Poison with your cereal, anyone?

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A caution sign reads "Pesticide spraying in progress. Proceed at own risk." Image credit: jetsandzeppelins/Flickr

There are times when I can't believe what I am hearing or reading.

I have been stunned in this way twice in the past month.

Most recently, Health Canada's Pest Management Regulatory Agency is proposing to increase the levels allowed by law of glyphosate (e.g., Roundup) permitted in Canadian food. Roundup is the brand name used by Monsanto for a widely used pesticide on the market since the early 1970s. Increasingly, there have been calls for the removal of Roundup from the market given concerns that the product causes cancer. There have been several court cases against Monsanto by individuals who used the product widely -- even spraying in school yards -- and then later developed cancer. I have written about Monsanto's grip in several columns published here.

Health Canada is proposing to more than double, triple and quadruple the Maximum Residue Limits (MRLs) -- also known as parts per million -- in oats and bran, lentils, peas, and 25 types of beans such as chickpeas, kidney beans, and pinto beans, as well as nuts such as almonds, pecans and walnuts, mostly coming from the United States. Glyphosate is already prevalent in the environment. There is contamination in drift from the air or wind, dust, and possibly in shipping containers. Residues of glyphosate are already being found in children's cereals and other products marketed to children.

If allowed by Health Canada, this increase in glyphosate levels in field crops will also affect organic products, since it will legally allow more of the glyphosate or Roundup residue in these products. And if independent organic certification organizations limit the parts per million allowed via certification, then it will mean that Canadian organic farmers may have a difficult time getting some crops certified. Either way -- the outcome will affect our environment and hence organic crops.

To be clear, in 2015, the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) identified glyphosate, the world's most commonly used herbicide, as a probable human carcinogen.

Several agriculture organizations including the Organic Canada Trade Association, the National Farmers Union, Safe Food Matters and Prevent Cancer Now are opposed to the increases in levels of glyphosate residue in Canadian food and have prepared important and detailed information for the public and government regarding their concerns. Health Canada's consultation on the issue ended on July 20.

Besides being stunned by Health Canada's Pest Management Regulatory Agency's recent move regarding glyphosate residues, I was also shocked to learn about the role that epigenetics can play in the transgenerational transfer of harmful toxicities from environmental pollutants. In other words, epigenetics allows for the harmful effects of toxins to be passed from one generation to another indefinitely, making some individuals more susceptible to particular diseases.

Does Health Canada not know this? Do they not care?

Increasingly science is showing that those exposed to harmful substances in their lifetimes can pass on the impact of these substances -- such as DDT or glyphosate -- to future generations through epigenetic biomarkers -- essentially tags. It was once thought that DNA controlled our susceptibility to disease, but for the past 20 years scientists have been studying the roll of epigenetics in transferring disease susceptibility to future generations.

These biomarkers are the "on and off" switch if you like, controlling our DNA. Because of epigenetics, the toxicity of pesticides and other harmful chemicals does not end with direct exposure, but can be stored in our "cellular memory" and transferred to future generations. That's the really shocking part -- transferred to future generations!!

A recent episode of Quirks and Quarks, and the interview with scientist Dr. Michael Skinner, a biologist from Washington State University, should have everyone's ears perking up. If you have not heard this episode, it is an excellent primer about the role epigenetics is playing in human health. The CBC episode begins with a clip from the 1960s and conjures up the important findings published in the seminal book Silent Spring by Rachel Carson .

The episode walks us through the findings of a 60-year-old study and chronicles the increased risk granddaughters have to some cancers, such as prostate and ovarian, kidney disease, diabetes, reproductive disorders, obesity, neural degeneration, and other diseases because of their grandmothers exposure to the insecticide DDT. The study cites dioxins, PCBs, glyphosate, and more than 20 environmental toxicants.

The science notes that the increased risk has been tracked through four generations, but is likely to occur for hundreds more. Yes! Hundreds of generations. Note -- the epigenetic biomarkers do not give you the disease -- but they do increase your risk or susceptibility to certain diseases or health conditions. This relatively new field is called epigenetic inheritance. Basically, the epigenetic biomarkers control the DNA and turn on and off the genes that determine an individual's susceptibility to certain health issues. The conditions influenced by epigenetic inheritance and how the genes are expressed include behavioural changes such as attention deficit and autism, among others.

"We think that basically every disease will have an epigenetic component that has not been previously thought about," said Dr. Skinner during the interview with CBC.

Given that scientists have proven the role of epigenetics -- why would a Health Canada agency  want to increase residue levels in food of an already heavily contested pesticide?

I hate to simplify the debate, but why would Health Canada want to continue to increase the risk of individuals today as well as tomorrow? Could it be to ensure Monsanto returns to past profit levels? Or that we level the playing field with American regulators to allow imports of glyphosate-laden crops from that country? Or are we trying to further dilute the organic industry and make it harder for Canadian organic farmers to certify their crops or maintain access to European markets?

Why this crass disregard for human health by Health Canada?

Do they really just expect us to shut-up and eat our cereal?

Lois Ross is a communications specialist, writer and editor, living in Ottawa. Her column "At the farm gate" discusses issues that are key to food production here in Canada as well as internationally.

Image credit: jetsandzeppelins/Flickr

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