Pesticides on Food in Canada

Man with mask spraying pesticides

Do you use pesticides on your vegetable garden? Most people I know don’t, but we also don’t like having the fruits of our labour (ha ha) eaten or destroyed by pests. And I just had this experience myself. Something had been eating the leaves of my pepper plants. I sprayed the leaves with a solution of water and dish soap which seemed to work but I had to spray repetitively because it rained so much. I tried putting small raspberry branches around my plants but that failed. I tried putting copper wire at the base of the stems. Didn’t matter. I asked a neighbour who thought it might be leaf cutter bees, so I tried bird netting. Nope. My plants were looking worse and worse. It was obvious that this damage was happening at night, so at my wit’s end, I set my alarm for 2am and went out with a flashlight. And there he was! One climbing cutworm.

But what about the fruit and vegetables that we buy? Sure, organic is safer but it’s also more expensive. Here’s the low down on pesticide use in Canada…

According to an independent source, based on data from 2018-2019, Canada is the 5th largest user of pesticides by tons. But we're a pretty big country so if you look at it by tons/hectare then we place 62nd with 2.4 tons/hectare. For comparison, China is 11th with 13.1 tons/hectare. Maldives is the worst with 52.6 tons/hectare. The US is in 60th place with 2.5 tons/hectare.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (US), the average person has traces of 29 different pesticide residues in their body. A study on those who usually ate organic showed they had 65% lower levels of pesticides in their bodies.

Glyphosate, also known as Roundup, is an aggressive weed killer and the most popular herbicide in Canada and the world (as of 2020). It is made by Bayer (who acquired Monsanto). Canadian farmers use it primarily on corn, soy and wheat but it’s also used to dry grains and beans.

The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer concluded that exposure may cause cancer (41-70% increased risk of Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma) in 2015. The University of Washington found exposure may increase the risk of developing bladder cancer by more than 40%. Many countries (Australia, France, Italy, Bermuda, Vietnam) and some US states and cities have banned its use. Even Germany, where Monsanto calls home, banned it. More than 40 countries have some kind of restrictions on its use. Several lawsuits have resulted in multi-million-dollar settlements for victims with thousands of cases pending.

In pets it can cause cancer, vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite, excess drool and fatigue.

One third of samples of oats and other cereal grains used in popular breakfast products were found to contain glyphosate in tests by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) in 2017. 1.3% had unacceptably high levels, with soybeans and barley at the top of the list.

Kellog’s has committed to phasing out glysophate by 2025. And Bayer promises to invest billions to develop alternative pesticides. 

The CFIA also found glyphosate in 90% pizza, 88% wheat flour, 84% crackers and fresh pasta, 83% cooked pasta, 80% dried pasta, 75% oats, 70% chickpea flour, and 67% lentils samples.

In 2017, the CFIA reported the highest residues in garbanzo beans, white beans, lentils, buckwheat, bean, soy and wheat flour.

Some US court documents surfaced in 2017 showing that Monsanto colluded with the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to conceal evidence of glyphosate carcinogenicity, with Monsanto writing a great deal of its own research.

In 2018 CBC reported that environmentalists accused Health Canada of relying on glyphosate safety studies that were covertly influenced by Monsanto.

Pesticide applicants are required to provide Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) with extensive scientific data to show that their product does not pose unacceptable risks to health and the environment, and that the product has value.

Pesticides must be approved by PMRA before they can be imported, sold, or used in Canada. Pesticides are subject to rigorous science-based assessments by Health Canada scientists before being approved for use in Canada. These scientists then establish Maximum Residue Limits.

Last year, Health Canada quietly announced their three-year plan to phase out the use of chlorpyrifos, commonly used on wheat, garlic, canola and potatoes. Chlorpyrifos is an insecticide that affects the nervous system of people, pets and other animals. Serious exposure can cause vomiting, cramps, muscle twitches, weakness, loss of coordination, diarrhea and blurred vision. In severe cases it can lead to unconsciousness, loss of bladder and bowel control, convulsions, difficulty breathing and paralysis. In children, it has the potential to cause brain damage at low levels.

PMRA ignored the required risk assessment and instead relied on an outdated 2000 dietary risk assessment, of which scientists repeatedly questioned the validity. A drinking water assessment conducted by PMRA scientists modelled unacceptable risks to human health and this assessment was not factored into decision making or made public. The PMRA dismissed the relevancy of the US EPA and European Food Safety Authority risk assessments. Chlorpyrifos came into the market in 1969. All pesticides are required to have a 15-year reassessment, but PMRA only completed the first environmental review in 2020. The mandatory health assessment was never completed. Health Canada is being sued for their lack of transparency by several environmental and health organizations.

When chlorpyrifos gets in the soil in can take up to several years to break down. It’s very toxic to fish and aquatic invertebrates and to bees and earthworms.

And that’s just two of the almost 8000 pesticide products registered in Canada as of 2019.

An organization that represents manufacturers, developers and distributors of pest control products maintains that there’s nothing to be concerned about as pesticides are highly regulated. Um, sure. Their marketing material claims that farmers can grow so much more food thanks to pesticides, and if pesticides weren’t available, fruits and vegetables would cost so much more. You mean, like organic?

They claim that all growers need pesticides, even organic farmers use them. Sure, organic farmers can use natural sources such as vinegar, soaps, neem oil or sulfurs but they’re not using synthetic pesticides like glyphosate. And they’re using sustainable and natural processes.

And the PMRA just studies that one pesticide in isolation. They’re not thinking about how many other pesticides are used or how they may interact. Just to give you an idea, in the US, more than 50 pesticides are used on broccoli, 110 on apples and 70 on bell peppers. 

So what can you do? The Environmental Working Group has published their 2022 list of the Dirty Dozen. These have the most pesticides so buy organic or wash your produce. This list includes strawberries, spinach, kale/collard/mustard greens, nectarines, apples, grapes, bell and hot peppers, cherries, peaches, pears, celery and tomatoes.

They also have a Clean 15. These have the least pesticides: avocados, sweet corn, pineapple, onions, papaya, frozen sweet peas, asparagus, honeydew melon, kiwi, cabbage, mushrooms, cantaloupe, mangoes, watermelon and sweet potatoes.

Use a vegetable wash (available in your produce section) or soak in soap and water and then rinse, or soak your produce in a vinegar wash (three parts water to one part vinegar). And you can add a couple drops of lemon essential oil as it has the ability to dissolve petroleum oils.

A study done on the preparation of potatoes showed that peeling removed the greatest amount of pesticides (although that’s where most nutrients are) and washing and cooking removed some as well.

Eating your fruits and vegetables is important to your health. My plan is to grow what I can and buy the Dirty Dozen as organic whenever possible. I will soak my other fruit and vegetables in a soap wash or a vinegar wash. I'm also going to try to make my own Vegetable Wash and see which I like best.

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