Pesticides have a perception issue, which is a challenge for agriculture.
The distance between Canadian consumers and the production of their food is growing wider, but the collective public opinions consumers hold are increasingly moving the needle and influencing regulatory decisions that dictate how agriculture is allowed to operate.
This poses a significant challenge, as people without agricultural backgrounds often have little to no understanding of how modern food production works. In a 2016 study of 2,500 non-farming Canadians conducted by the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity, 93 per cent of respondents said they knew little to nothing about farming. Many Canadians appear outwardly distrustful of the modern technologies farmers use to grow food – particularly pesticide products.
Although a mistrustful public that is wary of pesticides is not a new phenomenon, negative coverage of pesticides made headlines multiple times during the summer and fall of 2018, creating a renewed flurry of attention, anger and criticism directed at these products.
Between the media attention and uproar surrounding the Roundup cancer trial in California, ongoing claims of pesticide residues in food, and the proposed ban of clothianidin and thiamethoxam by Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA), it’s clear that pesticides have an issue when it comes to public perception.
This misinformed public perception holds a large amount of influence over regulatory decisions on the products ag retailers can stock and sell – the very products growers rely on to produce their crops to the highest standards of quality and safety, while maintaining a reliable food source for local and international markets and ensuring the long-term economic and environmental sustainability of feeding the world.
Too Good for Their Own Good
It’s partially because farmers and the rest of the industry have done such a good job of providing a consistently reliable food source that Clare Kinlin, sales manager with Ontario independent retailer MacEwen Agricentre Inc., believes the public has lost an appreciation for what it takes to produce food, and has developed a poor perception of pesticides.
“In my lifetime, I’ve always had food on the table,” says Kinlin. “The production ability of modern farmers is absolutely tremendous, and people take that for granted to such a big extent. The public has lost sight of why they’re able to have such consistent food.”
Although he believes farmers still have a certain amount of goodwill with the public, in nearly two decades of working in the industry, Kinlin has seen public trust in agriculture take a hit and has seen a rise in the spread of misinformation about tools like pesticides.
“I think pesticide issues have gotten more headlines in the past couple of years, which is therefore generating more public unawareness, as opposed to awareness, of what is going on,” he says.
Kinlin sees danger in this widespread unawareness as it influences decision making, saying he thinks regulations on how farms in Canada can operate have become politicized, with decisions based on feelings rather than facts. “This more emotional way of looking at things can be very frustrating for us in agriculture because we base everything on science,” he says.
This makes Kinlin worry that Canada is poised to take the same path as some European countries, where he says regulations that are far from science-based have had adverse impacts on European producers, including reduced output, quality and revenues.
Politics Over Practicality
Kinlin says an example of this way of thinking at home is the PMRA’s proposed ban on all outdoor use of clothianidin and thiamethoxam, two chemicals used in a variety of insecticides to control flea beetles on the majority of Canadian canola acres.
As The Communicator reported in its October issue, phasing out these chemicals is a potentially risky move for the environment and farm profitability. When used in a seed treatment application, these products are directly applied to seed which is sown into cold, spring soils, causing minimal impact on beneficial insects that are yet to emerge. Taking away these products could increase the need for foliar application later in the season, with potentially adverse consequences.
“This is absolutely an example of politics interfering with farm production,” says Kinlin. “This decision is not based on science, it’s based on public perception.”
Without the use of these products, canola growers will have fewer options to control flea beetle infestations, putting yields and farmers’ ability to make a profit in jeopardy. The Canadian Canola Growers Association says a ban will have a “profound” effect on farms.
As the Western Canadian value chain braces for the potential ramifications of a phase out, if implemented, Kinlin says Ontario growers have already lost use of both clothianidin and thiamethoxam, which were previously used on Ontario corn and soybean acres. According to Kinlin, the replacement is costlier for farmers.
“The industry quickly adapted, and we now have an alternate insecticide for corn and soybeans, but it is pricier. As a retail business, we simply cannot swallow all the costs and have had to pass some on to the grower,” he says. “Losing those insecticides has increased the price point to the farm gate for sure. Our producers are paying more for this technology.”
The reality of losing those two neonics, paired with the unprecedented court ruling on the California Roundup cancer trial, makes Kinlin worry that another widely-used pesticide ingredient may be next on the chopping block. That ingredient, of course, is glyphosate.
“My big fear is, ‘What’s next?’” says Kinlin. “Glyphosate is coming under the same level of scrutiny that neonics have been under. Losing glyphosate would be a very, very expensive blow for Canadian producers.”
On Aug. 10 of this year, glyphosate’s reputation took a very public hit when a jury awarded former school groundskeeper and father of three, Dewayne Johnson, who alleged that Roundup caused his terminal cancer, $289 million (later reduced to $78 million) in damages. The jury sided with the opinions presented by the claimant, rather than the scientific evidence proving glyphosate is safe presented by the defendant, Monsanto.
In the weeks following that case, there would be more negative, glyphosate-centric headlines to come. Quaker Oats opted to remove the “natural” label from its Nature Valley brand granola bars to settle a lawsuit claiming the bars were not natural due to glyphosate residues being detected, although the residues in question were found to be well below acceptable limits set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Karen Churchill, director of research and market support with Cereals Canada, says that decades of scientific evidence and the conclusions of regulators around the world point against trace residues of glyphosate in food being any cause for consumer concern.
It would simply not be possible for a person to eat enough oats or bread in a day for glyphosate residues to have health ramifications.
“No major international regulatory body considers glyphosate a health risk,” says Churchill. “Glyphosate has passed rigorous scientific review and does not pose a health risk to the public. It would simply not be possible for a person to eat enough oats or bread in a day for glyphosate residues to have health ramifications.”
Churchill says the ability to test for chemical residues has grown exponentially in the past several years, and it is now possible to detect pesticide residues in food as small as one part per trillion. To visualize one part per trillion, imagine one second in a span of 32,000 years.
Despite how miniscule that measurement may be, Churchill says the perception that any residue at all is a health risk, persists.
This is why Churchill says Cereals Canada has partnered with other industry groups through the Keep it Clean! awareness campaign to help growers use best practices to keep residues as low as possible, something she says ag retailers play a key role in.
“Retailers are in a key position to communicate knowledge to farmers,” says Churchill. “This fall we asked retailers to remind their customers about best practices surrounding glyphosate use, and the use of other crop protection products. We need to keep this message going in future years.”
Best practices to reduce residues include always reading and following the label for rate, timing and pre-harvest interval, which is the number of days that must pass between the last application of a pesticide and swathing or straight combining. Applying pesticides or desiccants in a way that does not follow the label may result in unacceptable residue levels. As well, Churchill says retailers should remind growers not to apply glyphosate for pre-harvest weed control on cereal crops until the crop has dried to below 30 per cent moisture content, to avoid any residues being absorbed by the plant as it dries.
Kinlin says the agronomists at MacEwen are very conscious of residues when working with their customers and do their best to communicate best practices and help customers time applications throughout the season. He says all decisions relating to product application are made with consumer safety in mind, something he wishes the public understood.
“The mentality of, ‘Let’s just put this product on because we can put it on,’ doesn’t exist. We’re not operating like that,” says Kinlin. “Parts per billion, per trillion, those are such small amounts. You can test for almost anything at that level and it is going to show up.”
Kinlin says the public is getting no help from mainstream media when it comes to understanding the ag industry’s use of pesticides. While he believes agricultural media does an excellent job providing a balanced assessment of the implications of chemicals, he believes mainstream media is completely the opposite.
“I think the media does an absolutely terrible job of reporting on pesticides,” he says. “They’re scaring the public instead of informing them and educating them about what is really going on.”
Communication Over Fear
To help stop the fear-mongering and the attacks on the products farmers need to feed the world, there’s more and more discussion happening across the industry about how those who work in Canadian agriculture can take matters into their own hands by telling their own story.
“We all want to be transparent about what we’re doing and increase trust with the public,” says Rob Schultz, VP of sales for Canada with Bayer CropScience. “I think all levels of the industry play a role in getting our message out and educating the public on what we do and how we do it. That’s our starting point.”
Churchill and Kinlin agree that all levels of the industry play a role in communicating ag, but Kinlin says for retailers trying to get through to urban populations, it can be easier said than done.
“I think there’s more we could be doing on social media, but the question is how to go about it,” he says. “Sometimes we’ve put something up on social media and been immediately overwhelmed with attacks by special interest groups.”
Kinlin says once the attacks start flying, it feels like there is little that can be done, and people are no longer interested in hearing agriculture’s side of the story. Despite this, he still thinks social media is a useful communication tool, albeit not the only tool. “I don’t think there’s going to be one silver bullet to fix our communication problem with urban people,” he says.
Schultz agrees that there is no single solution and believes that retailers, along with other industry members, should make use of all resources available to them in the battle to improve communication in the face of fear. He believes that improving public perception of pesticides will come as a part of defending agriculture as a whole.
“There are also a lot of good, consumer-friendly resources out there to help support our story,” he says. “Supporting and promoting those resources is one way to help tell our story.” He lists Know GMO, a documentary series created by Agri-Trend founder Rob Saik; national organizations with provincial chapters like Agriculture in the Classroom and Farm and Food Care; Farm Credit Canada’s Ag More Than Ever initiative; and movements like Farm to Table as a few examples.
Schultz says retailers can help to pool resources toward a common, focused message for consumers by lending their support to these existing groups and initiatives. If everyone in the industry does the same, he says agriculture can start to shift the conversation and create real change.
But that’s not to say retailers can’t communicate individually to promote public trust. Quite the opposite, he says.
“I encourage retailers to share their story on ag through whichever mediums they feel comfortable with,” he says. “I hope retailers feel proud of the role they play with their communities and their customers, and that they want to share their stories and advocate for modern agriculture. Wherever they can.”
For more on how CAAR is advocating for retailers on the PMRA’s proposed neonics ban, read “A Consistent Message,” originally published in the October 2018 issue of The Communicator.
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