‘To say nothing is not public service’: former Agriculture Canada official raised red flags on pesticide

By Marc Fawcett-Atkinson | News | May 16th 2024

A former official in Canada's agriculture ministry accused the federal pesticide regulator of failing to assess the health risks posed by the controversial herbicide glyphosate, a key ingredient of Roundup, months before leaving the ministry.

The concerns from David Cox, who at the time was deputy director at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC), were revealed in a trove of emails distributed to high- and mid-level AAFC officials — including deputy minister Stefanie Beck — in June and October 2023. They were obtained by Canada's National Observer through an access to information request.

"I am not an expert but I do believe in raising red flags where I see large-scale risk exposure and peer-reviewed papers stating there are harms. To say nothing is not public service," wrote Cox in a June 14, 2023 email distributed to eight senior AAFC officials, including Beck. A spokesperson for AAFC said this week that Cox no longer works for the ministry.
Researchers have found that glyphosate, which is commonly labelled both an herbicide and a pesticide by the industry, can cause cancer, is toxic to the nervous system and harms animals' gut bacteria. The chemical is considered to be potentially carcinogenic by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. A recent Health Canada study concluded that the average Canadian has small amounts of glyphosate in their urine.

According to Cox's June 14, 2023 email, up to 90 per cent of Canadian "fields and horticulture crops, and their soils, have long-term exposure from ongoing" glyphosate use.

Nonetheless, according to the government's sales report, the chemical is by far Canada's most common herbicide, with over 50 million kilograms of the herbicide sold in Canada in 2020. It is used by farmers to kill weeds and logging companies to eradicate deciduous trees from their cutblocks. Pesticide regulators in Canada, the U.S. and the European Union have deemed glyphosate-based pesticides to be safe, despite a fast-growing body of research about the chemical's danger.

The revelations come as Canada's Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) — an agency within Health Canada — has doubled down on allowing glyphosate use in recent years despite lawsuits, sustained political criticism and growing global concern about the chemical's health impacts.

In a Thursday statement, AAFC said the "government of Canada takes pesticide safety very seriously and is committed to protecting the health of humans and the environment, including wildlife. To be used in Canada, a pesticide such as glyphosate must undergo a highly regulated, science-based risk assessment to ensure that it meets Health Canada’s human health and environment protection requirements."

A recent report by Aimpoint Research, funded by global pesticide giant Bayer, found that eliminating the pesticide's use would raise U.S. farmers' production costs by about $1.9 billion. Researchers have found that eliminating the current widespread use of glyphosate is possible, though they note the shift would require planning and efforts to support farmers in the transition.

E-mails reviewed by Canada's National Observer show that a former official within Agriculture Canada had repeatedly warned senior ministry officials about the potential harms of the popular herbicide glyphosate, as shown in research.
Primarily penned by Cox, the trove of emails also included a note written by Myriam Fernandez, an AAFC researcher specializing in organic agriculture. The messages show both employees raised the alarm about the health risks posed by glyphosate, citing emerging research about the chemical's role in harming the nervous system and pregnancy and potentially causing cancers.

In the June email, Cox wrote that "glyphosate concerns me as I receive peer-reviewed journals and papers from [AAFC researchers]" that run counter to the federal government's policy to consider the chemical to be safe. The findings, he suggested, left him concerned that Canadian agricultural policies and regulatory decisions for the chemical were failing to reflect the most modern research on the product's toxicity.

Cox continued sounding the alarm in a subsequent email sent on October 13, 2023 to Tom Rosser, AAFC's assistant deputy minister of market and industry services and Donald Boucher, AAFC director-general of sector development and analysis. In the note, he reiterated being "truly concerned about the growing peer-review literature about glyphosate health and environmental risks to the public."

He wrote that AAFC had become "too reliant or complacent" on the ability of Canada's regulator to properly evaluate glyphosate. That could lead the agency to overlook emerging science about the product's health impact and international efforts to rein in its use, potentially creating a "risk red flag scenario," he said.

Vietnam is the only country to have fully banned the chemical. Sri Lanka tried in 2015 and backed down in 2021; France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany have partially prohibited it. Germany and Mexico have pledged to fully ban the pesticide, but have not yet done so. It was almost banned across the EU last year, but the bloc's pesticide regulator renewed the pesticide's registration last year.

Cox noted that Canada's continued use of glyphosate — and AAFC's lack of a plan to help farmers use less of it — exposed Canada to future financial and trade risks if other countries ban products exposed to the chemical.

"For your sakes, please take this seriously if you haven't yet. Never been clear to me if these [concerns] are dismissed because of the policy paradigm driving the biotechnology agenda … or that I am seen as an organic arguer defaming [glyphosate]. I am just revealing context based on evidence I get from various sources," he wrote.

The documents released in the access to information request included a Jan. 18, 2023 email Cox and other AAFC staff and people involved in Canada's organic sector received from AAFC researcher Fernandez. The message included an 2022 study of glyphosate's health impact and noted that Fernandez was "gathering scientific publications on glyphosate impacts on the health of humans."

Cox forwarded the email to Rosser and Boucher and said he would add them to Fernandez's mailing list distributing new research about the health impacts of glyphosate. The documents do not include any response from either official.

"I wish that those opposed to organic agriculture, and who still believe that glyphosate is 'just like water,' would take the time to do a simple search for this type of peer-reviewed scientific publications, and read them," Fernandez wrote.

The revelations come amid growing concerns about Canada's pesticide regulator's ability to protect Canadians from harmful pesticides, including glyphosate.

Last year, Canada's National Observer found the agency had for years downplayed health and environmental concerns from its own scientists about the toxic pesticide chlorpyrifos. The agency also downplayed the health risks of the pesticide dimethyl tetrachloroterephtalate (DCPA) in the wake of an emergency warning from the EPA about the chemical.

The agency's transparency has also come into question after prominent health researcher Bruce Lanphear resigned from a scientific advisory position with the PMRA last year due to transparency issues. In his letter of resignation, he lambasted the organization's "obsolete" approach to pesticide regulation.

Moreover, in 2022, a coalition of health and environmental groups led by Ecojustice challenged the government's decision to renew glyphosate-based herbicide "Mad Dog Plus." The case alleges the government failed to assess research on the chemical's health risks published since it was re-approved by the regulator in 2017.

That case comes on the heels of a 2022 ruling by the Federal Court of Appeal that found the PMRA failed to justify its 2017 decision to re-approve the chemical.

"Interesting to see a deputy director at [AAFC] raising red flags," said Laura Bowman, an Ecojustice lawyer and pesticide expert. "The irony is that as more evidence piles up on glyphosate risks, the harder it is for regulators to keep up. That's why we brought the registration renewal litigation."

Cassie Barker, the senior program manager for toxics at Environmental Defence, was succinct about the implication of Cox's efforts to raise red flags about glyphosate.

"That's wild. I'm glad to hear it," she said.


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