By Larry Powell A tale that is all too tragic. And familiar
For centuries, the aboriginal people of North America’s great plains have gathered wild berries and plants for food and medicine.
Now, members of two First Nations in Central Manitoba have not only observed declines in the abundance of such crops, they have documented unhealthy foliage and severe deformities in many of them. These include chokecherries, raspberries, Indian breadroot, saskatoons, cranberries and hawthorns.
Deformed chokecherry in study area.
After obtaining federal funding for a detailed study, several band members gathered hundreds of samples in and around Swan Lake, southwest of Portage La Prairie, and Rolling River, southeast of Riding Mountain National Park. The study was done almost three years ago but not made public until now.
For years, elders have watched as harvest areas shrink and overall quality declines. Where sage and sweet grass once flourished, there is now very little. In addition to an overall decline in the food and medicinal plants, grasses and tree leaves have become discoloured and wilted.
As one elder on Long Plain (correct) First Nation and one of the study co-ordinators, Dave Daniels puts it, “Wild plums that grew along fields have disappeared. There are islands of plants isolated by agricultural fields. Diversity is being lost."
The people of the region are convinced their food and medicine is being contaminated by pesticides which farmers are applying to their oilseed and cereal crops, both on and around the reserves. This, in turn, they believe, is contributing to increasing incidents of cancer and diabetes among the Anishanabe people.
So the researchers gathered fruit, flowers, bark, leaves and even soil from the six plant species in and around their reserves. They had them tested in the Winnipeg laboratory, ALS to see if they contained residues of any of some18 different kinds of pesticides. Most were herbicides used to kill broad-leafed weeds.
Of all the samples tested, however, only a single chokecherry flower collected at Swan Lake contained a detectable level (0.124 parts per million) of 2,4-D, one of the most widely used herbicides in the world. No chemicals were detected in any of the other samples.
This, however, has done little to allay the suspicions of the people involved.
The study team notes that 2,4-D was one of the components in “Agent Orange,” a deadly substance used by the military to defoliate the jungles during the Viet Nam war. One Elder even claims, when 2,4-D was used to kill mustard seed near Ninette, Manitoba several years ago, it had disastrous effects, also killing hawks, rodents and rabbits in the area.
Besides, the team further reports, there are reasons the tests turned up so little pesticide residues. “In speaking to farmers, the chemicals like herbicides have a short field life. The damage is done within a short window of time. The residuals soon break down in the soil or water like dew/rain. Some of the chemicals do the damage to the targeted plants within hours.”
In other words, once the damage is done, the residue is difficult, if not impossible to detect. Nor do the lab results mean there were no chemicals in the samples. Rather, they mean that the levels, if any, were below what the lab equipment was capable of detecting.
Literature on the effects of pesticides often state that they are well-regulated and that the risks are low. However, it is also suspected that, when used together, a “cocktail” of chemicals can act “synergistically,” in ways that are more dangerous than if applied separately.
Here is what was observed during the course of the study which causes band members to still believe that they are being poisoned and that pesticides are behind the decline in plant quantity and quality.
· An increase in the frequency of both ground and aerial spraying over the years around areas where the edible fruit and herbs are picked.
· In addition to the degradation of several plant species, the number of people of all ages diagnosed and dying of diseases; such as diabetes and cancers is greater than before.
· The closer to field (conventional crop) edge, the greater the damage to leaves, bark, flowers and fruit of the samples.
· The further from the agricultural area, the better the quality of sample.
· Only half a cup of saskatoons was found in both communities.
· Only a few hawthorns and small chokecherries were found.
· Wild strawberry flowers were found, but no fruit.
As the research team ominously concludes, "It is very clear that within the community and surrounding areas, something is very wrong.”
Meanwhile, the team has obtained more funding for a follow-up study – one it hopes will shed further light on the problem.
FOOTNOTE: This unfortunate tale is not news to historians. The excerpt below was taken from a paper published on a website of the Food and Agriculture Organization called "An Overview of the Use of Plant Foods by Indigenous Peoples in Canada," back in 1990. l.p.
"Today, populations of native plants and animals, and the ecosystems they inhabit, are more vulnerable to destruction than ever before. Modern practices of clearcut logging, strip mining, open range livestock production, and large-scale agriculture have drastically depleted the extent of natural habitats and the plants and animals living within them. Urban expansion, industrial development, widespread use of herbicides and insecticides on forests and farmlands, and the introduction of aggressive weeds and animal pests have taken a further toll on native plant and animal resources. Because of all these pressures on wild biological populations, extreme care must be taken to conserve and maintain natural habitats and native species."
An estimated one billion small farmers scratching out a living growing diverse crops and raising animals in developing countries represent the key to maintaining food production in the face of hotter temperatures and drought, especially in the tropical regions, says Sarah Elton, author of the book, “Consumed: Food for a Finite Planet.” Full story here.