For François Tardif, a weed science expert at the University of Guelph, the panic buying prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic offers a glimpse into life without pest management in agriculture.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, people made a mad rush to the store to buy food, but most Canadians have never experienced a real food shortage in their lifetime,” he says.
Without pesticides, Tardif says farmers’ crops run the risk of insect, weed and fungal infestations that could devastate supply – and the food security to which Canadians expect. For consumers, food scarcity, soaring food costs, malnutrition and disease could follow.
“The first impact would be a reduction in the volume of food and then the quality of food produced,” Tardif adds. “Pesticides are not only important to food security in uncertain times, they are important all the time.”
Understanding the role of pesticides
Pesticides are herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, and antimicrobial agents used to prevent and minimize pests that could damage agricultural food production. They fall under two categories – synthetic, “man-made” products and organic products from natural sources.
Public concern over pesticides stems largely from potential risks to human health and safety and impact on the environment. Contrary to popular belief, organic pesticides also present health and ecological risks, Tardif says.
“The fact that a pesticide is natural does not necessarily guarantee safety and the fact that it’s synthetic does not necessarily prove it’s toxic. There are some very toxic molecules out there that are natural,” Tardif says.
Moreover, whereas some people view pesticides as “poisons” that harm living organisms, others, Tardif says, see them as “phytopharmaceuticals ” that cure crop disease.
“It’s a question of how products are packaged, presented and the perception of risk. It creates an emotional response,” Tardif adds. “When you take out the emotion and look at the scientific data, there’s little reason for concern.”
Minimizing risk through pesticide regulations
According to Tardif, pesticides undergo a significant amount of scientific scrutiny to meet regulatory standards, which he says is similar to that of a new prescription drug.
Under Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA), a thorough science-based approach is taken to determine a pesticide does not pose an unacceptable risk to human health and the environment. The agency strives to:
· Make sure new pesticides make useful contributions to pest management;
· Advance the registration of lower-risk products;
· Confirm products meet current scientific standards by re-evaluating them every 15 years.
How pesticides are used is also subject to additional regulatory oversight under provincial, territorial and municipal legislation.
“What is the fate in the environment? Does it end up in the food chain? Does it affect aquatic life? How will it impact operators and what are the toxicity levels?,” Tardif lists, referring to a number of criteria examined before a pesticide is brought to market. “The regulatory agency would never allow a product to be just so-so.”
The PMRA also sets the limit for residual pesticides left on, or in, food items after harvest. This is enforced by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and, to date, Health Canada says there is no scientific evidence to show health risks from consuming pesticide residue.
The backbone of Canadian food supply
Tardif also points to a disconnect between the general public and the farming community to account for a widespread misunderstanding of pesticides.
Consumers often take the impact of crop failure on farmers – the backbone of the Canadian food chain – for granted, he suggests.
“When you’re planting 200 acres [80 hectares], it’s not like a home garden,” Tardif says, adding unmanaged pests not only diminish farmers’ yields but also their livelihoods.
“It’d be like saying to someone, ‘You’re going to work this week, but you’re only going to get 60 per cent of your salary.’ That’s what happens to farmers who experience crop failure. They lose their income.”
Pesticides are an appropriate form of sustainable pest management. When used responsibly, they enable farmers to remain profitable and continue to supply Canadians with a reliable food supply of affordable and nutritious food.
With a second wave of COVID-19 emptying store shelves, consider the important role pest management plays in supporting Canadian farmers, as well as food security during the pandemic – and beyond.
For details, visit the Government of Canada’s website to learn more about pesticides and pest management, and pesticides and food safety.
And if you’re concerned about pesticides on your produce, follow these tips.
Tips for removing pesticide residue in produce
1. Rinse and rub fruit and vegetables with water to remove residue, dirt and bacteria.
2. Use a clean brush to scrub peels rich in fibre rather than tossing.
3. Remove and compost the outer leaves of green leafy vegetables and cabbages.
4. Fill a clean sink with water and add about four tablespoons of baking soda. Soak produce for about five minutes.
5. Avoid pesticides by growing some of your own fruits and vegetables.
Farmwork to Feed Canada (F2FC) is a national volunteer not-for-profit initiative by Canadian communication professionals, students, and recent graduates in communications. F2FC collaborates with farmers, and agri-businesses amid COVID-19 pandemic-related challenges to Canada’s food supply and food security, to engage Canadians, pro bono, with compelling stories about their food system and build support for Canada’s farmers, food producers, and their essential skilled workers