Is increased public scrutiny and pressure from export markets threatening the future of glyphosate?

Glyphosate was quickly embraced by farmers for its effective, but indiscriminate, weed killing when it was introduced to the marketplace by Monsanto in 1974 under the trade name Roundup. Its use really took off after the development of “Roundup Ready” crops, which were genetically engineered to tolerate glyphosate, and it is now one of the most widely used pesticides in the world.

In March of 2015, glyphosate was given the somewhat misleading classification of “Group 2A – probable carcinogen to humans” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). The risk-based classification put exposure to glyphosate on the same level as eating red meat and lower than drinking alcohol, but it thrust glyphosate into the media spotlight, making it fodder for social media speculation and a target for anti-pesticide activists.

“It was alarming for people who didn’t really understand who the IARC is and how it differs from science-based regulatory agencies all over the globe; none of which, by the way, consider glyphosate to be carcinogenic – including our own Health Canada,” says Trish Jordan, public and industry affairs director for Bayer Canada’s Crop Science Division. “It prompted folks and groups who are opposed to pesticides to rally and call for restrictions or bans on its use.”

In the nearly five years since the IARC’s classification, increasing public scrutiny and litigation stemming from the purported link between glyphosate and cancer have made glyphosate a household word and a scapegoat for many of those who oppose modern agriculture practices. This, along with pressure from overseas markets, is posing a growing and genuine threat for the future viability of glyphosate use and making some Canadian growers wonder if (and for how long) they’ll be able to keep this effective tool in their collective toolbox.

Protecting Market Access

Pulse growers in Canada found out first-hand this summer what could happen when you lose a valuable tool. At the start of the 2019 growing season, Canadian dry bean buyers, including Ontario’s Hensall Co-op, announced they would no longer buy any dry beans treated with pre-harvest glyphosate, leaving growers to re-think their applications planned for the end of the season.

Although increasing negative perception of the product and a growing number of “Roundup litigations” in the U.S. did play somewhat into buyers’ decision, Derwyn Hodgins, commercial business manager at Hensall Co-op, stresses that the move was not motivated by safety concerns.

“We don’t question the safety. We feel glyphosate is effective, safe, and it’s a cost effective tool,” says Hodgins.

Leading up to the pre-harvest use restriction, Hodgins says the product was being used properly and legally on dry beans, and maximum residue limits were well below Canadian specifications – the move was strictly to meet export-customer demands.

We can’t look the other way and lose markets. If you lose a market and try to get it back, it’s almost impossible.
Derwyn Hodgins

“The decision to eliminate pre-harvest application was made to keep Canada competitive in the world market,” he says. “We can’t look the other way and lose markets. If you lose a market and try to get it back, it’s almost impossible.”

In fact, Hodgins believes eliminating the pre-harvest application may ultimately protect the ability for Canadian growers to use glyphosate for other applications.

“We do not want to see the total elimination of glyphosate. It’s a great product – we just can’t use it as a pre-harvest treatment,” he says.

Protecting market access was the overarching reason for restricting the use of glyphosate pre-harvest, but Hodgins also points to a specific series of events that ultimately led the buyers to their decision, starting with a similar action by the U.S. dry bean industry that was already two years old.

Hodgins says that when the use-restriction was announced in Canada, most growers, if not all, knew about the situation south of the border. Even though they were initially not happy with the decision, he says, it didn’t take them entirely by surprise.

“The U.S. had a head start on us. I don’t know if it was 100 per cent, but for the most part, our competitors in the U.S. weren’t allowing (pre-harvest) glyphosate for the past two years,” says Hodgins. “We decided it was the best for the industry if we didn’t allow it here.”

Hodgins says that the second factor which contributed to restricting use was the 25 per cent tariff placed on U.S. dry beans in the EU, which was motivating member countries to look to other regions like Ukraine, Russia and Kazakhstan for product; preferably grown without glyphosate. In meetings with European buyers, Hodgins says, it became clear that as long as glyphosate was being used as a pre-harvest aid, the market for Canadian beans in Europe was tenuous.

“At our meetings in Europe, buyers told us that they don’t allow their farmers to use glyphosate as a pre-harvest treatment. The reason they were accepting our product was because they couldn’t purchase a large volume of high-quality dry beans elsewhere in the world,” says Hodgins. “So, basically, their message was very clear to us – change your ways or you risk losing our business going forward.”

Hodgins says that the looming Oct. 31, 2019 Brexit deadline (since extended) also played heavily into the decision, as a “hard Brexit” would effectively remove the 25 per cent tariff, allow the U.K. to sign their own trade deals and open the market back up for dry beans from the U.S.

“In a hard Brexit situation, the U.K. would not have a trade agreement with Europe and the U.S. would be able to offer price-competitive, good quality dry bean products that were harvested without pre-harvest glyphosate treatment,” Hodgins explains.

While this restricted use pattern on glyphosate forced dry bean growers to rethink their pre-harvest plans, it wasn’t catastrophic. Hodgins says his team at Hensall watched the situation carefully and was pleased to see that the 2019 harvest was one of the best they had recorded, in terms of quality.

It was a win on two fronts – demonstrating the resiliency of the industry and helping to protect glyphosate for future use, albeit not at pre-harvest. “No one in the industry wanted to see glyphosate’s use completely eliminated from the toolbox,” says Hodgins.

Significant Consequences

According to Cereals Canada president Cam Dahl, glyphosate-based herbicides are so critical to environmentally sound and sustainable practices such as conservation tillage that the sudden and total loss of the chemistry would have significant consequences – both environmental and financial.

Without glyphosate, Dahl says the alternative would be for growers to go back to more tillage, a move that would have significant implications for the long term sustainability of their farms, contributing to additional carbon emissions (due to increased fuel usage) and resulting in a decrease in soil carbon sequestration.

“Things like zero till or conservation tillage simply wouldn’t be possible without tools like glyphosate,” says Dahl. “We’ve seen up to 40 per cent reduction in energy per tonne of wheat produced in the last 20 years or so; we’re seeing significant improvements in soil health and organic matter; we’re seeing significant reductions in the potential for wind or water erosion. These are all really good sustainability measures, but they’re also really good for the bottom line of a farm.”

If glyphosate’s opponents are successful and, in a worst case scenario, glyphosate is banned outright, both Jordan and Dahl agree the impact would be financially devastating to the industry. By industry estimates, farmer income would be decreased by an estimated $6.8 billion and production of some key crops, such as corn, soybeans and canola would be lowered by as much as a total of 23 million tonnes.

What many consumers don’t understand, says Jordan, is that without the use of glyphosate and other pesticides in agriculture, crop quantity and quality would be in jeopardy. The key to finding common ground, she says, might be when consumers realize that losses at harvest actually translate to higher prices on the grocery store shelf.

“Without basic pesticides, farmers could lose half their production,” she says. “If farmers don’t have access to these tools, the annual loss at harvest to weeds, insects and diseases could almost double. That obviously impacts cost, as well, and hurts the consumer right in the pocketbook. These things are important, and they should be important to consumers, too, because consumers want abundant, quality food.”

If we don’t ensure that we’re using the product properly, the possibility is very strong that we’re going to lose it.
Cam Dahl

Dahl says this is one area where the industry needs to start doing a better job of communicating with consumers about glyphosate; not only selling its strengths but discussing the real impacts of losing a chemistry so critical to crop production. But, without assurances the product is being used correctly, the possibility of losing it as a result of consumer pressure remains.

“Consumers have concerns. Those concerns might not be science based, but they’re there,” he says. “This is where it is just so important that we use the product properly. If we don’t ensure that we’re using the product properly, the possibility is very strong that we’re going to lose it.”

Delivering a Message

To ensure that message gets through to as many producers as possible, Cereals Canada, the Canola Council of Canada and Pulse Canada, along with their provincial associations, are working together to deliver the Keep it Clean! program. Through Keep it Clean!, the group is sending a clear and strong message to farmers: use glyphosate correctly or risk losing it forever.

Dahl says the cross-commodity effort demonstrates the industry’s commitment to protecting market access while helping to maintain farmers’ access to important tools, including glyphosate. He adds that, despite assurances from regulatory agencies like Health Canada, which continues to stand by their decision to allow use of glyphosate on food crops, it’s export markets that will ultimately influence the future of the herbicide in Canadian food production.

“It’s not going to be governments that take the tool out of the toolbox, it’s going to be our markets,” he says. “That is absolutely a critical message and it’s why we have come together.”

Dahl and Jordan both agree that retailers play an important role in delivering the message of proper use, through their day-to-day, face-to-face interactions with their customers. Jordan says that, in some cases, growers may not fully understand how critical it is to follow the label and time applications to minimize the chance of product residues. Discussions with growers have revealed that many have a hard time assessing a crop’s readiness for glyphosate application, for example.

“For years we said, ‘there’s three things you need to know about using glyphosate – follow the label, follow the label, follow the label.’ But that’s pretty simplistic,” she says. “In discussions with farmers, we’ve realized that some are having a hard time understanding when their crop is at 30 per cent moisture or less if they’re doing a pre-harvest application.”

To address this, the industry has been making a concerted effort to provide growers with tools to assess crop staging. Both Bayer Canada and Keep it Clean! provide information online, including visual guides of various crops at 30 per cent moisture, says Jordan. She adds there’s great value in working together to continually reevaluate and tweak messaging to respond to growers needs. This includes manufacturers, suppliers, retailers and, as Hodgins points out, grain buyers.

“It doesn’t matter if you are growing beans or oats or barley or whatever; I think the important thing is that we keep it clean,” says Hodgins. “One of the most important things that the Keep it Clean! program promotes is ‘talk to your local buyer.’ Consult your buyer about which products you intend to use and make sure that you are not affecting the marketability of that crop.”

Engaging in Quality Conversations

Although proper use of glyphosate by Canadian farmers will contribute to maintaining the quality and reputation of Canadian crops on the world market, when it comes to communicating with domestic consumers, Jordan says there is still a long road ahead with much work to be done.

This is where engaging in conversations that focus on the broader story and the benefits that pesticides bring to the daily lives of all Canadians may help to open the minds of consumers and counter some of the misinformation and rhetoric surrounding glyphosate.

“I don’t think this conversation is going to go away in the future; I think it will be a perpetual discussion,” she says. “It’s really just trying to reframe the conversation for those outside of agriculture, doing a better job of listening and being completely transparent.

“Sure, we want consumers to understand the role of glyphosate and other pesticides in agriculture, but there are broader benefits to the economy, to the environment, to food safety, to food cost, to quality. We want them to understand what it means for a mother doing the grocery shopping or somebody who’s really interested in climate change and sustainability and the environment. That’s where I think we have to do a better job of sharing the bigger implications of this really important story.”

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