it was “not aware of any definitive evidence to suggest that synthetic pesticides contribute significantly to overall mortality.” That finding was published in the Cancer research journal in 1997.

In light of “growing public concern,” the Canadian Cancer Society has decided to revisit the issue and is organizing and hosting a “ground-breaking” conference at the Toronto Marriott Bloor Yorkville Hotel. The conference will feature experts from around the world discussing the cancer risks of pesticides used on agricultural crops.

Entitled Exploring the Connection – A State of the Science Conference on Pesticides and Cancer, “this conference will be an important first step in setting the agenda for future research and action in this area,” says Heath Logan, director of cancer control policy with the Canadian Cancer Society.

Presentations include:

  • the state of the science about pesticide exposure and cancer risk for agricultural workers, people who live near sprayed fields or consume sprayed fruits and vegetables, and children;
  • pesticide residue monitoring in Canada;
  • the “rationale” for pesticide use in agricultural and other non-cosmetic settings;
  • the limitations of environmental exposure research;
  • a description of European policies implemented to reduce children’s pesticide exposure, and
  • a discussion about organic farming.

Representation from agriculture in the planning of this conference appears to be limited with only one conference steering committee member out of 11 – Dr. Rene Van Acker with the Department of Plant Agriculture at the University of Guelph – having any involvement with the farmers who actually use crop protection products. And, while agricultural groups are invited to attend, as of mid-August no farmers or other pesticide end-users are on the agenda to speak, with the possible exception of Dr. Van Acker, Dr. Gerald Stephenson, professor emeritus with the department of environmental biology at the University of Guelph, and Dr. Andrew Hammermeister, manager of the Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada.

Looks like the storm clouds are gathering on the horizon and some more wild weather may be ahead for the crop protection industry in Ontario and, possibly, Canada. Horticulture may be in for a bumpy ride.


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