Stopping the 'rain of death' on Canada's forests

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Helipcopter aerial sprays herbicides on clearcut land. Image credit: Francis Eatherington/Flickr

First Nations in Ontario call it the "rain of death." They are referring to the aerial spraying of the herbicide glyphosate -- Bayer-Monsanto's Roundup and similar products -- on forest lands without their consent.

This has been going on for 45 years, in line with the commercial forest industry's practice of clear-cutting, followed by replanting for monocultures.

The purpose of the glyphosate is to wipe out the so-called "weed" species that start regrowing after clearcutting. Those species include aspen, alder, birch, oak, maple, willow and other broad-leaf plants and shrubs -- which are considered of less commercial value than needle-leaf softwoods like lodgepole pine and Douglas fir, the "money trees."

Forester and forest ecologist Herb Hammond told me by email that these so-called "weed" species "are vital for biological diversity, building soil nutrient capital, slowing the spread of wildfire, and [they are] superior to conifers in sequestering and storing carbon -- an important forest assist in this climate change world."

The aerial spraying has been going on for so long that observers on the ground can no longer doubt the widespread damage to animals, plants, fish, insects and soil, and likely to the humans who live in the region. The World Health Organization's (WHO) International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified glyphosate as "probably carcinogenic to humans."

Getting the run-around

Members of the Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) Elders of the North Shore of Lake Huron have taken the lead in defying aerial spraying. Formed in 2014, the TEK Elders group is composed of elders from 21 bands in the area. They state that aerial spraying infringes on the Robinson Huron Treaty of 1850, which guarantees their rights to hunt, fish, gather berries, and use plant medicines in traditional territories. The Constitution Act of 1982 reaffirmed those rights.

They have been joined in opposition to aerial spraying by Nishnawbe Aski Nation (representing 49 First Nations in Ontario), Mushkegowuk Council, the North Shore Tribal Council, and Anishnaabe chiefs of the upper Great Lakes.

But for years they have been given the bureaucratic run-around.

As Sue Chiblow, a Garden River First Nation member assisting the TEK Elders, told APTN News in March of 2019:

"We went to the Ministry of Natural Resources and they said,'well no, we just issued the license so that's not our problem; it's Health Canada's problem. …So we went to Health Canada and they said, 'we don't actually do the spraying; we're just saying that it's OK and it's up to the companies to use or not use it.'"

In 2017, Health Canada decided to re-register (i.e. re-authorize) the use of glyphosate for another 15 years, indicating that it is safe when used as directed. That decision has prompted more opposition to glyphosate.

Pest Management Regulatory Agency

Within Health Canada, the body that does the review and re-registering of pesticides like glyphosate is the Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA).

Some will recall that starting in 2012, former prime minister Stephen Harper waged a devastating war on science, pitched as a way to bring down the deficit. In the process, Harper axed (or slashed to the bone) dozens of federal environmental programs and fired or transferred more than 5,000 federal scientists. As well, thousands of unionized support staff were cut from federal departments.

As of July 2014, the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada -- the union representing government scientists and other federal and provincial government employees -- reported that just under 100 Pest Management Regulatory Agency jobs had been affected by the drastic budgetary cuts, and most of those were biologists, now gone from the agency.

A mere three years later, the Pest Management Regulatory Agency released its re-evaluation of glyphosate in April 2017, which failed to take into account any impacts on human health -- including evidence submitted by the David Suzuki Foundation, Environmental Defence Canada, Friends of the Earth, Safe Food Matters, and the WHO's conclusion that glyphposate is probably carcinogenic to humans.

In June 2017, Safe Food Matters and others filed notice of objections and asked the federal minister of health to establish an independent panel to review the agency's re-registration decision. The minister rejected that request.

In February 2019, Safe Food Matters filed an application for judicial review of the PMRA's rejection of its notice of objections. The Federal Court dismissed the application.

Meanwhile, a new study, reported by Earth Island Journal, showed that glyphosate exposure "increases cancer risk by up to 41 per cent."

Safe Food Matters filed an appeal of the Federal Court's ruling on March 13, 2020.

On October 21, 2020, the David Suzuki Foundation, Environmental Defence Canada, and Friends of the Earth Canada, represented by Ecojustice lawyers, decided to intervene in the case.

As the groups explained:

"Under the Pest Control Products Act, Canadians have the right to request reviews of decisions made by the PMRA to ensure accountability and transparency. [We are] intervening in this case to ensure that this right continues to protect the health of Canadians and the environment. Canadians should be able to depend on the PMRA to use the precautionary nature of the Pest Control Products Act to take swift action to restrict the use of harmful pesticides, like glyphosate. Unfortunately, in this instance, they have not applied this precautionary approach. When, like with the re-registration of glyphosate, the PMRA fails to act with appropriate precaution, the right to request reviews of decisions gives Canadians an important tool to hold the PMRA accountable and to protect our health and environment. Unfortunately, the Federal Court's decision seriously limited the scope of that tool -- making it effectively impossible to use."

A date for the appeal has not yet been set.

Recently, however, another anti-glyphosate ally has come forward.

Private member's bill

On April 15, Green Party MP Jenica Atwin introduced Bill C-285, a private member's bill that would impose a nationwide ban on the use of glyphosate on forests and fields. Atwin told Parliament:

"Rather than allowing toxic chemicals to be sprayed in Canada until they are proven harmful, we should be exercising greater precaution: banning products until they can be deemed safe. Canadians have the right to breathe clean air, drink safe water, and harvest healthy foods from the land."

Tens of thousands of people in New Brunswick have opposed aerial spraying of glyphosate for decades.

As Susan O'Donnell wrote for NB Media Co-op, Atwin's bill proposes two changes:

"First, to make it illegal to 'manufacture, possess, handle, store, transport, import, distribute or use glyphosate as a pest control product,' and second, to cancel the registration of glyphosate under the Pest Control Products Act."

Nova Scotia and Quebec have stopped aerial spraying of glyphosate, while Quebec stopped the use of chemical herbicides on Crown forest land in 2001. Instead, crews are hired to manually remove competing plants. In B.C., however, forest companies are obligated to spray by provincial government regulation. In Ontario, companies cite Health Canada's approval.

Indigenous knowledge

Meanwhile, the TEK Elders and other Indigenous groups have been partnering with universities and academics to question and update the science on glyphosate. As Sue Chiblow told me during a phone interview, "there is a huge lack of science on glyphosate," compared to what Indigenous people have observed in their forest ecosystems.

In November 2019, a two-day workshop titled "Guardians in a Changing World" was hosted by Magnetawan First Nation in partnership with Mount Allison University, York University, and the University of British Columbia Okanagan.

Some four dozen primarily Indigenous participants discussed their concerns and observations about the use of glyphosate in forestry, identifying five key issues:

  • plant biodiversity and health;
  • animal biodiversity and health;
  • movement through the environment and persistence;
  • human safety and well-being;
  • and awareness and transparency among the public, government, and industry.

In their follow-up report, scientists Heather Patterson, Ella Bowles and Jesse N. Popp attempted to match these concerns and observations with the existing scientific literature on glyphosate. They found some large gaps in western science.

As Sue Chiblow told me, "we have to wait for the science to catch up with us."

Some 20 countries have pending legislation to ban glyphosate, and at least four -- Austria, Germany, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam -- have already done so. Canada needs to join them to stop the "rain of death."

Canadian freelance writer Joyce Nelson is the author of seven books. She can be reached via www.joycenelson.ca

Image credit: Francis Eatherington/Flickr

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