When I’m knee-deep (ankle, for most of you) in discussions about challenges in agriculture, I often ask, “What’s the next bee?”
I’m used to the funny looks I get, but what I mean, once I clarify, is what is the next issue in agriculture that will be debated and perhaps regulated not necessarily on the merits of science and research but on perception, perceived risk, and consumer preference?
It would seem that glyphosate (a.k.a. RoundUp) is it.
There are three pieces of evidence I’m drawing on here: One, the recent push from oat buyers to find “glyphosate free” oats; two, activist and political opposition to glyphosate in the EU, including the behind-the-scenes talk of its use being part of the push for country-of-origin-labeling on durum into Italy; and, finally, the recent Canadian Food Inspection Agency report on glyphosate residues in food.
In case you missed it, CFIA recently reviewed a test of over 3,000 samples of domestic and imported food products to verify whether or not glyphosate residues were detected and at what level. Overwhelmingly, the majority of samples (98.7%) tested were at or below the allowable maximum residue limit (MRL). Those products that exceeded the MRL “posed no health risk,” according to Health Canada.
- Glyphosate does not desiccate the crop — it kills it by stopping photosynthesis. Eventual dry-down is 10 to 14 days. A true desiccant actually destroys cell wall structure, drying out the plant quickly, typically in 3 to 5 days.
- Glyphosate does not “even-out” maturity, it simply kills the plant (See above). So maturation essentially stops within a few days. This can be where residues may cause an issue — an immature seed may have some glyphosate translocate into the seed. Remember: the appropriate timing for an application is physiological maturity (when the peduncle, the bit of stem directly below the head, has completely turned a tan colour).
- What do you do if there is late tillering or a variable crop, and you simply can’t wait for every stem to be mature? Turn up the fan on the combine! The immature kernels, where there might be tiny amounts of glyphosate, will be small and light. High cleaning fan speeds will blast those kernels out the back of the combine. You will lose almost no yield, and the chance of residues will drop dramatically. That’s your option.
As I see it, there will be two things consumers will likely notice and take issue with — one, that nearly 30% of products had some detectable glyphosate; and, two, that the category with the highest number of exceeded MRLs was grains. (Yes, it’s less than 4%. But no, that doesn’t matter to a concerned consumer. What’s more, what we can detect and what is of concern are two different things, but, again, that doesn’t resonate with consumers).
Where do we go from here? At home and abroad, pressure is mounting to either restrict or eliminate access to glyphosate, similar to what has and is happening with neonic products.
As with any discussion of restriction or elimination of a registered product, there are consequences (positive and negative, to be sure). We’d most certainly see a reduction in use, and that’s a win for those who want it, but we’d also see increased use of swathers (ie. equipment cost, labour cost, fuel use), an increase in post-harvest weed control (so, on the whole, are we reducing pesticide and fuel use?), and certainly higher risk of sprouting and spoilage in the swath. Harvest losses and spoilage translates to fewer harvested bushels per acre. Put another way, the same number of inputs (and carbon-footprint-heavy ones such as fuel and fertilizer) would produce fewer bushels per acre, thus increasing the total environmental footprint. As often is the case on these debates, those lamenting glyphosate use have likely not considered the big-picture impacts.
But I digress.
To be fair, glyphosate is not benign. No crop protection product is, organic-approved or conventional. Each has a label for its safe and effective use, and that label includes instructions that aren’t there as guidelines — they serve the very real purpose of ensuring the final food ingredient will fall within the safety parameters for our food system. MRLs are easy to steer clear of if a product is used according to the label. Why then does the recent survey single out “grains” as the only real category that has samples exceeding the MRL? Likely because of mis-timing of an application.
I’m not for a moment suggesting that farmers are being malicious or careless in anyway, but the actual window for a pre-harvest application for wheat begins at physiological maturity. That’s when the peduncle, the bit of stem directly under the heads is completely tan. Why does this matter? Because a green stem is still moving nutrients (photosynthate to be precise) up into the developing kernels. If sprayed with glyphosate, that upward movement continues, potentially depositing minute amounts of the chemical in the seed.
Again, you can argue that the amount of residue is minimal. You can argue that it has no impact on human health, and Health Canada will even agree with you. But for our consumers, who are concerned already about the Very Scary Roundup being everything from cancer-causing to the cause of autism and celiac disease, hear me: It. Doesn’t. Matter.
What can farmers do? What DOES matter? Well, two things — fully and honestly evaluate why you use glyphosate, across all crop types and for each situation; and, two, you must follow the label, to the letter. This is non-negotiable and really is a matter of preserving public trust. Farmers should be just as or more concerned that grain products have exceeded the MRL, because it’s a red flag that a practice is falling out of line with best management practices (BMPs).
The cynic will say it doesn’t matter anyway, that the witch hunt is on and the activists will not stop until they’ve regulated every crop protection product out of existence. The optimist in me sees it differently — that if as an industry we can be proactive rather than reactive on BMPs, from pesticide use, to tillage, and animal welfare, and we share that honestly and non-defensively with our consumers, we can maintain a freedom to operate.
I hope I’m right.
Lyndsey Smith and Kelvin Heppner discuss this pre-harvest glyphosate issue, what it could mean for producers, and the response to this column: