Soybeans ready to harvest. Credit: Kelly Sikkema / Unsplash

What are you eating today? Do you know where your food comes from?

Unless you choose carefully, your food is likely contaminated with “death chemicals,” pesticides such as glyphosate and neonicotinoids used in ever-increasing amounts in conventional North American agriculture.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture says 90 per cent of the corn and soybeans grown in that country are genetically modified, with many specifically engineered to tolerate spraying with herbicides such as glyphosate.

With growing weed resistance to glyphosate, and a lack of information on alternative production methods, farmers are stuck on a chemical treadmill, applying more and more of this chemical. A Health Canada proposal to accommodate increased glyphosate use by allowing glyphosate residues in food to increase as much as four-fold was only beaten back temporarily after a massive public outcry.

Neonicotinoids are also death chemicals: insect brain poisons applied as seed coatings that permeate the entire crop plant as it matures. They are almost universally used to grow corn, soybeans and other food crops. Seed coatings also contain fungicides.

As a result, most foods — particularly processed and packaged foods — contain GMO ingredients and pesticides such as glyphosate, neonicotinoids and fungicides.

In her July 2021 book, Toxic Legacy: How the Weedkiller Glyphosate Is Destroying Our Health and the Environment, Dr. Stephanie Seneff reviews published studies showing that glyphosate is an endocrine-disrupting chemical that contributes to the current wave of auto-immune diseases and other health problems. She discusses how glyphosate allows harmful bacteria to dominate the microbiome of the human digestive system.

Despite decades of use, glyphosate’s mode of action in killing plants and bacteria and causing disease in humans is unclear. Dr. Seneff believes that glyphosate replaces a chemically similar amino acid (glycine) and makes proteins dysfunctional. But this theory has never been rigorously tested.

Dr. Seneff describes an epidemic of pathogenic fungal infections in plants and animals (including humans) induced by glyphosate. She cites a 2009 study in Saskatchewan demonstrating a “consistent association” between previous glyphosate use and fungal diseases such as such as root/crown rot and Fusarium head blight in wheat and barley.

While pathogenic fungi can tolerate glyphosate, it harms beneficial fungi that promote the growth of food crops and trees.

First Nations and ENGOs are calling for a ban on glyphosate spraying of forests. They say it creates a hot, dry landscape devoid of wildlife and prone to burning. A University of Northern British Columbia study found that glyphosate breaks down very slowly in northern forests, remaining in plant tissues for a decade or more.

Like glyphosate, neonicotinoids break down slowly in colder climates. A 2019 study found widespread contamination of the St. Lawrence River and its tributaries.

A 2020 Quebec study found that neonicotinoid-coated seeds are routinely sown in crop fields even when pests are absent. While public concern has focused on impacts on bees and other pollinators, the study’s authors warn:

“A vast body of scientific literature has demonstrated that the scale of use of those insecticides has resulted in widespread contamination of agricultural soils, freshwater resources, wetlands, and non-target vegetation, along with repeated and chronic exposure of the organisms inhabiting these habitats to potentially harmful concentrations of these pesticides.”

A 2020 critical review of health impacts of neonicotinoids says:

“Available toxicological data from animal studies indicate possible genotoxicity, cytotoxicity, impaired immune function, and reduced growth and reproductive success at low concentrations, while limited data from ecological or cross-sectional epidemiological studies have identified acute and chronic health effects ranging from acute respiratory, cardiovascular, and neurological symptoms to oxidative genetic damage and birth defects.”

Killing all but a single species with pesticides is the dominant means of industrial crop production in Canada. Development of resistant pests makes this model futile in the long run. The resultant mass death of plants and animals, including humans, is needless and tragic. 

Alternative means of crop production (loosely termed “regenerative”) that can address the twin climate and biodiversity crises and improve our health are readily available. 

Buy unprocessed and organic products to speed the needed transition. Pressure your elected officials to reform laws and regulatory bodies that perpetuate the chemical treadmill. Ask them to fund research and extension support to farmers for healthier, regenerative alternatives.

Ole Hendrickson

Ole Hendrickson

Ole Hendrickson is an ecologist, a former federal research scientist, and chair of the Sierra Club Canada Foundation's national conservation committee.