Debate over glyphosate heats up as Rod Cumberland, farmers group make their case

·4 min read
Rod Cumberland addresses the standing committee on climate change and environmental stewardship. (Government of New Brunswick - image credit)
Rod Cumberland addresses the standing committee on climate change and environmental stewardship. (Government of New Brunswick - image credit)

Glyphosate was once again at the centre of a tug-of-war on Thursday, with speakers drawing deep lines in the sand over whether it should be banned in New Brunswick.

On day three of hearings into the province's use of herbicides and pesticides, environmental stewardship committee members heard conflicting information from presenters, some of whom cited the same scientific reports but with completely opposite interpretations.

Rod Cumberland, a former professor who has alleged he was fired from his job at Maritime College of Forest Technology in 2019 for sharing his views about glyphosate, noted "there are biased perspectives on both sides" of the debate.

In his presentation at the hearings, Cumberland said he hoped to help the committee understand why there are two starkly different points of view about glyphosate use.

  • READ MORE on this week's hearings:

"Point number one: This is not about glyphosate," he said. "The confusion begins by focusing on the active ingredient glyphosate ... That's what Health Canada evaluated. That's what the province has become fixated on."

All roads lead to Health Canada, but is that the right road? - Rod Cumberland, addressing pesticide hearings

The problem, he said, is that the chemical is never sold or sprayed as glyphosate alone.

The amount of active ingredient may be comparable, "but the devil is in the details" of the remaining 60 per cent of the toxic substances in the formulation, such as arsenic and lead.

"New Brunswick uses the most toxic formulation available [when spraying forests], because it kills competing hardwood the best," Cumberland said. "Why is that? Because everything hinges on the annual allowable cut."

Cumberland questions Health Canada's findings

The spraying has taken a toll on the deer population by eliminating tons of their food, said Cumberland, who noted he has seen lower birth rates and physical deformities in deer, which he blames on ingesting glyphosate-treated feed.

Cumberland also addressed the stock put in Health Canada's review of glyphosate.

The federal agency concluded in 2019 that the concerns raised by objectors could not be scientifically supported and said "no pesticide regulatory authority in the world" considers glyphosate to be a cancer risk at the levels at which humans are currently exposed.

That conclusion is often cited by groups arguing in favour of glyphosate use.

But Cumberland questioned that finding, and referred instead to a 2015 International Agency for Research on Cancer report that classified glyphosate as "probably carcinogenic to humans."

"All roads lead to Health Canada, but is that the right road?" he asked. "Is glyphosate carcinogenic or not? ... Health Canada will spend a lot of time tomorrow trying to debunk this."

A representative of Health Canada is scheduled to appear before the hearings on Friday.

Government of New Brunswick
Government of New Brunswick

Agriculture group cautions against ban

But representatives of the Agricultural Alliance of New Brunswick, who spoke before Cumberland, took a diametrically opposed stand.

They argued that the cancer research report had been discredited and argued against a ban on glyphosate, saying it would cause further hardship to an already beleaguered agriculture sector.

"It's a very dangerous path that we are going down," alliance vice-president Christian Michaud said.

"Agriculture is not healthy in this province ... If New Brunswick is to move forward, we need to use every tool that is at our disposal because the countries and provinces around us will, and that will leave us at a serious disadvantage."

President Lisa Ashworth said glyphosate has been proven to be safe when used properly, and she cautioned against misinformation, biased statistics and non-expert advice.

Green Party Leader David Coon, who is on the environmental stewardship committee, asked Ashworth if her group flags emerging evidence of health risks with a product.

We have families, we are the first people eating the plants and drinking the milk. - Lisa Ashworth, president of the Agricultural Alliance of N.B.

"The short answer is no," she said. "We're not going to take out a public announcement that says, 'We've read a paper and you should be worried.' ... We are not researchers. We leave that to the experts."

But neither do they take health risks lightly, she added, noting that farmers are on the front line of the controversy over chemicals.

"We have families, we are the first people eating the plants and drinking the milk. My three children, as I sit here and chat with you, are all working on our farm today," she said.

"I can guarantee you as a mom, if I didn't think it was safe, there would be a battle to the death with my husband. We don't do things we don't believe in."

The committee also heard Thursday from Stop Spraying NB and biology professors from the Université de Moncton on.Thursday.

The hearings, which are being live-streamed, will wrap up Friday with presentations from Forest NB, Health Canada's Pest Management Regulatory Agency and others.

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