Foods made with genetically modified organisms (GMO) are certainly the first ones to eliminate from one’s diet in order to keep away from toxic residues. Indeed, these crops have been purposely modified genetically to withstand higher doses of herbicides and pesticides used by farmers in order to increase yield. However, the growing use of herbicides is not restricted to GMOs and concerns a large list of crops. The Food Issues Committee has been paying attention to this increasing trend in agriculture for GMO crops and beyond.

One common herbicide of concern is a chemical called glyphosate, also known by its trade name Roundup. A 2015 memorandum on glyphosate usage from the US Environment Protection Agency, presented data on 70 crops grown in the US using glyphosate, including cucumber, tomatoes, spinach, strawberries and almonds, to name only a few. The report points out that the quantities of glyphosate applied have been growing for 47 of the 70 crops, compared with similar data from 2007. 

In addition to application to GMO crops, another reason for the growing use of glyphosate is that farmers have changed their practices and now rely even more on chemical sprays than would be necessary just for weed control purposes. Crop desiccation, the process of spraying crops with pesticide just prior to harvest, is a good example. This practice is intended to correct for uneven crop growth, achieve more even ripening, allow earlier harvest (and therefore earlier replanting), and diminish strain on harvesting machinery.

Glyphosate was first authorized by the Canadian government for pre-harvest treatment on wheat, barley, soybeans, peas, lentils, canola, and flax in 1992, shortly after the establishment by Health and Welfare Canada of Maximum Residue Limits (MRLs) for glyphosate in the Food and Drug Regulations. Even though pre-harvest spray increases the possibility of glyphosate residues remaining in/on harvested crops and surrounding environment, this new practice was not considered harmful to consumers as long as the residues remained below the MRLs. Even in 2019, Health Canada continues to maintain this position although a 2016 report from the WHO International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic” from a hazard perspective, but unlikely to cause cancer in people via dietary exposure when below MRLs. 

In short, the development of GMO crops is only one of the reasons behind the increasing use of glyphosate, and it is becoming harder and harder for us as consumers to distinguish which food items are more likely to contain toxic residues. One guarantee remains valid, though: organic specifications prohibit the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, with a few rare exceptions, and glyphosate is not among those exceptions. If your own personal MRL for glyphosate is zero, choosing organic food is probably the safest option available today. Unless, of course, you know your farmer and trust their practices.

submitted by Nathalie Rémond for the Food Issues Committee

Thank you to Karma member Kenneth MacDonald for forwarding a news article on this issue to the Food Issues Committee.