I was recently being interviewed by a reporter from Toronto when she made a startling statement about crop inputs “even one molecule of these chemicals can be dangerous”. That statement is, of course, completely false. This is a common point of view that threatens the social license of modern agriculture. All of us involved in agriculture must work together to counter this misperception.
Warfarin is an example that clearly demonstrates the importance of “how much”. Warfarin is taken by millions of people every day to help manage heart conditions. When the product is used as a drug it saves many lives. But a little higher dose? Then Warfarin becomes what it was originally designed to be used for – rat poison. The dose, or “how much” is clearly important.
The science behind product approvals in Canada is not well understood. This is problematic. This lack of understanding is why we have seen the rise of pesticide bans in some provinces. This is why some countries can get away with using pseudo-safety concerns to restrict trade. It is why products like glyphosate viewed with skepticism by some consumers, despite the fact that glyphosate is one of the most studied crop inputs in use today.
Glyphosate provides and interesting example. In fact glyphosate is much safer than many things found in your kitchen cupboards. LD50 is the common measure of the toxicity of a substance. The lower the number the more toxic the product. The LD50 of common baking soda is 4,200 mg/kg. The LD50 of vinegar is 3,320 mg/kg. The LD50 of glyphosate is 5,600 mg/kg. In other words, measured scientifically, both baking soda and vinegar are significantly more toxic than glyphosate.
Unfortunately, science will not win the hearts and minds of urban consumers. It will be hard to convince people that the vinegar they just put on their fries is actually quite a bit more toxic than many common pesticides. However we can, and must, work together to help build Canadian’s confidence in our strong science based regulatory system.
Canada’s science-based regulatory system is one of the strongest and most rigorous in the world. Canadians should not only feel some national pride in the competence of our scientists, they should also take great comfort in the effort and rigour that delivers one of the safest food supplies in the world.
The Pest Management Regulatory Agency (part of Health Canada) employs over 350 scientists whose sole purpose is to conduct evaluations of new pesticides and re-evaluations of products that have been on the market for some time. A potential new pesticide must go through over 200 different health and environmental studies before approval is given for use.
Our regulatory system is pre-cautionary. Canadian legislation requires a 10-fold margin of safety before products are registered. This means potential exposure must be ten times below the levels that have been scientifically shown to be safe. Canadian legislation and regulation specifically ensures that new products are safe for everyone including the most vulnerable in society, like pregnant women, children and the elderly.
Agriculture needs to do a better job of getting the word out on the rigour of our science based system. Governments too must do a better job of communicating, in plain language, the measures taken to ensure that Canadians are safe. But this is not just a communications exercise. We must do more.
“Science-based” applies to more than just government policy. This is also the basic foundation of best management practices on the farm. Pesticide labels provide a good example of the importance of this foundation. The labels on pesticides come out of the rigours science based process at the PMRA. These labels are based on extensive scientific analysis and we rely on this research to ensure that farm inputs do not have a negative impact on human health or the environment
Best practices require a good understanding of the labels on every product used on the farm. Rigorous adherence to science-based labels protect farmers and modern agriculture in general. By sticking to the label guidelines farmers help preserve and promote public trust in the science-based regulatory system.
“Public trust” is the most important tool we have to ensure that we preserve a strong objective and science based regulatory system and avoiding a decent into opinion based regulations. Regulations based on latest trend on the internet will result in more and more unpredictable restrictions that stifle innovation and ultimately strangle modern agriculture.